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Meet Kerry Gawalt - The 2023 Fantastic Farmer!

October 24, 2023 | Montpelier, VT – Nestled near a hillside in Hartland, Vermont, sits land that has seen agricultural uses since the 1770’s. Now home to Cedar Mountain Farm and Cobb Hill Cheese, this land continues to support Vermont’s agricultural traditions with an eye toward the future under the watchful leadership and experienced hands of Kerry Gawalt.  Emphasizing sustainability, stewardship, education, diversity, value, and heritage since 1999, Gawalt exemplifies all the qualities needed to receive the third annual ‘Fantastic Farmer’ title and a significant award of $5000 from the A. Pizzagalli Family Farm Fund

“I really love working with cows, caring for the land, and sharing what I know about farming. I have been very lucky to have had some amazing mentors during my life. Farming and nature have been a part of my world since birth,” Gawalt said.  “Many people have influenced me and shared their knowledge of animals, farming and cooking over the years. I am fortunate to have the opportunity to work in agriculture and hope to continue to share my love of farming with others.  Vermont has a wealth of agricultural history which I am always learning more about every day.”

Find out more below about Kerry, her life, agricultural mission and their farm operation

Q: Please describe your role on the farm (worker, manager, owner, co-owner, etc.), your key responsibilities, and how many years you have been involved.

A:  I am the co-owner of the farm and the cheese business. We started the farm business in 1995 and joined the cheese operation in 2016. I manage the cows, the cheese operation, milk, general admin work, marketing and employees. I am a 4H leader for the dairy club on our farm.  Our farm produces fluid milk, makes artisan cheese, registered jerseys and Holsteins, no dig vegetables, composted cow manure for vegetable growers and beef. Our markets include Dairy Farmers of America, retail customers, wholesale thru Black River Produce, Provisions International, Saxelby Cheese Mongers, a few restaurants and catering businesses, bulk compost to commercial growers. Our business employs 4 full time people and 5-7 part time workers. Our operations uses 65 acres of pasture and hayland. Our cows are housed in a bedded pack barn. Our parlor and cheese operation are in the original historic barn.         

Q: Please provide a brief description of the farming operation including its main products, markets and resources (acreage, facilities, labor force, partnerships with others).

A:  We have experienced higher yields and enhanced resilience in our market garden through adopting practices such as; cover cropping, crop rotations, composting, mulching, no-till and perennial crops.  When we made the shift to no-till we reduced the garden from 3 acres to 1 ¼ acres (and converted the rest of the land back to highly productive hay/grazing). Even so, with the intensive bed system we generated the same amount of sales in produce.  With adaptive rotational grazing we are using the cows as a tool to improve the pasture land. We move temporary fence every 24 hours to give the cows a fresh paddock. By matching stocking rates and density to feed availability we can ensure the fields are not overgrazed and receive sufficient recovery time before the cows return. We currently no longer make 2nd cut hay, but fold the hay fields into the grazing rotation after they have recovered from the harvest of 1st cut. This allows us to extend the length of rotation just at a time when the pastures are slowing with dry hot weather of mid-to-late summer. After July 15th (when ground nesting birds are done) we use a bush hog to selectively mow areas that are overgrown to help renovate the grass for a fall flush. Our pastures are full of a diverse mix of plants, including forbes and wild flowers. Adaptive rotational grazing minimizes the impact of cattle and maximizes biodiversity. By giving paddocks adequate rest we can keep forages in a generative state for longer periods. The same goal can be achieved in the market garden. Through utilizing cover crops and cash crop successions, we aim to keep something growing in the garden all season. In the garden, hay fields and pastures, photosynthesis is maximized, which increases the amount of sugars plants produce to feed the soil microbiome----which ultimately builds long term stable humus. We see all these practices as comprising a synergy of effects to restore the totality of landscape functions of the farm ecosystem.

Q: Briefly describe the farm’s land stewardship goals and how you assess progress toward them.

