In 2022, Vermont had 130 organic farms. Just one year later, there are only 60, with another 30 expected to go out of business in the next 12 months. How can we turn things around? And is small farming actually sustainable?
Cynthia and Rich Larson of Larson Farm in Vermont are grass dairy farmers that are working on the sustainability of their own farm and of those around them, too. They know that sustainability has to do with more than just what works for the land. It must also be valuable for the community and economically sustainable for the farmer. This is one reason they have joined hands with a local Land Care Community of 17 grass-based dairies in Vermont. They are a group that wants to leave the land in better shape than when they found it. They are working to improve the ecosystem, protect the watershed, reduce pollution and regenerate the soil. They use modern equipment and strategies for facing farming challenges.
Rich and Cynthia today tell their story about that partnership, how and why they transitioned from commercial farming to organic, and why they invite others to get into farming, too.
Check out their website: larsonfarmvt.com
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Within the below transcript the bolded text is Hilda
In 2022, Vermont had 130 organic farms. A year later, there are only 60 with another 30 expected to go out of business in 2023. How can we turn things around? Is small farming sustainable at all? This is episode 418. Our guests are answering these very questions. They know that sustainability has to do with more than just what works for the land. It is an approach that is good for the land but also valuable to the community and economically viable for the farmer.
Our guests are grass-fed dairy farmers from Vermont and they are members of a Landcare community of seventeen grass-based dairies in Vermont that are joining hands as a group to leave the land in better shape than when they found it and to lift one another. It’s a collaborative community rather than a competitive one. Together, they’re working to improve the ecosystem, protect the watershed, reduce pollution, and regenerate the soil. They use modern equipment and strategies for facing farming challenges.
Our guests are Rich and Cynthia Larson of The Larson Farm in Vermont. In this episode, they tell their story, which includes how and why they transitioned from commercial farming to organic, their involvement in this Landcare community, why they invite others to get into farming too, and which of their eight children is running the farm. Here’s a hint, she’s the youngest of the eight and she’s so passionate about dairy farming that she knows the grandmother cows of their current herd of cows.
Before we dive into the conversation, we invite you to make an investment in your health and the local economy by purchasing more of your food from local farms. We invite you to take the 50% pledge, which is making a commitment to spend at least half of your food budget at local farms. It’s a simple way to keep farms that are doing it right afloat. We have resources on our website to help you out. Find out more at 50-50 Pledge. Thanks in advance for joining hands with us on that project.
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Welcome to the show, Cynthia and Rich.
We’re so glad to be here, Hilda.
Hilda, thank you.
We’re here in this lovely place in Florida. I just met you, but I love the vision you’ve cast of your farming history and your farming now. Cynthia, I want you to tell us first and foremost, when did you decide that you were glad you were making the switch from conventional farming to something a little different where you got to connect with the consumer?
We were commercial farmers and in those days, a big tractor-trailer truck backed up into the farm driveway, hooked its giant flexible hose to the bulk tank, and the milk got pumped into that along with the milk of all of our neighbors, and off it went to Boston. We got a check a month later for that milk. We had minimum health standards to meet and that was it, but then we got out of farming and out of dairy for several reasons and then later got back in on a different scale and formation.
Our model at that point was selling to individuals either at the farmer’s market or our farm store. I remember this defining moment when it occurred to me that when we were commercial farmers, we were only half farmers. We had no contact with our patrons. It was like my farming world went from black and white to color. Here I was face-to-face with people who were drinking the product that we had made with hard work, sweat, experience, and love. I suddenly realized that this was part of being a community and it was the human community that gave us joy in our farming.
You would have face-to-face feedback too.
We began to understand what natural accountability is, which is the accountability that humans work best with. I wouldn’t let those people down for anything.
Natural accountability is the accountability that humans work best with.
You were in dairy farming and got away from it for a little while. How did you get into dairy farming in the first place?
For me, it’s at least six generations that we know of going back to Sweden of dairy farmers. As a kid, I had a choice, write a term paper about Wuthering Heights or go work on the farm. It was not a hard decision to make. We moved to Vermont when the family farm was being developed, which was a sad thing. Since then, we’ve been working on expanding our input in the community and have had over the last 40 years a significant revisioning of what it means to be a farmer. I remember so vividly, I was at a NOFA conference some years ago, and the speaker was talking about plants and the fact that they produce so much sugar and that we all know that.
