In response to the increased difficulty of producing milk and maple syrup due to climate change and other environmental concerns, a slew of new crops and agricultural enterprises have emerged. Saffron, communal farming, and Vermont goats: The agricultural landscape of Vermont is shifting due to the introduction of new crops and industries.
There was a time when every country store in Vermont was stocked to the ceiling with homemade maple syrup and candies and the state’s landscape was lined with weathered red barns housing herds of dairy cows. Still present are the barns with their deteriorating cow paintings and the sugar maples that continue to attract autumn leaf peepers. However, the state’s most important agricultural products are in jeopardy due to changes in industry and environment.
According to the University of Vermont’s Climate Assessment 2021, the average temperature in Vermont has risen by over 2 degrees Fahrenheit since 1900, and the state has seen a worrisome 21 percent increase in precipitation. The state’s freeze-free period has expanded by three weeks since 1960, while winter temperatures have increased at a rate that is 2.5 times the yearly average. More flooding and drought are expected, which will make it harder to cultivate important crops and create additional problems for the state’s dairy farmers, according to experts.
As traditional crops grow more difficult to cultivate, a new wave of “agripreneurs” are jumping in to attempt something new. These farmers tend to be young, have never farmed before, and be more likely to be women or people of colour. And over time, these new crops and farmers have the potential to change the character of a state that has been defined for generations by its relationship to the soil.
Here are some examples of the innovative food and farming projects that are reshaping Vermont.
John Brawley cares for something considerably smaller than the cows that previously inhabited an ancient milking barn near Charlotte. He collects 100 pounds of Pacific white-leg shrimp every week from above-ground, indoor recirculating saltwater pools at Vermont’s first shrimp aquaculture business, Sweet Sound Aquaculture.
Seventy percent of the state’s agricultural economy was historically dependent on the dairy industry. However, Vermont’s small-scale operations lost ground to California’s expansive undertakings, and the state’s total number of dairy farms fell from more than 4,000 in 1969 to fewer than 600 in 2021. Hotter weather played a role in that change as well by making cows reduce their food intake and milk output. Charlotte’s 600-acre Nordic Farms, a dairy farm, went bankrupt in 2017. After a year, everyone sold their cows at auction. The area, however, was eventually incorporated into Vermont’s agricultural landscape. Gardener’s Supply’s creator, Will Raap, purchased the land with the intention of making it a showcase for Vermont’s “post-dairy agricultural economy.”
Raap decided that a cooperative farming model could succeed where Nordic Farms had failed, and thus Earthkeep Farmcommon was founded in 2021. Farmers markets and other events help more than a dozen farms, including Brawley’s, increase their customer base and strengthen their brands in the eyes of the general public.
Brawley wanted to cultivate locally caught shrimp, the United States’ second most popular seafood, in a landlocked state far from coastlines without negatively impacting the local ecosystem.
Brawley said as he used a net to collect virtually transparent mature shrimp, “This is efficient, sustainable, healthful, and helps the local economy.” The shrimp were kept in insulated lumber-framed ponds with smoother rubber liners. As of right now, Brawley is working solo, ensuring that the tanks have adequate oxygen levels and pH. Still, it costs him between $6 and $9 to produce a pound of shrimp, and the barn still reeks of a combination of shrimp and cows.
An outdated land-use regulation is partially responsible for Vermont’s renewed agricultural vitality. Act 250 went into effect in 1970, when Vermont was facing significant pressure to grow, and has proved crucial in preserving the state’s distinctive character. Because of its stringent evaluation process for new uses of farmland, commercial development is slowed down and other viable agricultural companies are given higher priority.
Vermont now enjoys a longer growing season thanks to global warming, making the state ideal for the cultivation of cereal crops like wheat. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has increased global grain prices, helping to fuel the industry’s expansion. The viability and competitiveness of regional grains have increased, but they still face challenges due to a lack of processing facilities and infrastructure.
In order to “relocalize the grain industry,” as stated by Vermont Malthouse general manager Rob Hunter, the only malthouse in the state supplies malted grains obtained locally to the state’s brewers and distillers.
The grain “right now” comes from “a multitude of places geographically,” he said. We work with local farmers to grow as much as we can, and for the remainder, we look no more than 500 miles away,” Hunter explained. The majority of Vermont’s breweries (about 77) are interested in producing at least one beer made entirely from local ingredients.
Before Earthkeep’s release, one of Nordic Farms’ two main barns had been transformed into a granary, serving as a grain co-op that enabled milling, flaking, roasting, smoking, and blending. By installing steep tanks, a heating system, a chiller, and a flaker, the malthouse was able to increase its output by a factor of two.
Malting often occurs with rye, wheat, and barley. The process of steeping grain involves soaking the grain in water to reawaken the dormant seeds, which are then given time to germinate and grow. The sprouting grain is kilned after about four days of growth, after which it is cleaned and bagged. Eventually, Hunter hopes to crank out 75 metric tonnes of finished malt per month. In its current, more modest form: Yesterday I hauled 30 fifty-pound bags to the original Foam Brewers location in Burlington, Vermont, on the banks of Lake Champlain. We’re trying out a new method for making koji malt, the rice malt used in making sake. It’s a group effort,” Hunter remarked.
