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Vermont dairy farm celebrates decades of farmland conservation

7 min read / September 12, 2022 / By Rachel Mullis

Old meets new at Woodlawn Farmstead, a vibrant, family-run farm in Pawlet

A farming legacy

Not long ago, thousands of dairy farms dotted Vermont’s landscape. Farm families could count on a steady income as long as they took good care of their herds and produced a lot of milk.

Among them were Tim and Dot Leach. Their beautiful dairy farm in Pawlet has been passed down through Tim’s family for seven generations. Dot remembers that farming was sometimes challenging, but in the early years, it was rarely a hardship.

“There was always plenty,” said Dot of her early experiences on the farm. “All we had to do was milk cows and be good farmers.”


Photo: Tim (far left) and Dot (far right) Leach with their son Seth and his wife Kate 

The challenge facing Vermont dairy farms

But in the mid-1980s, the price of milk took a dip and farmers found themselves unable to cover their costs.

“I’ll never forget the first day there wasn’t enough money in the checkbook to pay the grain bill,” said Dot. “I didn’t like that. I didn’t think it was what I’d signed up for.”

She and Tim regrouped, but it was an early sign that dairy was changing. The Leach family would need to change with it, as larger farms in other states gained market share and small farms like theirs were increasingly at the mercy of milk and feed prices.

Combatting challenges through farmland conservation

Tim and Dot conserved their land in 1997 and used some of the proceeds to reinvest in the farm. They went on to buy and conserve two more farms, and by 2012, they had protected about 860 acres with VLT.

“Conserving the land enhanced what was already, for Tim, a basic reverence for this place,” said Dot. “It solidified and refocused what he already felt.”

But the family was still reliant on a volatile national market to sell their milk. Commodity prices peaked in the late aughts, and the dip in 2008 was profound. Many Vermont dairy farms never recovered.

Fortunately for the Leach family, farmland conservation and a new generation were there to address the challenges of 21st century farming at Woodlawn Farmstead.

Innovation helps a farm thrive

As a child, Seth was Tim’s sidekick, showing calves and riding in silage trucks in a car seat and loving every minute of it. He went on to major in dairy science at UVM and returned to work on the farm. Soon, as Woodlawn’s future owner, he was looking for ways to move the business forward.

“I watched my mom and dad do a really good job running a business together while raising a family,” said Seth. “But it was increasingly clear that what had worked well for them was a model that was on its way out.”

Seth looked at the balance sheet and commodity feed forecasts. He decided to base the farm’s future on its primary asset: the conserved farmland of the Mettowee Valley.

“What we have here—in large part thanks to VLT—is this incredible resource of cropland, pasture, and woodlands that, if utilized in new ways, could provide the basis for a sustainable family farm, even in today’s economy,” he added. “We just needed to see this land as our starting point.”

Finding success in diversified farming

Seth pivoted Woodlawn’s crop work to include growing both grain and forage, while restoring 75 upland acres to productive pasture. He then took a leap and downsized the herd.

“I thought we could be more profitable milking fewer cows if we could feed them from our acreage,” said Seth. “It’s insulated us from a lot of what’s decimating other dairy farms our size, and given us the breathing room to pursue opportunities.”

The Woodlawn feed program now sustains a Holstein dairy herd and a Wagyu cross-breed beef herd. Seth has also developed relationships with Vermont artisan cheesemakers who value high-quality single-source milk.

“It’s so rewarding to see this land lead to great products that people around the country can enjoy,” Seth reflected. “This valley in Vermont is such a special place. It’s a pleasure to share it every way we can.”

Connecting to community, looking to the future

A little over a year ago, Seth and Tim took stock of the old milkhouse, where Tim’s father milked the herd until the 1970s, and saw another opportunity.

Now, the small building James Leach walked into each morning is a farm store, featuring cheese made with Woodlawn milk, as well as premium beef, produce, and maple syrup—all harvested from the surrounding land.

“There’s more connection here, now that people can pull into our driveway and visit the shop,” said Dot. “We’re always happy to share our farm with people who are really interested.”

Conservation has played a large role in the Leach family’s continued ability to make a living from the land and share it with others. But when it comes to farming, there are always new challenges and opportunities for innovation ahead.

Together, we're protecting Vermont from the ground up!

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