What I didn’t know is that about 1/3 of the sugar that they make, they send down to the roots and out into the soil. Think about that for a minute. Nature never wastes energy. Why in the world would plants waste sugar that they’ve spent so much time capturing sunlight and so forth? The reason is they’re feeding the microbes and the fungi in the soil because those fungi especially are able to break down some of the minerals in the soil and make it into a plant-available form.
When I learned that and realized the amazing complexity of the food system that we’re working in, my whole paradigm changed. Farming moved from being a recipe of the plow, plant, spray, and harvest to working to understand deeply the entire ecosystem that we’re working with right from the soil, grass, microbes, and water systems. Farming has become a wonderful challenge and exciting adventure.
You’re learning something new every day. It’s not like you understand at the back of your hand nature and farming.
That is certainly true. Thankfully, as species, we are beginning to learn more. There’s a gal in one of our models, a researcher in Australia, who is showing the world that diversity is the key. Our whole food system is based on a monoculture. You plant soy or corn. We’re realizing that the more plants you have growing in a piece of soil, the broader the microorganism network is and that they interact with each other. You get true symbiosis. We can greatly increase the productivity of our fields, the disease resistance of our crops, and the nutrient density of the food that we’re growing for our cows or the vegetables in our garden if we have diversity.
Cynthia and I are part of a new network. We call ourselves a Landcare community. We’re a group of seventeen small grass-based dairies in Vermont working together to figure out how we can improve the ecosystem and protect the watershed. We wrote a grant and received a piece of equipment that’s going to help us loosen the soil and break the compaction. At the same time, we will be planting deep-rooted multispecies forage plants for our cattle. Some of them are going to be planted specifically for pollinators. We call it a bloom train. Part of the plan is throughout the entire growing season, we’re going to have something growing in our fields that is food for those deer pollinators that upon which we so deeply depend.
Cynthia, did you ever think you would be a part of a group like this Landcare community? Before you joined that, were you all joining hands with people who were like-minded in your area in Vermont?
Thankfully, there is a vigorous organic community always growing and learning. We’ve been part of that group with great joy and learning, but it was nothing like this new Landcare community of which we’re a part of. We have a broad vision, and I probably can’t articulate it exactly, but it’s to restore not only the soils but the watersheds, and thereby set the stage for healthy human communities. It’s a great joy to be part of this and steward the land where we are.
Rich, your parents, grandparents and so many generations back, did they have this vision too, do you think?
Yes and no. Both my father and grandfather were very innovative in their day, but it was the time when science was working its way deeply into food production with the chemical industry growing. Everyone thought it was the greatest thing in the world to not have to do quite so much work and spray some three quarts of something per acre. That’s nothing. We know now that that was very short-sighted.
In a way, now that I think of it, we’re extending that same vision. It’s just a new science and we’re realizing the amazing complexity of the ecosystems in which we live. We have to think more deeply about it. For instance, we all know that drought is becoming a massive problem worldwide. Clean water, both for human consumption, our food animals and crops are becoming very serious. These last few years, we’ve had terrible droughts in a part of Vermont, which is very unusual.
It’s been very financially challenging for us because we’ve had to buy much more forage. That ramps up the urgency of finding a way to restore the water-holding capacity of our soils. This machine that we call a ripsower is going to loosen the topsoil. Instead of having about 5 inches of sponge, the topsoil, we’re going to be in a couple of years extending that to 12 inches of topsoil that are holding water, harvesting in sequestering carbon, taking carbon out of the air and putting it in a stable form under the soil and biodiversity. Any time you get biodiversity, you get animal, plant and human health.
Do you want to add something to that, Cynthia?
As we use our ripsower, we are learning to do it on the contour, which is an outshoot from the key line work that’s been done in Australia for years in which we want to move water horizontally so that no water leaves the farm with or without some soil with it. In other words, this is one of the major parts of restoring watersheds. Understanding and knowing where we could put ponds, how much of our land could be irrigated when needed, and in this case, how much could be done without mechanical input.
