Vermont Grazing Conference Looks Beyond Its Borders

1/26/2013 7:00 AM
By Troy Bishopp New York Correspondent

FAIRLEE, Vt. — When folks think of traditional Vermonter winter-time activities, they gravitate toward things like downhill skiing, pond hockey, ice fishing and maple syrup production.

However, for 17 years, the ever-popular Vermont Grazing and Livestock Conference has become part of this legacy, too, with this year in particular going beyond its borders.

As Eric Noel, an organic farmer and president of the Vermont Grass Farmers Association, greeted the more than 300 hearty graziers from around the Northeast, he put out a call to action:

“Embracing the global community, learning the financial, environmental and social benefits of grass farming systems, and sharing this collaboration of knowledge together with small family farms throughout the world will ultimately make a better planet from the soil up.”

Jenny Nelson, agriculture adviser to U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., echoed the sentiment, “We really need to grow our soils for the next generations to thrive.”

The reason for the international perspective was prefaced in the conference theme: “From our perspective in northern New England, the rest of the world feels so far away sometimes, and yet it’s closer than ever before. The financial crises of the past few years have touched countries and communities large and small. And so we ask if we can host groups of farmers from Australia, South America and even New York on our farms to share what we do and what we’ve learned, can’t we return the favor and learn from them as well?”

The conference was a homecoming of sorts for now-professor Abdon Schmitt, who once traveled from Brazil to study grazing and mentor with University of Vermont’s own Bill Murphy.

After receiving his master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Vermont, Schmitt returned to his homeland of Santa Catarina, Brazil, to teach and influence a new generation of students and farmers on pasture ecology and management, silvopastoral systems and restoration of his native Atlantic Forest region.

Schmitt’s keynote address was, “How did Vermonters help reshape family dairy farms in Southern Brazil?” In it, he lamented that when he arrived back home full of vigor for applying grazing management techniques learned, the “university,” Extension and even farmers said, “It’s not going to work here.”

Schmitt’s DNA didn’t recognize the concept of can’t, as he sold himself and the grazing ideas in the rugged topography of the region to local small farmers with less than 20 cows. The farmers were being displaced to the cities at a rate of 15 percent per year because of economic pressures, intense social pressures against pasture-based options and governmental institutions boycotting the notions of grazing, creating uncertainty with farmers.

In the midst of this negativity, one independent farmer said yes to the passionate Schmitt and started breaking his continually grazed small acreage into many paddocks using stock density and rest to improve his land and sward. The farmer went from milking seven cows to 15 cows, which by the village’s standards was “a big deal,” Schmitt said.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Fast forward to today and more than 600 farmers have partnered with a reinvigorated University of Santa Catarina-UFSC, Brazil, agro-ecology curriculum and its students headed by Schmitt, who is the coordinator of the Voisin Silvopastoral Group piloted after the UVM Pasture Outreach Program.

They are now putting viable teaching, research and in-the-pasture practices to work that interconnect ecosystems restoration, rural livelihood and renewable agriculture for the betterment of southern Brazil. Who says grazing can’t be global?

Throughout the two-day conference, farmers could choose from a host of topics, including: planned grazing; using Keyline plows and tillage radishes to address pasture compaction; exploring New Zealand-style grazing in New England; the basics of balancing pastured animal nutrition; grazing fundamentals; alternative paddock management to improve milk yield; easing transition to pasture through animal behavior; improving soils with $40 per acre; tips to keep customers happy, healthy and coming back; fine tuning outdoor pig operations; the economics of finishing beef; and exploring financing models to expand your farm.

Complimenting these topics were Friday’s intensive all-day sessions on pastured poultry production and how to boost communication skills, led by Fertrell Company nutritionist Jeff Mattocks, University of Maine Animal Health Lab’s Dr. Anne Lichtenwalner, Cornerstone Farm Ventures consultant Jim McLaughlin and communication guru Fred Ashforth of Ashforth Associates.

In keeping with Vermont’s global leadership, a trade show of vendors, local foods and an ice cream social supported good brain function and happy tastebuds.

Vermont grass farmer Bruce Hennessey of Maple Wind Farm said such events invigorate not only the mind, but the soul.

“It’s a place where you can let your mind wander a little, dream a little and catch up with good friends on what they are doing,” he said. “Whether it’s local, national or global, I think farmers should take the time to network over the attributes that grazing systems provide and share the knowledge to feed a hungry planet and create an environment for more farmers to thrive.”

The conference was co-hosted by the Vermont Grass Farmers Association and the Vermont Beef Producers Association, with major support from the University of Vermont Extension Service, UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture, USDA-NRCS, Vermont-Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative, USDA/Risk Management Agency, Organic Valley, Family of Farms, Fertrell, Agri-Dynamics, Animal Welfare Approved, Morrison’s Custom Feeds, Cornerstone Farm Ventures, Vermont Agricultural Credit Corp., NESARE, Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, Horizon Organic, Wellscroft Fence Systems and the Royal Butcher.

For more information, contact Jenn Colby, UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture Pasture Program coordinator, at jcolby<\@> or 802-728-2045.

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