Vermont’s dairy farms recede, giving way to shrimp, saffron and new ideas

Washington Post photo by Zoeann Murphy.
John Brawley tends Vermont’s first shrimp aquaculture outfit.

There was a time when Vermont’s landscape was dotted with weathered red barns full of dairy cows, and every country store was chockablock with local maple syrup and candies. The barns are there still, as are their fading illustrations of cows, and the sugar maples still draw leaf peepers in the fall. But because of industry shifts and climate change, many of the cows are gone and the state’s biggest agricultural products are imperiled.

The University of Vermont’s Climate Assessment 2021 found that the state’s average temperature has warmed by nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit and that precipitation has increased by an alarming 21 percent since 1900. Winter temperatures have increased 2.5 times as fast as average annual temperatures, and the state’s freeze-free period lengthened by three weeks since 1960. Experts anticipate more floods and more droughts, complicating growing conditions for major crops and adding new headaches for the state’s dairy farmers.

Even as time-honored crops become trickier, a new generation of “agripreneurs” – often young, sometimes first-time farmers, many women or people of color – are swooping in to try something completely different. And in time, these new crops, and new farmers, have the power to alter the identity of a state that has for generations defined itself by its land and land stewardship.

Here are some of the new foods and agricultural ventures changing the face of Vermont.

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Farmed shrimp

In an old milking barn in Charlotte, John Brawley tends to something much tinier than the cows that once lived there. At Vermont’s first shrimp aquaculture outfit, Sweet Sound Aquaculture, he harvests 100 pounds of Pacific white-leg shrimp each week from indoor, aboveground recirculating saltwater pools.

Dairy once accounted for 70 percent of the state’s agricultural economy. But the number of dairy farms in Vermont decreased from more than 4,000 in 1969 to fewer than 600 in 2021, as the state’s small-scale operations lost out to sprawling ventures in California. Higher temperatures also contributed to that shift, causing cows to eat less and produce less milk.

One of the dairy farms that went bankrupt, in 2017, was the 600-acre Nordic Farms on Route 7 in Charlotte. All the cows went to auction that next year. But the land became part of Vermont’s agricultural future. Will Raap, founder of Gardener’s Supply, an organic gardening supply company, bought the property with a vision for making it a model of a “post-dairy agricultural economy in Vermont.”

Raap thought what might work in Nordic Farms’ place was a collective model of farming, leading to the creation of Earthkeep Farmcommon in 2021. More than a dozen agricultural businesses, including Brawley’s, share land, equipment and barn space, and together build consumer interest and brand identity with farmers markets and events.

Brawley’s goal was to produce local shrimp, the second-most popular seafood in the United States, in a landlocked state far from oceans but in an environmentally sustainable way.

“This is efficient, sustainable and healthful and supports the local economy,” Brawley said, scooping nearly translucent mature shrimp out with a net, many leaping free to plop back into the insulated lumber-framed ponds smoothed with rubber liners. For now, Brawley is a one-man outfit, checking the oxygenation and pH of the tanks. It still costs him $6 to $9 to produce a pound of shrimp, the briny smell of crustaceans mixing with the faintly detectable whiff of cows that lingers in the barn.

Vermont’s changing agricultural makeup owes part of its new vigor to an old land-use law. Act 250 took effect in 1970 when the state faced major development pressure and has been instrumental in keeping Vermont looking like Vermont. Its strict review process for new uses of farmland makes it harder for commercial development and prioritizes other viable agricultural businesses.

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A warmer climate has meant a longer growing season in Vermont, making it more amenable to grains like wheat. The industry has also grown as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has driven up grain prices globally. Regional grains are now more viable and more competitive, but there are limitations because of scant processing facilities and infrastructure.

Vermont Malthouse at Earthkeep Farmcommon is the only malthouse in the state, providing the state’s brewers and distillers with malted grains sourced regionally and, as general manager Rob Hunter said, to relocalize the grain industry.

“Right now, we source grain from a variety of places regionally,” he said. “We grow as much as we can and work with local farmers, and the rest we source from within 500 miles,” Hunter said. “Many of the state’s 77 breweries want to do at least one beer that is completely from Vermont ingredients.”

One of Nordic Farms’ two primary barns had been converted into a granary before the debut of Earthkeep, becoming a grain co-op that supported grain milling, flaking, roasting, smoking and blending. The malthouse added steep tanks, a heating system, a chiller and a flaker system to double production capacity.

Rye, wheat and barley are the chief grains that are malted. Grain is steeped in huge tanks, where the dormant seeds are soaked and awakened, then allowed to germinate and sprout. After about four days of growth, the sprouted grain is ready to be heated, or “kilned,” before it is cleaned and bagged. Eventually Hunter aims to produce 75 tons per month of finished malt. For now, it’s smaller-scale: “Yesterday I drove 30 50-pound bags over to Foam Brewers’ original brewery on the shores of Lake Champlain. We’re doing an experimental koji malt, the rice malt for sake. We’re figuring it out together,” Hunter said.

