Featured Farmer

Featured Farmer: Wayne Fiske, Windfall Acres, Franklin 

Featured Farmer: Wayne Fiske, Windfall Acres, Franklin

Introduction

To get to know the FWA membership, we are highlighting an FWA member and their good work!  In this article, our featured farmer is Wayne Fiske, owner of Windfall Acres, a first generation farmer, FWA board member for ten years, new FSA board member, father of four, and grandfather of ten.  Wayne’s past community involvements include serving as an MVU board member for six years, Franklin select boards for 10 years, Franklin Road Commissioner for 5 years, and on the Friends of the Northern Lake and Franklin Watershed Committees.  He is also the recipient of the Franklin County NRCS District Outstanding Conservation Farmer and Vermont Dairy of Distinction awards.

Wayne and Nancy Fiske stand in front of corn that is ready to be chopped.

When I arrived at Windfall Acres, Wayne was working with his son Jon, to get the chopper ready for another round of corn harvesting.  His wife, Nancy, had just left to purchase a part that needed replacing.  We had just gotten a heavy deluge of rain the day before, but today was bright and sunny, and by mid-morning the corn was dry enough to harvest.

Wayne and Nancy bought the farm nearly 40 years ago at a time when the farm they were renting in St. Albans was slowly being sold to developers.  It was a big change, moving from an operation that could house 40 cows to one that could be a home to more than twice that many.  He now milks 135 cows.

Water Quality Efforts

When we walked into the barn, Wayne’s curious cows came over to investigate.

Nestled close to the start of the Rock River, Wayne notes, “we have to be careful of what we are doing.” But even before water quality became the hot topic it is today, Wayne had been managing his farm to reduce erosion.  Shortly after he bought the farm, he noticed that 2-3 foot gullies were forming in his corn land.  Recognizing that this loss of soil meant a loss in productivity, he changed his management practices to incorporate strip cropping, alternating stretches of corn and hay. If the water gathers speed and sediment in the sections of corn, the hay reduces the speed and catches the sediment, preventing runoff into local waterways.  A government program paid for five years of strip cropping and Wayne has kept it in his management system for over 30.  Only one year did he plant corn in the entire field and the effectiveness of the strip cropping was once again proven on this field.

This picture is a view of what strip cropping, cover cropping, and no-till look like.

Another water quality effort Wayne was quick to point out was the silage leachate (liquid seeping from stored feed) system built with the help of an NRCS engineer. He emphasized that the project was successful because she was willing to listen and together they built a system that worked for him.  Wayne, like most farmers in Vermont, also plants cover crops (plants grown during the off-season) that cover the ground, preventing erosion and soaking up nutrients like phosphorus.  And this year he put some of his corn in no-till, a management system that disturbs the soil as little as possible.  He had tried no-till a number of years ago, but it was still a relatively new practice, not much was known about how to do it right in Vermont, and his corn yielded poorly that year.  Now that no-till has become more prominent in Vermont, he was willing to try it again and is seeing good results.

 

Milk in Context

And Wayne really loves farming.  He went to school for heavy equipment and tried a year of construction work, all the while thinking about agriculture.  But the dairy business is a struggle these days.  According to the USDA, since 2015 the average cost to produce milk has been 3 dollars more than dairy farmers are getting paid to produce it.  Consumers may be surprised to hear that the cost they pay at the grocery store for a gallon of milk actually dropped by 19 cents between 2015 and 2017, in 2018, that price went down another 30 cents.  Great for us, not so great for farmers like Wayne.  It’s disheartening and discouraging to put all your time, effort, your life into creating a product you are proud of, that most people use in their everyday lives, and still wonder if it’s a business you would want to pass on to your grandchildren.  These are just a few reasons why it’s so important to support your local farmer.

Resilience

Nancy sits in the tractor, ready to chop the corn!

In these difficult times of low milk prices and increasingly expensive regulations, I ask him why he does it: the 12-16 hour work days, constantly jumping from one thing to the next, putting the cows first, and delaying holiday celebrations for farm work. Wayne said more than once in my short time with him that, he “wouldn’t trade it for anything…there’s not a better way, not a better place to raise a family.”