To prevent milk prices from plummeting in 2020, the co-op that the Jones family was a part of mandated that all members reduce production to 85 percent of capacity and dump the excess. (Because at the start of the pandemic, businesses and institutions didn’t feel comfortable purchasing milk.) Meanwhile, due in part to drought and climate change-related harsh weather, the cost of feed, hauling fees, and even manure disposal had soared. There was a common belief that you needed at least a thousand cows to make a profit. No one in the Jones family owned enough land to house that many people.
The Jones family parted ways with their 320 milkers in April of 2020, selling them to a New York farmer. The Jones family had a dreadful day, but sons Brian and Steven, the fifth generation to farm the land, were prepared.
Carolyn, their mother, still gets emotional recalling her cows and the painted plywood cow head that she installed atop their barn. Now, though, 1,500 goats are seen inside the pen, parkouring across the hay piles and each other. The goat milk produced at Joneslan Farm in Hyde Park is sold to Vermont Creamery, making it the state’s largest goat dairy.
What’s the deal with the goats? Because it is solid rather than liquid, their waste does not pose the same environmental problems as cow manure does. Furthermore, it’s much less of a hassle to compost. Since the Joneses have stopped spreading 2 million gallons of liquid manure across their farm, their diesel use has decreased. Goats benefit from the milder environment of Vermont, where the Jones brothers farmed feed grains on 300 of their acres and rented other fields to meet the family’s needs while they had cows.
According to Todd Haire, co-owner of Burlington’s Foam Brewers, “changes have occurred that have allowed grapes to grow — and people are betting on it.” Haire’s passion project is the production of organic wines. Until recently, Vermont wineries could only use hybrid grapes that were resistant to the state’s cold climate. The changes in climate are also allowing him to use a wider variety of ingredients in his brews.
This past month’s selections from House of Fermentology. The changing climate has allowed the brewery to use a wider variety of ingredients. The Washington Post’s Zoeann Murphy.
For a while, “this is the fruit we have, so these are the beers we can create,” Haire explained. The ability to cultivate a peach in Vermont was severely limited 15 years ago. And now they’re wherever you look.
Haire’s side endeavour, House of Fermentology, is located at Earthkeep and is one of Vermont Malthouse’s clientele. The beers he is ageing in barrels are made with local ingredients like honey and botanicals from the farm, as well as ingredients like regional grains and hops and local fruits.
The sugar maple’s ideal climate is moving farther north into Canada as the planet warms. Shorter seasons, lower sap flow rates, and reduced sugar content in the syrup have resulted from not-as-cold low temperatures, higher high temperatures, and a lack of cold nights. (More sap is needed to boil into syrup when the sugar level is low.) The soil in Vermont is becoming less sugar maple-friendly as a result of climate change, and pests have a longer growing season as a result.
The state’s agricultural scientists are looking into methods through which farmers might “hedge their bets” by increasing the variety and economic value of their harvests. Saffron is one of Vermont’s up-and-coming spices.
About $16 million worth of the tiny red crocus pistils used to season and colour dishes like bouillabaisse and risotto are imported annually by the United States. Even though Iran and Spain have long been associated with the cultivation of the world’s most expensive spice, over 200 growers in Vermont are now doing it as well. Arash Ghalehgolabbehbahani, an agroecologist specialising in sustainable agriculture and crop diversification, and University of Vermont research professor Margaret Skinner established the North American Center for Saffron Research & Development in South Burlington, pioneering the farming of this lucrative crop as a way for small Vermont farmers to expand their options.
These low-growing floral plants are typically planted around the outside of a solar array, nestled in the shadow of the panels. In a world with increasingly harsh sun, drought, and extreme rain events, a new field of agricultural study called agrovoltaics uses the same land to capture solar energy and food.
Saffron is harvested in South Burlington, where the North American Center for Saffron Research and Development is located. The Washington Post’s Zoeann Murphy.
After most of the state’s other crops have been harvested, late summer is when you plant these bulblike corms to enjoy their purple blossoms in October and November. Harvesting the flowers and removing the vivid red filaments requires farmers to work quickly. About 75,000 blooms are required to produce a pound of the prized spice, which is then dried and stored. Farmers can leave the corms in the ground for three to five years before replanting, which is beneficial for the soil and helps absorb carbon from the atmosphere because there is less need for tilling and field disturbance.
Because of the extremes and unpredictability brought on by climate change, diversification is crucial for farmers. Skinner said on Monday that saffron “fits nicely into that model.” Even though we only had our first hard frost a week ago, saffron flowering is nearly complete this week in the Burlington area. I don’t care about the numbers; I care about what I see: if we keep having drops like this year, I’m not sure I want to invest in the state’s ski industry.