ALL Dairy is Essential



In response to the opinion piece “Ellis: Big dairy is not essential” published in the June 4 issue of the Times Argus…thank you.  I thank the author because  he made some good points: dairy farming is different than it used to be, it is being challenged to improve environmentally, in respect to animal welfare, and in respect to profitability, it does have a broken system for milk pricing, quite frankly…the dairy industry is struggling right now.

Yet, the argument Ellis makes that large farms are unessential is simply not true…especially in this time of crisis when more people than ever are food insecure. Ellis is ignoring that dairy farmers of all sizes have stepped up to the challenges they are facing.


The proposal Ellis referenced to send $50 million to Vermont dairy farmers and processors, is money specifically reserved for losses incurred due to the coronavirus pandemic.  Dairy farmers had a difficult last few years, but 2020 projections were strong.  Any industry that immediately lost 15% of its market due to a halt on exports while simultaneously losing 100% of the domestic food service market would struggle.  That is not something anyone could predict.  These funds are supporting farmers with COVID-19 losses specifically, not subsidizing a dying industry.


In Vermont all dairy farmers, large and small, are permitted by the Vermont Agency of Agriculture and follow strict Required Agricultural Practices (RAPs).  In this years Clean Water Initiative annual report, it was concluded that agriculture is doing the work. Agriculture was asked to be approximately 60% of the solution to reducing phosphorus in Lake Champlain, and the report found agriculture came through as more than 90% of the solution.  Farmers take their stewardship seriously, the manure and fertilizers applied to our fields are applied to help our crops grow.  Manure is liquid gold; we want to protect the nutrients that we put on the field to make sure they are being used by our crops.  Anything that is not being utilized by our crops is wasted money, you can be sure farmers are doing everything they can to make sure that liquid gold is not wasted.  Farmers in good times and bad, are making significant investments to further improve their environmental impact and water quality.  Our dairy farm, Fairmont Farm, has heavily invested in technology and practices that are good for water quality, soil health and mitigate the effects of climate change. Investments include, our no-till planting system, our manure management system to reduce soil compaction, manure injection technology, manure storage ensuring spreading only at ideal times, and high and low flow systems to manage stormwater.  We have planted vegetative buffers along waterways, and we have worked with the Vermont Land Trust on multiple projects to ensure a future for productive land to stay in agriculture.  We crop over 3,600 acres of land in Vermont and own more than 1,600 acres of conserved land.  The fact is, there is a need for ALL agriculture.  This is too much land to protect from development if relying on small diversified farms alone.  The Vermont we love, the Vermont that has a thriving tourist industry, has beautifully maintained open landscapes.  This is thanks to Vermont farmers of all shapes and sizes.  Currently, Vermont homes are being purchased from people out of state sight unseen, development of farmland is something we should all be worried about. The large versus small farm fight is not worth having.  All dairy farmers have more in common than they have differences.


Dairy farmers across the U.S. follow rules under the Farmers Assuring Responsible Management (FARM) program.  This program specifically outlines protocols put together by a panel of professionals, including vets, in relation to animal welfare on the farm.  Our “confinement systems” as mentioned by Ellis, include temperature control, fans, sprinklers, cool and clean sand beds, plentiful water, and food just a short walk away, fly control, scratching posts.  These cows are worked with, at least three times a day, to make sure they are happy and healthy.


The outdated federal order milk pricing system has been an issue for dairy farmers for decades.  Across the country, cooperatives are working on their own supply management programs to better control supply and demand.  Our own cooperative, Agri-Mark, put a new plan in place January 1st of this year.  When the pandemic hit, there had not been enough time to see the benefits of a brand-new program that took a year to plan and implement.  It is no small task to create a program that protects all farmers in a co-op while providing fair treatment and equal opportunity for all.


You would like a diversified food system that feeds Vermonters during the pandemic and beyond?  We do too.  In fact, many dairy farmers have stepped up in their communities and offered local beef for sale, many have other livestock species as well, my farm included. Dairy farmers work hard to provide a quality product loaded with nutrients for families in Vermont and beyond.


Milk is the most complete food and provides 9 essential nutrients.  Retail data shows that 94% of Americans have dairy milk in their fridge – hardly a product that is going away.  This pandemic has driven demand for fluid milk and retail sales are record breaking right now.  Unfortunately, it is the lack of food service and the huge hit to our export market that created an oversupply of dairy.  Agri-Mark has about 160 of the 635 Vermont family dairy farms, as an Agri-Mark member, I can assure you our milk goes just a few miles down the road to the Cabot plant to be made into Cabot products.  Vermont dairy farms contribute $2.2 billion to our Vermont economy.  Our farm has 35 full time employees. That is 35 families we are supporting.  We keep much of our business and money local, supporting other nearby businesses.  We have hosted Vermont Breakfast on the Farm, welcoming 1,200 guests to a free breakfast and farm tour, we have participated in the last several Cabot Open Farm Sundays, again providing a fun and free family event, we even host a Life on the Farm Summer camp, along with many school tours. We also have miles upon miles of public trails on our land. This is hardly doing “little to nothing in return for the public,” as Ellis claimed of large Vermont dairy farms.