For Wayne, there is no non-work day, no weekend.  His Saturday is the same as his Friday, but he still appreciates the beauty of the sunset and the sunrise on his farm. He appreciates his family’s support, not only in understanding his work commitments, but as an integral part to the success of the farm in the early years with milk and odd chores.  Help in times of needs still continues to be given from his children, Heather, Sarah, Jon, Ashley, their spouses, and their children.  His wife, Nancy, got up each morning to get the kids ready, worked her nursing job, and came home afterward to help on the farm.  She took vacation days to help chop corn.  Now, partially-retired, she still chops the corn, an activity that still puts a smile on her face.  She says, “It’s the best part of the year.”

And for the Fiskes, there’s no end in sight.  To give the farm every opportunity to succeed, Wayne and Nancy hired a full time milker, are diversifying production by adding beef cows, and constructing a greenhouse for vegetable production.  It’s a new chapter in their lives and as Nancy said, “I’m all in.”  As Wayne noted, “I’m getting toward retirement and it’s hard to let go…giving up is not for me.”

I asked them both why they chose farming.  Their responses echo how a lot of farmers feel: it’s tangible, it challenging, it provides a sense of purpose, the ability to see your accomplishments every day, not seeing yourself do anything else. Wayne remarked, “It’s a way of life.  It’s in my blood I guess…wouldn’t have it any other way.”  At one point in my time with Wayne, he frankly said, “Proud of it, damn right.”  And he should be.

A view of the farm from Nancy and Wayne’s driveway.

 

 

 

Featured Farmer: Darlene Reynolds, Crosswinds Dairy & Daughters, Alburgh, VT

To get to know the Farmer’s Watershed Alliance (FWA) membership, we are highlighting a member farmer and their good work!  Our featured farmer in this article is Darlene Reynolds.  Darlene is the Chair of the Farmer’s Watershed Alliance, as well as one of the founding members.  She farms with her husband, Newton Reynolds, at Crosswinds Dairy & Daughters in Alburgh.  They have been farming in Alburgh together since 1994.  They currently run a Medium Farm Operation (MFO).

I arrived on a Thursday morning at 8:00 a.m. and the farm was bustling.  Darlene had been up working since 3:30 a.m.!  She and Newton greeted me with excitement and immediately began to show me around their dairy farm.  My tour started at the main cow barns with explanations of the different methods they use to take care of cow comfort and health.

 

 

All of the cows at Crosswinds Dairy wear a pedometer on their ankle to monitor their health and condition.  The pedometer gives the Reynolds insight into how the cows are feeling.  Typically, if a cow takes more steps than average it is a sign she is in heat.  Cows in heat will see one of two specialists to determine if they are ready for in-vitro fertilization (artificial insemination).  For cows that have trouble getting pregnant through in-vitro, the Reynolds have a bull on site.  If a cow is taking fewer steps, she might be sick.  This allows the Reynolds to get the cows the attention they need as soon as possible.  For the cows that are taking fewer steps and might be sick, the Reynolds call one of their veterinarians that routinely stop on their farm for a special visit.

 

The Reynolds also provide sand bedding for the cows to sleep in (pictured above in the stalls) that is a similar to beach sand!  Darlene chose this option because she wants her cows to be as comfortable as possible.

“If you notice, none of our cows have bruises on their legs.”  Darlene said, gesturing to some of the cows in the stalls.

Cows can get bruised legs if they sleep on hard surfaces, such as rubber or concrete beds.  That is why farmers choose alternative options like sand beds and even water beds!  Darlene and Newton like knowing their cows are comfortable.  The sand in the beds gets changed about every 8 days to ensure it stays fresh.