I’ve interviewed a lot of farmers, and nobody’s ever mentioned a ripsower to me before. Do you think animals do that thing? Do they disturb the soil so that the topsoil grows?
They do a little bit. We call it hoof impact. It is important when you get perennial grass sod, which we want because we don’t want erosion. Anytime you disturb the soil, you’re going to get erosion. If we keep a permanent sod, the animals will disturb it a little bit. The few seeds will grow and so forth but they are over time compacting the soil. Our objective is to come in and heal that compaction that has been going on for 30, 50, or more years and restore the depth of the topsoil.
Cynthia, let’s go back to the community thing. Vermont is a well-known place where I picture cows, cheese, and all that. I understand there are fewer dairy farms than there were before. Talk to us a little bit about that history and where this Landcare community comes in in terms of that.
There was a decade when organic farms were springing up. People were converting to organic, which is pasture-based. It’s very different from the commercial dairy industry in Vermont. A couple of organic trucks came through and picked up milk, even a grass truck so there was some 100% grass milk going into these trucks. Sadly, that is going away and we’re losing dozens of small organic farms as those markets pretty much dissipate to very large certified organic dairies in the West. It’s grief.
We have one difference. We decided years ago to process our milk. We have a small creamery in which we pasteurize our milk, make it into yogurt, and sell it both in our little store, local organic stores, and also through a distributor. Hopefully, that will keep us going but we have high hopes that there will be a turnaround in the organic dairy industry in Vermont but we’re not seeing it yet.
When I heard you say, “Hopefully, it will keep us going,” makes me realize the truth of what I’ve learned over these years. Small organic farms are in peril. Is that right, Rich?
That sure is. We started 2022 with 130 organic dairy farms in Vermont. We’re down to 30 in 2023. The dairy economists project another 30 to go out of business. That’s 60 out of 130 gone in a matter of 2 years because of economics. We don’t feed grain, thankfully, but those who do feed organic grain have seen their grain prices triple in 2022 due to worldwide events.
Let’s get back to the community. Cynthia, what did you want to add about that community and how it’s making a difference?
It’s interesting this Landcare community because my original plan was, “Maybe we’ll somehow get funded. Our farm can be the pilot farm to build all these ponds and develop all these irrigation methods,” but I know that’s not the way this is going to work. We do have one particular person who has the vision. The way this is going to work is we need to be funded by our communities to restore, control and improve the watershed. Also, to restore the pollinator, what we call the bloom train, water retention, and the ability to grow local food.
The joy of it all is not only we will be selling milk to our neighbors in our community. We’re going to be an important part of the community on more than one level. We love to chat with people who come to the farm. We’ve made it as fast as possible for people to bring their children down and see the cows. You can go to the barn and meet the calves. You can go out to the pastures and even watch us move the cows.
Not only for their education but for the joy of us all being one community with all of our strengths. As we look forward to the vision of our Landcare community, we will be funded by the community perhaps through some crowdfunding method. We’re not sure how it’s going to happen but we see the vision for community-based farming.
This reminds me very much of Allan Savory’s philosophy of holistic management. It’s not only good for the animals and land, but it’s good for the people and the economy as well. Rich, I want to ask you to define terms. Watershed, I feel like I’ve heard this word thrown around a lot, and I’m not quite sure I can wrap my head around it. Why is it important to restore the watershed? What is that exactly?
In Vermont, there’s been a lot of concern about the water quality in Lake Champlain. There are two sources of pollution, one is urban runoff and wastewater facilities, but agriculture has played a big part in erosion and soil nutrients leaving the farm in water and getting into the lake. We’re trying to clean up the source of that agricultural component of water pollution. That is runoff and nutrient waste from farmland, especially land that’s been plowed with manure applied to it.
You get erosion and each soil particle carries nitrogen, phosphorus, and so on into the water sources and ultimately into the lake. A watershed means an area that serves a particular brook or a river. All that area that feeds into our place, it’s the Meadow River, eventually drains into Lake Champlain. By focusing on the watershed, that would be our farm and those farms that are in our vicinity that all drain into that river.
