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Harrison’s Homegrown focuses on healthy soil

4 min read / December 13, 2022

Dairy farmers journey to Vermont and strive for sustainability

If you buy organic, there’s a good chance you’ve tried milk from the herd at Harrison’s Homegrown. Situated on 900 acres in Addison, the dairy delivers to the national milk cooperative, Organic Valley. Farmers Melanie and Pat Harrison are now working with us to test soil-friendly practices so that other farmers can transition to environment-friendly farming more effectively and affordably.

Moving a farm from Pennsylvania to Vermont

Melanie and Pat rented farmland in Pennsylvania for years. In 2008, when they were ready to buy a farm of their own, they packed up their cows and headed to Vermont.

“We wanted to be in a place where there was a thriving agriculture community and not be out in the middle of nowhere,” explains Melanie. They also found the land here to be more affordable.

Melanie and Pat started Harrisons Homegrown with 85 acres in Addison, but soon began buying neighboring land, most of which they conserved with VLT. Today, the Harrisons own 450 conserved acres and rent additional fields to support their thriving dairy.

Healthy pastures for healthy cows

Shortly after moving, the Harrisons began the transition to organic for more stable milk prices. They also breed the whole herd to Jerseys. The cows are smaller, more curious, and more willing to “hunt” grass. Their milk is higher in butter fat and protein, and it fetches a higher price.

By 2012, Harrisons Homegrown was certified organic. This gave Pat and Melanie the confidence to make investments. These included barn renovations, phasing out low-yield grasses, a nurse-cow program for happy, healthy calves, and a more nutritional grazing plan.

Melanie and Pat use water lines and portable fencing to focus the grazing in one area before moving their cows another area. The grass becomes lush and healthy because it can fully regrow before it is foraged again.

The practice, called intensive rotational grazing, can provide more nutrients to the cows and is more sustainable because it requires less seed, feed, and fertilizer.

“Rotational grazing [adds] a whole other layer of complexity, but the cows’ health is better when they get outside,” said Melanie. “And it does lower costs over time.”

Long-term farm investments in light of climate change

Investing in a new farm system – even one that saves money in the long run – is costly. It can take time to establish a setup that supports healthy soil and that also delivers a positive return.

As Melanie says, “you still have to pay for a long-term investment whether the cows are able to graze or not.”

Meanwhile, farmers face more unpredictability due to climate change. Extreme weather, including more severe droughts and floods, makes it harder to establish and maintain healthy pastures. Healthy soil can hold more water and is less prone to erosion.

“We think about climate change every day,” Melanie adds. “You can’t plan on things being a certain way for any length of time. You’ve got to be ready to adapt and change as it comes.”

Five-year study will help farmers across Vermont improve soil health

The Harrisons are always looking to improve. Now the farm is taking part in a five-year soil-health study looking at the costs and benefits of soil-friendly farm practices in Vermont.

The project is a partnership between VLT, the University of Vermont, and Bio-Logical Capital. It is funded by the Conservation Innovation Grants program at USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

As participants, the Harrisons got some help with reinforcing problematic paths between their pastures, adding fencing, and upgrading water lines for the cows. They will finish improvements by 2023 and will continue the practices, including rotational grazing, for four years.

Scientists will measure how the improvements are affecting the soil against baseline data collected in 2021-22. The goal is to uncover which practices are worth the investment.

“Pat calls me a soil nerd,” Melanie admits. “I find it really fascinating. Through this study, there’s a potential to learn more and manage soil better. There’s a financial benefit if we can do a better job of managing it, but also to be able to understand what’s going on better.”


Photos by Caleb Kenna

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