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Washington Post photo by Zoeann Murphy
Goats, collective farming, saffron: New crops and businesses are redefining Vermont’s agriculture.

Goat cheese

In 2020, the co-op the Jones family belonged to required all members to cut milk production to 85 percent of capacity and dump the rest to keep milk prices from tanking. (The reason: Restaurants and schools weren’t buying milk at the beginning of the pandemic.) Meanwhile, feed, hauling prices, even how much it cost to dispose of manure – all costs had skyrocketed in part because of drought- and climate-change-related extreme weather. The prevailing wisdom was that the only way to be profitable was to scale up to 1,000 cows. The Jones family didn’t have the land to accommodate that many.

In April 2020, the Jones family sold their 320 milkers to a farmer in New York. It was a terrible day for the whole family, but sons Brian and Steven Jones, fifth-generation on the land, had a plan.

Their mom, Carolyn, still mists up when she talks about her cows, and the plywood cow head she painted still proudly topping their barn. But peek inside now, and it’s 1,500 goats parkouring over hay bales and each other. Joneslan Farm in Hyde Park is the biggest goat farm in the state, selling its milk to Vermont Creamery to be made into cheese.

Why goats? Their poop is solid, not liquid, and thus not as much of an environmental headache as cow manure. It’s also much easier to turn into usable compost. The Joneses use less diesel because they are no longer spreading 2 million gallons of liquid manure across their farm. Vermont’s climate is better for growing the hay goats eat; when the Joneses had cows, the brothers grew feed crops on 300 of their acres and rented other fields to produce sufficient grain for feed.

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“Changes have occurred that have allowed grapes to thrive – and people are betting on it,” said Todd Haire, co-owner of Foam Brewers, which makes craft beer in Burlington. Haire has a side project making natural wines. Historically, the state’s wineries were limited to hardy hybrid grapes that could withstand Vermont’s harsh winters. Climate change is expanding his array of ingredients for beer, too.

“For a while, it was ‘this is the fruit we have, so these are the beers we can produce,’ ” Haire said. “Fifteen years ago, you were hard-pressed to grow a peach in Vermont. And now you see them all over.”

House of Fermentology, also at Earthkeep and one of Vermont Malthouse’s customers, is another side project for Haire. Here he is barrel-aging beers, many containing regional grains and hops and local fruits, as well as honey and botanicals from the farm, fermented by native yeasts from the Vermont countryside.

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Warmer temperatures are shifting the suitable habitat for sugar maples farther north into Canada. Low temperatures that aren’t as low, higher high temperatures and not enough cold nights have led to shorter seasons, low sap flow rates and reduced sugar content in the syrup. (Low sugar content means it takes more sap to boil into syrup.) These changes also threaten to make Vermont’s soil less hospitable to sugar maples and to allow pests more of the year to flourish.

The state’s agricultural researchers are looking for ways farmers can “hedge their bets,” diversifying crops with high-value items that can also expand the growing season. One of Vermont’s promising newcomers is saffron.

The United States imports about $16 million of the prized little red crocus pistils each year that flavor and color foods from bouillabaisse to risotto. The world’s most expensive spice is traditionally grown in Iran and Spain, but now roughly 200 farmers are growing it in Vermont. As the climate in Vermont becomes more akin to that in northeastern Iran, Arash Ghalehgolabbehbahani, an agroecologist specializing in sustainable agriculture and crop diversification, and University of Vermont research professor Margaret Skinner started 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.

Often these low flowering plants are grown around the perimeter of a solar array, tucked under a field of energy-generating panels. It’s a new area of agricultural research called agrovoltaics that uses the same land to harvest solar energy and food, sometimes with the tilting solar panels functioning as shade or rain umbrellas for the plants in a world with increasingly harsh sun, drought and extreme rain events.

The bulblike corms are planted in late summer, and the purple flowers bloom in October and November after most other crops in the state have been harvested. Farmers must work swiftly to hand-harvest the blooms and pluck out the bright red filaments within. These are then dried and stored, about 75,000 flowers yielding a pound of the coveted spice. And because the corms produce more corms underground, farmers can leave them in the ground for three to five years before replanting – minimal tilling and disturbance in the field serves to build healthier soil and to help sequester atmospheric carbon.

“With climate change, the challenge to growers is the extremes and the unpredictability, which is why diversification is important. Saffron fits nicely into that model,” Skinner said Monday. “This week, the saffron flowering is almost done in the Burlington area, and we only had our first hard frost a week ago. I’m not looking at the data, I’m looking at what’s happening around me: If we keep on having falls like we had this year, I’m not sure I’d want to be investing in the state’s ski industry.”