If those waters are polluted, it leads to polluting the other larger bodies of water. Near where I live near the Chesapeake Bay, they were talking about chicken manure polluting the bay. I thought that was only a problem if it came from a concentrated animal feeding operation. I didn’t think small farms were contributing in any way to this issue, do they?
They do. It’s whether you’re a literal or a lot, still everybody has a piece to play in changing our management. Typically, the big CAFOs will often export their manure and sell it to somebody growing corn or some other product. They typically are simply a piece of land with big buildings on them. The manure then is shipped to an area farm but think of it, if you spread manure and then plow the land and the soil is loose then you get heavy rainfall, you know what would happen on your lawn. The same thing happens in a big field, even on a greater scale.
Let’s get back to the milk thing because here at the foundation, we love milk. Talk to us about the milk. Cynthia, is it raw or pasteurized? I heard you say it’s pasteurized.
Some of it is. Our cornerstone product is the raw milk that we can distribute in our community. Through the years, we’ve been so deeply happy about how many people come back to us and say, “We can only drink your milk.” The most common one is, “My daughter’s eczema was healed. We could never eat or drink dairy without distress, and now we can with your raw products.”
I was exposed to the work of Weston A. Price many years ago. We’re chapter leaders and we educate. Raw milk is our favorite. We would do only raw milk if we could, but there’s some economics here and scale. We have limits in the State of Vermont on how much total raw milk is legal to sell in any particular week. There are distribution issues. It’s a rural area. We do use part of our milk to make yogurt. We make some butter and gelato. Those products and the margin on those products help us keep that raw milk flowing.
You were talking about the generations that have led to where you’re at. Rich, are you and Cynthia running the show still here at the farm?
Yes, we are but we’re in a very exciting time. Our youngest daughter is passionate about dairy farming. She knows who every cow’s grandmother is and they all have names. She is doing an amazing job being grass-fed, meaning we don’t feed any grain. It’s very challenging to keep the cows healthy. In other words, they don’t get too thin and keep them producing milk.
Her cows are making about 4 gallons of milk a day, keeping good body condition, and have very few herd health issues. We hardly ever have a vet on the farm. She’s doing a wonderful job. We’re here at the conference taking this time to work and network with other entrepreneurs, going over our business plan with them, and having people from other fields and non-ag businesses challenge us, throw questions at us, and help us to see and find ways where we can improve the sustainability of our dairy operation.
Social media is a big one but also some other things. We’re excited to go home. We talk about sustainability. Everyone thinks about environmental sustainability but there are two other aspects. One, for our farm, the people in our community, are they happy that we’re there? They are. They come to our farm and love to see the cows but ultimately, it has to be financially sustainable. That’s a real challenge in the world.
Everyone thinks about environmental sustainability, but the real challenge in the world now is financial sustainability.
We’ve seen our costs rise tremendously in the last couple of years with inflation. How can we reduce our operating costs and become more efficient? Mercy is doing it, especially with the way she’s managing the permanent pastures and increasing the productivity of the fields through these Landcare practices and keeping the cows healthy and happy.
Given these challenges, Cynthia, would you recommend that anyone get into farming?
Hilda, we need farmers. We need creative people who can think differently about food production being part of a community. One thing I wanted to say while Rich was explaining our sustainable challenges is the quality of life for our daughter and us. There’s much joy in the diversity of our work, the constant challenges, the constant learning and the deep relationship with the animals, the land and the forage crops. Mercy moves the cows 3 or 4 times a day.
It’s both a science and an art. We’re ever learning on that. We do need more small farmers. Along with that, we need appreciation from the community. It’s a social change that values the local food shed and people need to be able to afford that quality food. There are some great challenges there but also a lot of excitement about becoming part of a community and a rich community food shed.
Maybe one secret would be for farmers to join in cooperatives like your Landcare community project so they know they’re not alone.
You’re going to have to chuckle at us because we’re a bunch of farmers. We like to think for ourselves. We don’t want people telling us what to do. In our Landcare community, there’s a group of seven. Perhaps it’s fourteen. Seven originally got a grant so we own this piece of equipment together, which sounds like a breeze. It’s a challenge. It’s part of the pilot for us to learn to work, own this piece and make decisions together.