 

Next, we walked outside to see a newer addition to Crosswinds Dairy – the manure pit.  The manure from the cow barns gets pumped out of the cow stalls and shoots into the pit.  It is a mixture of manure, sand, and saw dust.  Almost all the manure is recycled to be used as fertilizer on the corn fields.  Any extra gets used by friends of theirs and fellow farmers.  This farm has a nutrient management plan that tells them how much manure to apply on the fields – it is based on federal, state, and local clean water laws that regulate how manure is applied on cropland, so nutrients are absorbed by crops, not groundwater.  The manure pit is lined with cement walls and well-tiled to ensure it is secure.  When it was being constructed, it would have been deep enough to bury the cement truck being used to build it!  It is about 14 feet deep, with a stadium design.  The Reynolds received government grant funds to build the manure pit on their farm because it meets standards set for water quality and environmental protection in the state.

 

After walking the property and chatting with Darlene, I was able to ask her some more specific questions:

 

What are you most proud of?

“I’m proud to be [farming] here for 25 years and have made it!”  Darlene said, reflecting on the past couple of decades that have left dairy farmers of Vermont facing new, difficult challenges.  Darlene and Newton take a lot of pride in being able to stay farming and provide for their family, while adapting to the changing regulations and fluctuating milk prices.  Darlene shared how amazing it feels to help her family make such great progress.  Her grandmother could not read or write, and her mother taught herself to do so.  Darlene has a degree in social work.  Of Darlene and Newton’s four daughters (pictured below), one is still in high school, one will soon graduate with a B.A., another is attending Vermont Technical College, and the oldest graduated from Vermont Tech.  “We are building new roads every step of the way,” Darlene said.

Darlene is also extremely proud of her employees.  Working in the barn so much herself, Darlene’s full-time employees start to feel like family to her.  She likes to take the time to get to know her staff and learn about their personal goals.  She wants to inspire her crew to be the best they can be.  Darlene thinks of her farm as a stepping stone for her employees.  She encourages them to pursue ways to improve themselves and leave better than they came.  Her support has motivated workers to get their GED and other certifications that help propel them in their careers.

Last, but certainly not least, Darlene is proud of the care the farm gives to their cows. “You do it every day.  Take care of the animals,” she said.  One of the most rewarding aspects for Darlene is knowing that she is doing her best to give her animals a happy and healthy life.  She said she loves to, “take an animal that’s not feeling well and turn her into a beautiful lady.”

 

What do you want the non-farming community to know?

“Farmers are out there to produce a nice, healthy product.”  Crosswinds Dairy takes pride and responsibility in the dairy products their cow’s milk contribute to.  That is one of the main reasons why Darlene is so in-touch with and concentrated on individual cow’s health.  She noted, with the growing population of the world, “We [farmers] have to [be prepared to] feed the people of the world.”

Darlene said the majority of Vermont farmers want to make water quality improvements on their farms, and have been successfully working towards that goal.  But for many farmers this means making changes in both agricultural practices and infrastructure.  There needs to be funding and education opportunities readily available to farmers for a difference to be made.  She added that the negativity she sees in the media surrounding agriculture is disheartening for farmers, “water quality is not a simple task.”  It takes time to learn new practices, invest in and build infrastructure, and become educated on conservation practices/techniques that work in Vermont, and farmers need support.

Some of the notable water quality improvements completed at Crosswinds Dairy & Daughters:

  • Cement driveways
  • Manure pits to increase storage capacity
  • Buffer strips to reduce potential runoff
  • Cover cropping all corn fields to increase soil health and reduce potential runoff
  • Creating and following a state-approved Nutrient Management Plan
  • UV water pump for cows drinking water
  • Monitoring slope of the land for any potential runoff developments

 

Why do you farm?

Darlene farms every day for her family.  While Newton grew up in a farming family, Darlene did not come from a farming background.  Before joining Newton as co-operator and co-manager of the farm, she was a social worker.  Part of her decision influencing her transition from social worker to farmer came after her first daughter was born.  She made a conscious decision to be with her on the farm as they began raising a family.  Farming provided Darlene with a lifestyle that allowed her to work toward her ultimate goals to be happy, provide for her family, and give her four daughters the opportunities in life that they deserve.

 

Featured Farmer: Tim Magnant, Bridgeman View Farm, Franklin

To get to know the FWA membership, we are highlighting a FWA member farmer and their good work!  In this article, our featured farmer is Tim Magnant, owner of Bridgeman View Farm, third generation farmer, FWA board member for five years, town meeting moderator for nine years, and school board member for 15 years.

