From the Farmer to Farmer Conference – November, 1997
Six years ago, Emily Carlson married a Vermont dairy farmer. She now lives with him in the northeast corner of Vermont, near the Connecticut River and just one mile south of Canada, and has combined her business background with her love of the farm to found the Vermont Grass Farmers Association.
Emily told participants at MOFGA’s Farmer to Farmer Conference about her vision of her farm and community. In her vision, she explained, it’s a warm summer day, sunny and breezy, with birds singing along the river and with pastures a rich green that comes only from natural fertility. The farmhouse is neat and tidy. Nothing is rusting. It’s a safe place for children. People of all ages are around the farm, and the farm is bordered by another that is also a fertile place husbanded by a happy family. In fact, the vision includes a whole community of farms – a prosperous, happy, peaceful community.
“The root of why we’re not happy,” said Emily, “is that we’re so far from our vision. Farmers are toiling. Children are leaving the farm for ‘a more fruitful existence.’ What a pun!”
She asked, “Why are we so far from our vision?” and answered, “Communication. We network today, but I don’t think it’s positive.” That network consists of farm advisors, feed salesmen, veterinarians, bankers, fertilizer salesmen … “It’s not the farmer’s goals that are being discussed.”
What little communication does take place usually consists of “six to 10 guys meeting over coffee at the local coffee shop. It’s usually a pity party. That energy could be turned into a productive” event, however, and that’s what Emily has been trying to do through the Vermont Grass Farmers Association.
Emily saw a real need for a grazing network, because Vermont “had several entities promoting grazing at the same time from different perspectives.” Bill Murphy, for example, a professor at the University of Vermont, couldn’t get funding to prove a system that he knew would work. New Zealand farmers came to Vermont to tell local farmers how to put their cows on rotational intensive grazing. Some farmers were trying to tell other farmers what they had learned, but they were being perceived as odd. Then Murphy got a Kellogg grant and the Univ. of Vermont Cooperative Extension Service recognized grazing as viable. The Center for Sustainable Agriculture started promoting the system, as did the Natural Resource Conservation Service, followed by the Department of Agriculture. A mixture of good, bad and obsolete advice started flowing, and farmers who hadn’t tried rotational intensive grazing were getting conflicting information about it.
“We decided to have a Vermont grass farmers’ organization. We were fortunate,” said Emily, “to have that initial group of farmers; it keeps it from being too academic.”
The Association promotes two major activities: pasture walks and small discussion groups. “Both boil down to basic communication among farmers,” Emily explained.
Pasture walks are usually done around a potluck lunch, with families, including children, invited and encouraged to come. The farmer will usually walk a field to talk about some problem, such as seeding out grass, with people who have compassion for what he or she is trying to do. The other farmers will offer suggestions about a particular problem, or acknowledge the problem, at least, “and about 10 minds are working on the problem. The farmer comes out with [some possible] ways of coping. It’s a real broadening of your mind.” These groups, in which people often form close, long-term relationships, offer good opportunities to influence agricultural support people and “speak what’s on your mind,” said Emily. “You get a consensus of some sort. It’s a way to make things happen.”
Small discussion groups are “a huge empowerment tool that we’re really excited about,” Emily continued. While pasture walks are open to the public, the discussion groups are smaller and consist of the same people at each meeting, with meetings being held at a different farmer’s place each time. The tight-knit group “reaches a private level of communication,” so it should be formed and then kept closed to new members. The Vermont Grass Farmers Association “provides a specially trained facilitator for a year or however long it takes” to make basic communication skills work within the group. The first two facilitators were sent to New Zealand under a SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education) Grant to find out how discussion groups worked there. Now they’re holding facilitator trainings in Vermont.
“It gets to the point where members say they would not miss [the discussion group] for anything,” said Emily. “It’s part of the farm and family management. They talk about finances, grass management, and so on.” One such group in Australia has been running for more than a decade.
“One difficulty in rural areas,” she continued, “is that we have to travel.” Emily travels 1-1/2 hours to the nearest farmer in her discussion group. Still, the trip is worthwhile. “It leads to more diversity in farms, more skill sharing, more profitability, more economic stability; not just survival.” Most discussion groups meet for at least three or four hours and have a maximum of 12 farmers (six or seven is more common) so that they can get to each farm at least once a year.
The Association, which also promotes a conference each year, has existed for about a year and a half, and now a new piece of the puzzle is coming to light: It is being approached by community action groups that have the idea that grass, rocks and trees are sustainable resources. “I don’t know how that’s going to work out, but it seems like a natural step. We need economic stability at all levels to make farming stable. It’s exciting to me that grazing can influence my community,” Emily said.
Among the difficulties the Association faced were getting it organized – It is now looking for an executive secretary “to keep us creative, energetic people organized” – and dealing with membership issues. Getting new members is difficult because farmers are very busy and many don’t realize the importance of talking to other farmers as a tool. “You’ve got to be diligently out there talking patiently,” Emily explained. “Tell what you get out of your organization.”
The second membership issue is motivating other members within the organization to participate. “You can pay your $20 membership fee, but you can’t expect everything to come to you. [You have to] make sure people are constantly aware they are part of the organization physically as well as financially.”
Another issue involves overlooking your own shortcomings. “It’s important to have people come and see your own reality,” said Emily. “My farm is a mess. I really have to work through that when having people over.”
Yet another concern is that “certain factions in the agricultural industry … make lots of money from farmers being disconnected. I won’t say Monsanto,” said Emily. “You’ve got to stop them. They’re going to walk all over you. I see that as one long-term function of discussion groups.”
In concluding, Emily told Farmer to Farmer participants, “You’ve got to let this organization [MOFGA] know what you need. Organizations like this are the first, most basic tool toward achieving my vision.”
– Jean English