The current pandemic we are facing is a wake-up call, it has forced everyone to change their mindset as well as the way we go about normal day to day activities including sourcing our food.  Please know that it is because of the farmers that the grocery shelves have remained stocked, we showed up each day to take care of our animals, our land, and produce food for your family.  While I know some things will change because of this pandemic, I know our dairy farmers will not change their mission…to keep working to “build a food system that feeds us all.”


Clara Ayer of Fairmont Farm

Clara Fairmont Sign



Every Day is Earth Day at Fairmont

More than one billion people will celebrate Earth Day all around the world on April 22. Here in Vermont on our dairy farm we treat every day like Earth Day.


On a dairy farm we do not differentiate between weekdays, weekends, holidays, or even night and day…our farm operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year and we always celebrate our land.  We are thankful for the food it brings our cows and we continue to look for ways we can work to improve our natural resources.

Our mission at Fairmont Farm is to be a profitable dairy farm with the utmost consideration for the safety and happiness of our people, the cleanliness of our environment and the health of our animals.


We care about our animals and the environment tremendously, we would not be able to farm without them!  For our farm to be sustainable, and continue to farm into the future, we make being responsible stewards of our land and animals part of our mission.

We are responsible for over 3,600 acres of land which is used to plant and harvest corn and hay to feed our cows. We have worked with the Vermont Land Trust and currently own 1,675 acres of conserved land, however the best way to preserve land is to keep farms in business – our farm fields cover East Montpelier, Plainfield, Marshfield, Barre, Berlin, Calais, Montpelier, Craftsbury, Glover, Greensboro, and South Albany.



Our cows feed is about 60% forages that we grow ourselves (a combination of corn and hay)!

Soil health is crucial to the health of our water and food supply. When a farm field is left bare, the topsoil can get blown away by the wind or washed away by the rain. We keep our soils in place by covering our fields with plants all year long. In the spring, we plant our corn. It grows through the summer and is harvested in the fall. Then, in the fall we plant a protective cover crop like the cereal grain winter-rye that grows through the winter.  This keeps the soil in place through the snow melts and spring rains. Each 1% increase in healthy soil organic matter helps the soil hold 25,000 more gallons of water per acre.

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Winter rye starting to grow just after the fall corn harvest.

Our corn and cover crops are planted without tilling up the soil, we leave the land in-tact and plant the seeds directly into the ground through any existing vegetation.  When the soil is undisturbed the healthy root systems, the worms and the bugs all help the soil to retain nutrients much better while also doing the tillage work themselves, creating pathways for the water and nutrients to be absorbed.  There are added benefits too –less equipment trips over the field which reduces soil compaction and fuel usage.


Corn is planted directly into the existing winter rye crop without tilling up the soil first.

In 2016 we began piping manure to many of our fields instead of trucking it. Manure is transported to the fields through a pipeline hose that is connected to a tractor in the field and either spread or injected directly into the soil, sometimes up to 12-inches underground, which protects water quality and improves soil health.  This further reduces the equipment trips over the field but also reduces the road traffic again helping with soil compaction and fuel consumption.


Manure is being spread through a pipeline hose.  The pipeline connects directly to our manure pit and pumps manure through the pipeline all the way to the tractor in the field.

To watch a video that shows how cover crops and manure injection work visit:
Protecting the Soil ; Feeding the Soil


One of the most rewarding parts of farming is being out in our fields to harvest our crops and preserve Vermont’s land and natural beauty.

And, when you look out on the beautiful fields and open spaces of Vermont, remember the dairy farmers who are working hard to protect our most important natural resources.

Organization – A Key Aspect of Farming

“Knowledge is Power” – The more one knows, the more one will be able to control events. Francis Bacon published this concept in 1597 and almost 420 years later it is just as relevant.  Just like any business we continually look for ways in which we can improve, but in order to identify areas of improvement we have to first know how we are doing.  This is why records play such an important role for us.

IMG_0721This year we are making some upgrades to our crop record keeping.  We currently manage about 3,600 acres of tillable land, 1,500 accounts for our corn crop and the remaining 2,100 acres is used for haylage.  With 3,600 acres of land, we cover almost 300 fields and employ 7 full time people, with another 10-15 people that are seasonal or part time.   With this amount of people and fields, organization becomes a top priority.  A couple years ago we developed a numbering system for all of our fields, these fields are mapped and kept in binders with their numbers.  In our binders we keep management notes including areas that require buffers, our nutrient management plan and spreadsheets to keep record of manure spreading, fertilizer applied, planting dates and varieties.