A: We are working to achieve soil health by practicing the five soil health principles (as defined by the NRCS) in our context. First among these is to minimize disturbance. By managing our farm with adaptive rotational grazing and no-till vegetable production, we have retired the mold board plow. Our sixty acres are under organic (not-certified) no-till management. We conduct soil tests every three years and have seen quantifiable improvement in percentages of soil organic matter (in some cases by as much as 3%). We also observe improved rain infiltration and commensurate flood and drought resilience. We view all purchased inputs as sources of fertility. These include bought in hay, pelleted feed for cows, and shavings for our bedded-pack cow housing. Compost is the digestive rumen of our farm by which we keep nutrients (and carbon) cycling throughout the system.

A starting point for understanding our context is to consider what was here before humans altered it (in our context that would mean before European settlement, as the Indigenous people were practicing what we now refer to as Agroecology). Going forward we need to to take the soil health of the ancient old growth forests as a measure for soil health in our region. 

Because the northeast region has the built-in resilience of abundant precipitation and a temperate climate, the land has recovered to such a degree that, unless you study the land use history, it is not manifestly evident that settlement brought about near ecological collapse. New England was not a- place of poor, thin and rocky soils. The Western Abenaki evolved their culture under the bowers of a rich and varied tapestry of old growth forests with deep layers of duff and humus rich subsoils. That legacy is the carbon bank we are still farming on. Viewed through this lenses, we understand that historically the land has been severely degraded. We then understand that our task as land managers is to adopt regenerative practices to restore and increase the carbon bank---even as we produce nutrient dense food for our farm customers.

Q: What are the key soil conservation/soil health practices used on the farm?

A: Our farm, and all farms of our region are already contending with increased moisture in the form of precipitation events and at the same time flash droughts that put hydrologic health to the test. Overall it is warmer and the growing season is longer, but our already famously changeable New England weather has become increasingly erratic. By practicing no-till organic vegetable production & adaptive rotational grazing with elements of silvopasture, we are attempting to mimic the processes of long term stable carbon sequestration endemic to the ancient old growth forests. The principle aim is to build soil while  restoring biodiversity and landscape function. Experience has shown us that if we focus first on soil health---crop yields and livestock health will follow. We see the need to build more resilience into our systems now so that we can be part of the climate solution rather than contributing further to the problem.

Q: What steps are taken on the farm to manage water quality, nutrients and/or prevent soil loss?

A: Beginning in 2009 (seven years before the VT Required Agricultural Practices regulations were updated making water protection on farms mandatory) we voluntarily engaged with the NRCS-EQUIP program, completing a series of projects over a ten year contract to protect soil and water quality. This includes infrastructure for intensive management grazing (electric fencing, improved trail, spring-fed water system), enhanced irrigation capacity, covered manure storage facility, compost stacking pad, riparian buffer zone, tile drainage around farm buildings, and more.  As part of qualifying for EQUIP we worked with UVM extension and the VT Agency of Natural Resources to develop a Nutrient Management Plan.

Q: Are there other sustainable or innovative practices you would like us to know about? (These could include practices related to climate change; supporting diverse animals, plants, fungi, or insects; or managing pests and diseases.)

A: Without any outside financial or technical assistance our farm business also completed the construction of a bedded-pack barn to house the dairy herd. This style of housing increases cow comfort, captures and locks urine and manure---the composting process actually begins within the barn and is then finished when this material is moved to the stacking pad. 

We had initially developed a well for irrigation in the market garden, but finding it inadequate, in 2015 we had a spring-fed pond dug. This allows us to move water with a surface electric pump. The pond is a terrific enhancement to wildlife, providing habitat to many species including frogs, toads, wood ducks and mallards, and even the occasional green or blue heron. 

Within our pasture lands we implemented mechanical removal of clusters of invasive species, such as barberry, honeysuckle, and rose. We also voluntarily exclude cow access to micro-wetlands. By keeping the cows out we have seen native wetland species restoring themselves into these zones, from cattails, to red osier to willows, aspens, and poplars. We consider restoration of hydrologic function as an essential component of our land management strategy.

Q: Have you worked with any conservation programs?

A: This spring (2021) we were awarded a Resilience Grant administered by NOFA-VT. This will allow us to take further steps at pasture improvement by; planting trees at an appropriate spacing on steeply graded slopes to hold soil and fix nitrogen (honey & black locusts); planting wetland species in saturated zones (willows, dogwoods); mast shrubs to replace the invasive shrubs and mast shade trees in pasture where cows do not currently get adequate shade. 

