Local Wood, Local Good

Our small family farm mirrors those that you would have found throughout Vermont pre-WWII. We're a family that works together with the seasons to produce and raise a variety of livestock, crops, sap, and forest products. Since 1999 we've made up for a lack of vast farmland by diversifying what we produce to increase the return per acre. For young farmers like us the financial reality of purchasing 200 acres of Vermont farmland is impossible. Land in Putney is expensive and it’s getting more expensive throughout the rest of Vermont too.

As you know our farm is still unable to split and sell firewood. This has created a huge financial hardship for us as firewood sales are often a Vermont farm’s most reliable source of income.

It’s often forgotten that farm’s are a business and our business plan works symbiotically with wood.  Our products shift organically as the seasons change. In the summer we hay, in the fall we harvest our animals, in the winter it's time spent working in the woods, springtime it's gathering sap and firewood deliveries. Each piece supports the next season. From using the pine planer shavings as animal bedding which are then composted with manure and spread on our hayfields, to using the hardwood slab wood for maple sugar house fuel. To heating our buildings and hot water. Wood is more than just something we use as the occasional building project material. 

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It is still my goal that someday my husband and son can sustainably harvest timber from local landowners, truck it to our farm, and I can cut and split it. The higher grade logs can be sawed into boards. We’ll shovel the shavings into stalls and into our garden. We will have our own building materials and some to sell. 

There’s the thing. Selling forest products is profitable. Selling our eggs and meat isn’t. There’s three aspects of this the selfish part of my plea is that we need to have an economically viable and somewhat reliable way to pay our taxes and costs through our farm business. Secondly there’s the part of preserving a dying tradition that I think is honorable to revere and should be something we prioritize before it’s gone. The other part of this is the environmental impact. We are talking about carbon sequestration, native tree species, and bugs. With the presence of invasive bugs in our region it is vital we don’t spread them. They are here, right now, breeding in the woods and killing trees. These bugs will change the woods we love drastically if not controlled. The firewood you ordered that was dumped in your driveway, where is it from? Where did that tree stand? Are bugs crawling out of it into your favorite tree in the yard? 

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If it’s not too much to ask, I would also like to be able to bring our portable sawmill to our farm property. (Of course we are completely willing to construct sound mitigating walls/buildings and work within specified hours/days of the week, but the magical transformation of taking a standing tree and turning it into lumber could be done right on our land.)  Mark's sawyer skills could be featured by our local community as a piece of our rural cultural heritage we are proud of, instead of a shameful blue collar skill that as our previous town manager said “should be hidden up on the mountain”. Most of our county sawyers have either passed away or are in the process of retiring. Think of these skills from chainsaw safety, to felling trees, to skidding them carefully through the forest, to sawing them into timber as an art form. These skills are just as fined tuned as a potter turning a bowl, or an artist setting up their easel in the right spot to catch the morning sun.

Like 97% of other Vermonters (when polled by the Council of the Future of Vermont) we believe in the "value of the working landscape as a key to our future. Our unique agricultural and forest assets are crucial to the state's economy, community, character, and culture." Preserving Vermont's heritage, transparent farming practices, and being good stewards to the land are the primary objectives of our farm. Yet, it’s really hard to do that when you’re driving to testify at the statehouse, fighting nuisance lawsuits, and the encroachment of retirees vying for an old Vermont farm to manicure and become a quiet country estate that looks more like something from a Vermont Life cover than a working farm.

The model that we aspire to is not a business model we created. The idea of farmers cutting and selling firewood goes back to the days before Vermont's Green Mountain Boys. Driving past a pile of logs or a baler in a field is just as much a part of our Working Lands as a picturesque scene of Holstein's grazing in a meadow. The Vermont Life bucolic image of our State has attracted many people here without sharing some realities that must be understood if we are to preserve and experience the backdrop of the Working Landscape. Manure does smell, farmers do work long hours, chainsaws make noise, and our products generally get to market using large trucks.

                                                Putney's own Emily Wilson on Vermont Life's cover in 2005

                                              Putney's own Emily Wilson on Vermont Life's cover in 2005

If you get off I-91 and onto some of our backroads within 10 minutes I bet you’ll see the collapse of family farming. A tree growing through a silo, a stone foundation where a farmhouse once stood, a leaning barn that is perched in such a way that the next storm may be it’s doom.  What I see when I look at this isn't "charming" it's the collapse of Vermont's small dairy industry and our state's struggling economy. 

It's the rise of monoculture where it is almost impossible to do well for the animals, the environment, and the final product. It's the call to keep “growing your herd, plant more corn, use this to make them grow fatter or faster! “

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It's the core of our communities that goes missing with each tumbling down barn. It's the volunteer firefighters, elementary school volunteers, and ladies who made the best coleslaw at grange suppers who left for Florida and haven’t been replaced. It’s our volunteer municipal government that is stressed by a shortage of involved citizens. I know kids who couldn't stay in Vermont to work on their family farm because there was no way to make a living. I even take the liberty to connect the dots to at least part of our opioid epidemic on the collapse of the family farm. Poverty, isolation, and the lack of family support can't be helpful.

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I see an overgrown Working Landscape that was once diversified producing jobs, food, and fuel.  So instead of "quaint" and "delightful" to me, these graveyard monuments of our agricultural past are humbling and heartbreaking. This is why I am an passionate for trying to keep our farm afloat. It’s the reality that if people don’t recognize the value of what we are trying to do I think that the future of Vermont looks grim. If we can't make our farm work our land is prime for development given its proximity to schools and services. Why shouldn’t we sell it into tiny lots, make a buck, and move out of state especially when my own neighbors can’t see the selfless road I’m trying to proudly walk?

                Testifying at the Statehouse

              Testifying at the Statehouse

I want to see legislation that protects family farms like ours. It is vital to strengthen our Right to Farm and create a Right to Practice Forestry. Nuisance lawsuits are easy to pursue for the person complaining and expensive to defend for the accused. No farmer or logger has time for that in an industry with tight financial margins. Our idea to have a forest product component on our farm isn’t a progressive, radical idea it’s the relearning and the community acceptance of protecting the Vermont's heritage. It’s understanding that before farms got too big they looked a heck of a lot like our farm. 

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I urge you to contact your legislators and remind them that farms like ours can’t wait another year for better laws. Join agricultural advocacy groups like Rural Vermont and Farm Bureau and let them know you support the Right to Farm and the Right to Practice Forestry.