Summer School: How to listen to the land
Cedar Mountain Farm looks like a lot of other small Vermont farms: big red barn, old grain silo, a backdrop of rolling hills.
How Stephen Leslie describes his work, however, is perhaps a little different. He calls it “listening to the land.”
Find our full Summer School series here.
Stephen and his wife, Kerry Gawalt, took over management of this Upper Valley property in 1999. They produce raw milk, cheese, beef and vegetables, among other things.
At the start, Stephen says they tried to put in place something similar to the 400-acre farm where he and Kerry met and apprenticed in New York.
“And got here on the land, and set about imposing my mental model on the landscape," Stephen says.
Their model included using four Norwegian fjord horses instead of a tractor to till, mow and haul other equipment.
But over time, Stephen’s approach evolved. The horses are still here. But now they do less, because the farm no longer tills its garden.
He says the horses are who first taught him how to listen. He had to slow down. Control his reactions. Learn their world and their way of seeing.
And eventually, that listening translated across the whole farm.
“My thick skull maybe started to open a little bit more to... hear what maybe the land was trying to tell me about what it wanted, what direction it wanted to go in," Stephen said.
Part of that direction is intensive management grazing for the farm’s Jersey cows. This essentially means the herd grazes on a different patch of pasture every 12 to 24 hours during the warmer months.
Stephen says this promotes soil health.
“Can we really get them to graze more evenly, eat a variety of forbs out there as well and disperse their manure and urine over the entire field so that they're actually building fertility," he says.
The farm received federal funding from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service 13 years ago. The money helped pay for an improved cow trail from the barn to the fields, a spring-fed watering system and portable electric fencing.
During the summer, Stephen moves that fencing every single day.
I join him one sweaty, August afternoon, with thunderclouds puffing overhead.
Accompanying us is Maisy the Jack Russell Terrier.
“Queen of the hill, working dog par excellence, notorious ratter, bane of woodchucks," Stephen says.
First he yanks the skinny white posts out of the ground. He moves them all to a new spot, and pounds them back in with a pair of nippers.
Then using what looks like a giant reel, Stephen rolls up the electric line (which has been shut off, by the way). Once he reaches the new pasture spot, he unspools the line back onto the fence posts.
A lot of listening to the land, Stephen says, necessitates this daily interaction with it.
“There's an old saying that the farmers' most valuable action is their footsteps upon the land," he says. "So it's getting out and observing, seeing. Yeah, really, observation is key.”
Over time, he says those observations accumulate, and add to what he learns from fellow farmers, scientists and policy makers.
As we traverse the top of the pasture hill, Stephen points out some bright green patches in the field below: micro-wetlands.
He says he keeps the cows away after realizing the wetlands could hold more water and more carbon if they were allowed to recover and grow.
"There's one area where some wild blue irises came in, and woodcocks start coming back in and nesting," Stephen says. "Eventually little pine trees start succession, and poplars."
He says the surrounding pasture is actually greener, too.
"So that’s just like, one example of... how the view from inside my head change — and I no longer saw that as marginal land, and began to understand that it had this really deep intrinsic value to the overall health of the system," Stephen says.
Listening to the land isn’t always easy.
“We're operating within the real world, and we have to — we have bills to pay, and there's a lot of economic pressure to produce product," Stephen says.
But he says to look at land and only see products to sell is a sad place to end up.
It is largely where modern-day agriculture has ended up. In Stephen’s research of the history of this farm and others in the Northeast, he traces many of the issues we face today — climate change, biodiversity loss, injustice — back to the arrival of European colonists.
They cut down old growth forests to build settlements, and displaced the Indigenous people who had stewarded the land for thousands of years.
“European colonization kind of resulted in the obliteration of that entire ecosystem," Stephen says. "As much as I admire the ingenuity and, you know, incredible toughness of our Yankee forebears, their worldview was — was wipe the slate clean and and implant European-style agriculture.”
In order to really listen to the land, he says you have to start by… doing nothing.
To be in place without an agenda. To simply be present on the landscape.
Eventually, you’ll learn more about that place. Then you can put that learning into practice.
Stephen says that could look like a rooftop garden in the city, or farming with horses and cows in fields.
“Being able to just be doing this work, you know, and seeing how nature, how the land, how the animals respond to, in many cases, just stepping out of the way, and allowing natural processes to recover — that's hopeful,” he says.
Stephen’s ultimate hope is for repair. To heal present-day wounds — both on the land and in the human community — that began long ago.
All summer long, Vermont Public reporters learned how to do something. Find the full Summer School series here.
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