We have also applied and been accepted into the NRCS-Conservation Stewardship Program (open to farms who have completed EQUIP). The first CSP improvements we will undertake in 2021 are installation of a 30 x 150 mixed species hedgerow between our market garden and adjacent hayfied/pasture, and a windbreak/hedgerow on the north side of our compost stacking pad. These mixed height and species hedges will create micro-climates within the market garden, benefit pollinators, and provide habitat in more complex trophic levels.

Q: How have you helped others develop their farming skills and/or dreams? Or, how have you supported the success of other farmers?

A:  I hold the following positions; president of Windsor County Farm Bureau, Farm Service Agency farmer representative, DFA (Dairy Farmers of America Coop) farmer representative, GENEX cooperative farmer representative, NE Dairy Promotion farmer representative. 4-H Leader helping to run the Hartland Cattle Club at our farm. President of the Vermont Jersey Breeder Association

We have Dairy Grazing Apprentices on our farm.  

Q: How does the farm interact with and connect to the community? Are there other ways you and the farm give back to the local or regional community?

A: We host numerous farm visits and open farm days. We go to many fairs with our cows and share our love of cattle and farming with the public. We have been working with UVM to have pasture walks and on farm free clinics. We have donated our products and garden starts to various food shelves. With the Hartland Cattle Club we have donated dairy products and cookies to Meals on Wheels. We donate compost to neighbors in need. We have hosted school groups over the years.     

Q: Briefly describe any changes you’ve made to the operation to increase farm efficiency or production (for example, new farm products, new processing methods, new markets) and the outcome of those efforts.

A:  We have put most of our effort into turning our milk into award winning cheese. We have expanded our cheese market from whole wheels of cheese to vacuum sealed retail portions. We have developed new types and flavors of cheese.We have turned our farm cow manure into a finished product with a waiting list.I have worked hard on our herd of jersey cows. We now have a homebred E94 cow and many E93 and 92 homebred cows. We have had many bull contracts. Our cows have brought home many rosettes from the state and county fairs. We have sent heifers to the World Dairy Expo.    

We have a great crew on our farm and cheese business. We implemented profit sharing for our full time workers in 2023. We bought out our former cheese partner in 2022. This will allow a better relationship between out two business. We are undergoing an NRCS energy audit this summer. We did purchase a newer tractor in 2021. The used NH TD95D uses much less fuel than our 1994 Kubota M5400. We now have the ability with the bigger tractor to make higher quality compost than when we had to wait for a custom operator.    

We donated cheese to essential workers throughout the pandemic. These groups included hospital workers, community dental workers, truck drivers, ag industry people. The 4H kids baked goods with donated flour from King Arthur which were sent regularly to the staff at Valley Regional Hospital. We provided free hand sanitizer, gloves and masks to people early on when supplies were limited. 

Q: What other innovations have taken place on the farm in the areas of business structure, energy use, efficiency, labor management and/or farm succession?

A:  It took a lot of upfront labor to build the no-till market garden. On the other hand, we estimate that our weed pressure was reduced by 85%. We found that even in the height of drought, beneath the carpet of compost mulch, our sandy soil was beautifully aggregated and moist. In prior dry periods, the top 2-3 inches of soil would become dehydrated---reduced to dirt prone to erosion by wind, torrential rain (or the hard pounding of overhead irrigation). 

We are not advocating this method as one-size-fits-all. Healthy soil practices are dependent on specific site conditions and context. While we may set organic no-till as our ideal, reduced tillage systems utilizing diverse rotations and mixed cover crops can be equally effective at producing quality food while increasing soil organic matter.  We worked first with EQIP and now CSP. We were selected as National Farmers of the Year for the NRCS in 2018.

Q: Please describe the work that may be supported with award money. How does/will this work support good land stewardship, benefit the community, and/or promote farm entrepreneurship?   How has the farm responded to the pandemic and related community service issues, and how do these actions exemplify the values of giving back and entrepreneurism?

A: I truly love farming and agriculture. I get up every morning at 3 to milk my cows. I spend every Saturday afternoon with the 4H kids. 98% of my time is spent farming, working with others to engage in positive farming activities and to develop ag policy. We employ many young people and try to inspire them to share the importance of agriculture in Vermont's working landscape.