When I walked into his milking parlor at 7:00 a.m., Tim and his hired-man, Ryan had already been with the cows for two hours.  The cows were calm as they walked into be milked and back out into the barn.  The only trouble came from a cow in heat who was too infatuated with the world to move.  She eventually got bored enough to follow Ryan back to the barn.

Tim stays busy milking his 103 cows.  He’s keen to try out new ideas if they make both environmental and economic sense.  For example, Tim plants cover crops.  Year after year, Tim notices that cover crops have improved soil health, increased soil fertility, and reduced erosion on his farm.  He has seen the good work cover crops do and has invested in purchasing his own seeder.  He also uses reduced tillage methods that increase soil biodiversity and decrease fossil fuel use.  He keeps up with UVM agricultural research and works with UVM Extension to implement practices that improve the quality of soil on his farm, “I’ve leaned on UVM for the whole process.  I’ve got most of my information from Extension’s  Northwest Crops and Soils Program.  They’ve been an integral part of my transition to no-till and manure injection,” said Tim.

Tim shared that one of his greatest concerns, and one that he shares with other farmers, is losing soil.   Aggressive tilling can break up the soil and leave it bare, ultimately making it more susceptible to erosion.  He says, “Injection and no-till are systems that work well for me right now.”  Injection refers to liquid manure applications that go into the ground, reducing risks of manure run-off and odor nuisances.

Tim is a member of the St. Albans Cooperative Creamery where the milk from his farm is processed. The co-op introduced Tim to a pilot program that encourages farmers to plant non-GMO crops in response to consumer demand for milk products produced from cows fed non-GMO feed.  In exchange for planting non-GMO crops, Ben and Jerry’s offers a premium to help defray any risks.

I asked Tim a number of questions.  Here are a few:

1. What’s one way to mark success on your farm?
Dairy farmers use a number of markers to track success and today, Tim focused in on herd health.  He was proud to say that his cows were in great condition, as evidenced by the good condition of his cow’s hooves.  Hoof health is a marker of herd health.   Tim says, “It’s the cow’s foundation and a good foundation leads to a healthy cow, like a good foundation for a house is necessary for a strong home.”

2. What is a point of pride for you to show other farmers?
Tim’s face lit up when he said, “the view.”  He told me to go over to the intersection and take a look at his farm.  The view from the intersection that day was gray and rainy, but it was clear that his answer was also a reflection of the pride he has in the integrity of his work.  Tim invests a lot of time on and off the field to take manage his land and animals the best that he can.  For example, on the fields, Tim uses no-till methods and plants cover crops.  He also took on the cumbersome task of turning a once a stony field that he turned into productive pasture by careful management and by picking lots of stones.  Off the field, Tim updates his Nutrient Management Plan (NMP) every year.  An NMP is a tool used to optimize nutrient allocations to maximize crop production and reduce potential environmental risks.

3. What do you want the non-farming community to know about farming and the FWA?
Tim expressed great concern about the discrepancy between the public image farmers have now and the reality of how they work on their land and with their animals.  Tim works hard to be a good steward of the land and provide his cows with quality food and care.  He also needs to be prepared to adapt to any unforeseen challenges on any given day, “Mother nature always provides us with sudden changes in circumstances.  From a wet spring delaying planting, to a dry summer effecting crop quality and quantity of feed, to machinery breaking down, to covering for a sick employee, the unpredictability of farming make it difficult to strictly follow any well-intentioned plan.  In addition, the dedication Tim has for Bridgeman View Farm, he is also deeply committed to his local community and farmer organizations.  As a Franklin County resident, Tim has served as the moderator for town meeting for nine years and been a long-time member of the school board for twice as long.  As member of the Farmer’s Watershed Alliance (FWA), he helps implement on-farm water quality projects and keeps himself and others informed of current changes in agricultural regulations.

4. And finally, why do you farm?
Tim’s answer was simple and straightforward.  He likes it, “I like the animals and being outside…I like my job because it provides lots of challenges.”  The best part of his day he says is milking, “These aren’t my pets, but they are my friends.”