King Farm: Letting the Land Teach Us

group listening to pieter talk about invasive plants on the king farm on summer day

 By Pieter van Loon, VLT forester —

Nineteen years ago, I drove up the hill to King Farm, in Woodstock, for my first day of work at VLT. I went past the sprawling white farmhouse and parked next to the main barn, its shingle siding aged to the color of dark amber maple syrup. I was greeted by Arthur Clough, the farm’s caretaker. When I told him I was a forester, the conversation turned to the woods, hunting, and horse logging.

The fields at King Farm that day were much the same as they’d been in the early 1800s. The sheep and cattle operations had ceased, but Arthur’s impressive Percheron and Belgian draft horses were on a regular grazing rotation, which kept all the pastures open, healthy, and productive.

Francisca King Thomas, whose great-grandfather Jabez King purchased the 154-acre farm in 1807 for $3,333.33, gave the property to VLT in her will. It served as our headquarters from 1987 through 1990 and is still home base for some of us.

Owning King Farm and other properties around the state allows us to work on, and share solutions to, some of the challenges that come with land ownership and management. For VLT foresters, these places also offer an unparalleled opportunity to practice our craft. Many years of conserving and stewarding land have shown us that a conservation easement is only one step in a long process of keeping a property in great shape. When difficulties crop up, as they inevitably do, passionate owners need access to thoughtful management strategies, if they are to maintain the land’s many values.

That was never so clear to me as when I made a return trip to King Farm in 2008, a few years after I’d moved to our Brattleboro office. Arthur and his horses had moved on. The absence of grazing horses and an attentive manager meant the old farm road was nearly impenetrable, and pastures, trails, and forest edges were filling in with a nasty mix of honeysuckle, buckthorn, autumn olive, multiflora rose, and barberry—all non-native invasive plants.

Now, to be fair, invasives aren’t naturally bad plants. They come from other parts of the globe and now live in a place without the natural controls found back home. Invasives outcompete native plants, take over fields and forests, and alter the landscape. When they first arrived, we didn’t pay attention to their natural tendencies; that day they got my attention.

With every challenge comes an opportunity. This one offered us a chance to learn more about controlling invasives, something we’d been trying to help landowners do for a few years. We used everything from goats and elbow grease to brush hogs and herbicides. It finally felt like we were making real progress when, after about six years, the pastures were largely clear of invasives. Since then, native wildflowers and their pollinators have returned to the fields. The old farm road is passable again.

pasture restored from invasive plants on king farm summer day

Invasive plants aren’t King Farm’s only management challenge. Dense, dark hemlock stands provide winter habitat for deer, but the deer population has grown beyond sustainable levels and they have browsed virtually every seedling and sapling, from maple to spruce, leaving us a forest that is not regenerating.

Small streams cut their way through the woods and fields, requiring us to determine the best places for trail-crossings and the correct sizes for culverts. A seepage forest (a type of wooded wetland) is an obstacle for recreational trails and timber harvesting, but a wonder of wildlife habitat, providing water year-round to turkeys, coyotes, fisher, deer, and others. Vernal pools dot the landscape and host an ear-splitting wood frog and peeper chorus every spring. They also teach us about the out-sized habitat value they provide to their tiny inhabitants.

Land management is a long-term proposition; over the years we have continued to learn, practice, and share our findings with other landowners. Like the management of King Farm and other land we own, our approach to helping other landowners steward their conserved land is evolving. We will spend more time learning and helping landowners restore, heal, and strengthen land in the face of climate change and other challenges.

This May, we enjoyed sharing our King Farm experiences with visitors as they learned to identify invasives and heard about our successes and failures at controlling them. We encouraged folks to chip away little by little, as we’ve done, and to prioritize areas where progress can be seen, where hope and a little hard work will be rewarded.

Landowners have been asking how they can pitch in to help combat the destructive and invasive emerald ash borer (EAB) and protect our native ash trees, so we held a workshop in the Champlain Islands, visiting healthy ash trees and those with EAB, and discussing tools and ideas from the latest research.

Later this summer, we will share our learning on the links between climate and deer, and how they affect the health of the forest ecosystem and everyone who uses it. We will also work with partners to bring new resources to people who want to keep water clean, store carbon, and nurture old forests.

We also want to hear what would help you care for your land. Please write to Pieter van Loon. Conserving Vermont’s landscape is just the beginning— building its resilience in an uncertain future is our new challenge and opportunity.

For more on our upcoming events, see our events page.