Map of our fields around the “Home Farm” on Lyle Young Road in East Montpelier

To supplement our maps we are excited to add field signs this year!  Thank you to our friends and neighbors, Mike and Cheryl Rus, at Sign Here, Inc. for our new signs.  We have just started to put them up, so you may begin to notice them around town.  The goal for these signs is to assist our record keeping.  They will be located at the entrance to fields that we manage, both owned and rented, with our logo and field number on them.  This will make it simple for our operators to keep records for each field.  As an added bonus for those that may not know, when our cupola logo is at the entrance to a field you know that we are managing it.


Our new field signs!

Another addition to our crop records this year is a new weather station!  We have a station ordered and on the way that will be able to remotely tell us accurate weather information such as how much rain we have had when it happened, the temperature, humidity, wind speed and wind direction.  This is something that will be accessible remotely as well which will be a huge help for deciding on start times for our land here around East Montpelier but also for our farm in Craftsbury which we travel to.


Excited to retire our Rain Gauge and get an upgrade!

Last fall we installed a scale on the farm which we used for our corn harvest, we are looking forward to have it for a full growing season this year so it can be used for our haylage as well.  Having a scale is the last step to the records, after keeping track of all the field inputs this gives us an accurate picture of what the results were.  It also gives us a definitive number to use for our feed inventory.


Picture taken during 2015 Corn Chopping – this shows our truck driving over the scale, the green light indicates that the scale has registered the truck and acknowledged that truck’s “tare” weight which will then record and store the date, time, and net weight of the load.

We are looking forward to the 2016 growing season and excited to see what we learn from the improvements we have made.


Corn planting looks different than it used to….

Our cropping goal, at Fairmont Farm, is to be 100% no-till with cover crops, and we have nearly met this goal for a number of years now.  However this year we were about 70% no-till with a cover, 15% no-till without a cover and 15% minimal tillage.  Some of the reasons we have done more tillage this year were: repairing damage to fields from manure spreading in wet conditions, and field stacked manure from barns that are not compatible with our liquid system during the winter months.  The reason for having some fields no-till without a cover is due to the late harvest last year, we ran out of time to get a cover crop planted on some of our later harvested fields.  So, what is no-till and what are cover crops?


Corn Planting – This picture is no-till planting with a cover crop


Corn Planting – This picture captures planting new corn directly into an existing grass field

No-till is a type of conservation practice that we use in which we no longer till our fields up before we plant corn.  Instead, the soil is left undisturbed and seeds are directly sewn into the existing vegetation.  We pair our no-till planting with the use of cover crops.  Cover crops are planted after the corn is harvested in the fall and are terminated after spring corn planting.  By planting corn this way, we are simulating a natural ecosystem for the plants.  The benefits include an overall increase in soil health, reduced soil erosion, reduced soil compaction, increase in yield, increase in nitrogen recycling, and increased ability to filter and retain water among many other benefits.  From a management perspective, there are also significantly fewer inputs involved in this system including reduced time, money and fuel.

We currently crop about 3,600 acres, 1,500 of which are corn.  Being able to get all of our corn planted in a timely manner, for our short growing season, with our small and rocky fields was one driving factor when we originally made the transition to a no-till cover cropping system.  However since then, we have greatly appreciated all of the other benefits that are gained with this new system.


Close-up of our corn planter in action


This photo does a great job showing the excellent soil health in our no-till system

“Across the Fence” had a great episode on October 22, 2012, they interviewed Ray Archuleta from Natural Resource Conservation System (NRCS).  In the video, Ray has a few demonstrations to show the difference in soil health between conventional land and no-till land.  The no-till land naturally stays together, retaining nutrients and water, far superior to land that has been tilled.  The impact this has on water quality is substantial.  No-till soil is able to handle heavy rains without the worry of runoff from nutrients.  This is because the root systems combined with earth worms and other living organisms aerate the soil and make room for the water while simultaneously creating a natural “glue” that keeps the soil intact.


2016 Corn Spraying – Front View of the Sprayer

What do you see being sprayed after the corn is planted?  The last part to a successful no-till and cover crop system is the termination of the cover crop so it does not compete with the productive crop.  After the corn (Roundup Ready) is planted we use a Glyphosate (generic Roundup) based program to kill the cover crop.  All of our spraying is done by Bourdeau Bros. Inc., a licensed, certified and reputable company.


Time for a re-fill!

The above picture is a close up of the BIG spray rig, which is designed to be able to maneuver in between corn rows if the corn has already started coming up.  In this picture the spray rig is getting a refill and the Glyphosate is being mixed up.


2015 Corn Harvest using 2 Choppers


High Quality Silage being “pushed up” and “packed”.  Notice the yellow color, this shows a high percentage of corn grain in the silage.

What is the result?  The results for this new no-till and cover crop system is a win-win for farmers and for the environment.  Farmers are able to use less inputs to produce a higher quality crop with increased yield much more efficiently, while conserving the natural ecosystem and preserving soil health and water quality!