We do go through Allan Savory’s Holistic Management Grid of Decision Making and that is also the framework from which we get our mission statements. It’s challenging but it’s fun. It’s a whole new world of learning for Rich and me. We love it. Even when we roll our eyes and say, “How are we going to work this out,” it’s the joy of new learning.
Do you have anything to add to that, Rich? What would you say to a young farmer who’s like, “I think I want to do this?”
Over the years, we’ve had quite a number of interns and apprentices through different programs have come. Not so many in recent years because of college debt and so forth. We’re open certainly to that as we go along. We love mentoring and explaining what we’re doing. Our business model especially came out as I was talking at our seminar with some of our mentors. It is not necessarily the magnitude of the business. In other words, not how big can you get.
Ours is instead of growth, it’s rather making a replicable model. Nothing would please us more than to help and advise somebody else to enter into the same small-scale localized food production in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania or wherever they live. We would love to mentor those people.
You’re not trying to get a little chain of farms.
It’s not like I want to be scalable and become a Ben & Jerry’s. We want to be large enough so that we can provide a good income to the family members who are involved and our employees. That’s it and then help someone else do the same thing in their communities. When we think long-term in terms of food security for us as humans, we need to develop those things. Humans have a such short memory. What about during the pandemic when you couldn’t get food in the grocery store?
Farm businesses should go beyond scalability and think long-term in terms of food security for us as humans.
I can’t tell you the number of people who have thanked us over the past couple of years who said, “Rich and Cynthia, I want to thank you. You fed my family for six months.” We had people who were there every week. We quickly called many of our friends who had small vegetable farms or maple syrup, honey and bread and we sold them in our farm store. They were happy because they’d lost many of their markets. We’re delighted because it expands our sales. Our customers are delighted because it’s more one-stop shopping. It was a total win-win-win.
How beautiful. I love that you all want to be replicable and your mission also includes education. I want to close with a question I like to pose at the end of the show. I know you read so you know what it is. I’ll give you a second to think about it but if the readers could do one thing to improve their health, what would you recommend that they do?
Hilda, that’s not as hard as it seems at first. I would find The Weston A. Price Foundation and start changing my diet. Start with raw milk, drop the seed oils, eat butter, and learn from Weston A. Price.
What do you think, Rich?
We could add sources as much as we can locally. It’s going to be nutrient-dense and healthy. You’re voting with your dollar every time. The only way these small farmers are going to be there when we need them is for them to be financially sustainable. That means having a customer base that appreciates what they do and is loyal to them.
Thank you so much for being on the show. It has been a joy.
Thank you, Hilda. This has been great fun.
Our guests were Cynthia and Rich Larson from Larson Farms. Now, for a letter to the editor from a recent journal, “I love the Wise Traditions Journal and read it cover to cover every time it arrives. I found the article on sulfur super interesting. It was a little disturbing, however, that the authors omitted specific chiropractic adjustments as an approach to balancing the autonomic nervous system.”
“There is abundant evidence that good, specific, and regular chiropractic care will up-regulate the parasympathetic nervous system, thereby restoring the normal adaptive response to the body. I have found this to be the case in my chiropractic practice in regard to many of the symptoms listed in the article. As stated in the article, we underestimate the intelligence the body has in initiating what we think of as a pathology. I couldn’t agree more. Keep up the fantastic work you do.” This is a letter from Michelle in Canada. Michelle, thank you so much for your letter.
We would love to hear from you as well. Write us a letter to the editor and send it to the email address, Info@WestonAPrice.org and put Letter to the Editor as the subject line. It can be on something you read in the journal, something you heard on the show, or simply a testimonial of how living the Wise Traditions way is helping you and your family. Thank you so much in advance, and thank you for reading. Stay well. Remember to keep your feet on the ground and your face to the sun.
About Rich Larson
Rich and Cynthia Larson and their daughter Mercy own an organic, 100% grass-fed A2A2 Jersey dairy farm in Wells, Vermont. Their passion is building soil health through maximizing biodiversity and stimulating microbial and fungal populations in their fields to conserve soil moisture, sequester carbon and provide succulent nutrient-dense forages for their Jersey cows. Their raw A2A2 milk is marketed throughout Vermont, supplemented by yogurt, butter and gelato processed in their on-farm creamery.
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