Stacy Cibula Growing Conservation: A Story of Three Farms

  • Choiniere Farm, Highgate Center

    The Choiniere Family Farm in Highgate is a 650-acre, 4th-generation, organic grass-fed dairy operation that exemplifies how farms can—and do—contribute to biodiversity and live in harmony with nature. In fact, the Choinieres were awarded the 2021 New England Leopold Conservation Award in recognition of their exceptional land ethic. [Watch this video to hear Guy Choiniere talk about the operation and how he farms].

    Their stated vision is the driver behind everything they do: “Working in harmony with nature, our practices maximize production, animal health, and boost nutrient levels in our products. All while sequestering carbon, building soil organic matter, supporting soil life, and reducing soil erosion and nutrient runoff.”

    However, Guy is the first to admit that everything they do is a work in progress, and they continue to refine their practices based on the latest science and what they observe on the ground. What is clear, though, is how much Guy and his wife, Beth, have transformed the farm since they took it over from Guy’s parents in the 1990s, after the farm was conserved by Vermont Land Trust (VLT) and the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board (VHCB) in 1997. The farm had a number of environmental issues at the time; the soils were depleted and land was eroding into the nearby waterways. They went to work immediately,  implementing new sustainable farming practices, with support from the Natural Resources  Conservation Service, to correct these issues and turn the farm into the healthy and resilient mix of fields, forests and streams it is today.

    To stabilize the banks and prevent further erosion, the Choinieres planted 5,000 trees along the Rock River. This helps improve the water quality of this impaired waterway and the impaired waterbody into which it flows – the Missisquoi Bay. The family also conveyed a 51-acre river corridor easement, held by the Vermont Land Trust, with the Vermont  Department of Environmental Conservation as a third party beneficiary, which ensures that the river can meander naturally and spread into its natural floodplain when floodwaters rise.

    To keep useful nutrients in their soils and out of the river, they stopped using a conventional liquid manure storage and instead installed an innovative composting and bedding system.  During the winter, the cows are fed hay in large hoop barns, where they can winter in the comfort of a more pasture-like setting. Excess hay provides bedding and catches manure before it gets trodden down into compost. When the cows are put back on pasture in late spring, pigs are brought into the barn to root around and expedite the composting process before the resulting fertilizer is spread on fields.

    Guy has attached a sign displaying a pyramid to the side of his barn, the base of which is “soil health.” On top of that is crop health, and then animal health and human health are perched on the top of the pyramid. Soil health, as far as Guy is concerned, is the foundation for the health of everything else.



    Defreest Farm, Waitsfield

    In January 2024, fourth generation dairy farmer Dave Defreest worked with VLT and VHCB to conserve his 70 acres along the  Mad River in Waitsfield for farming, flood resilience, and recreation. His decision reflects what is becoming the new normal with farmland conservation projects in  Vermont: the inclusion of special protections to make farmlands more biodiversity friendly, restore the health of soils and watersheds, and make communities more flood resilient. To make these changes viable for farms, that are often already operating so close to the margin, farmers can draw from a variety of funding sources set up to fairly compensate landowners for these kinds of conservation investments. In addition to the conservation easement, funded by the Natural Resource Conservation Service and VHCB, on the entire property, Dave set up a 39- acre river corridor easement held by VLT, with the Vermont Department of Environmental  Conservation holding a third party interest, to ensure that the Mad River, which flows for over  10,000 feet along the western boundary of the farm, will be able to flow more freely and expand into its natural floodplain when waters rise.  

    Dave also worked with the United States Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve  Enhancement Program to retire more than eight acres of agricultural land close to the river.  This former cropland is being planted with native trees and shrubs to improve water quality,  flood resilience, and wildlife habitat. Next, Dave wants to remove invasive species and keep restoring his land, in partnership with VLT and like-minded partners, to enhance the land’s ecological functions in balance with its sustainable agricultural practices.  

    In addition to the significant natural resources that are protected here, this project ensures continued recreational access for the public along a trail, which runs for over a mile along the river. It is a favorite spot for local dog walkers and anglers. This path is maintained by the Mad  River Path, a local nonprofit organization that stewards trails in the Mad River Valley.


    Monument Farms, Weybridge

    Monument Farms is a fourth-generation dairy operation in Weybridge that has been in the James family since 1930. They manage over 2,800 acres of prime farmland in the Champlain Valley, including over a 1,000 acres of conserved land. They are the only large-scale milk processor in Vermont that sells milk exclusively from their own herd. In 2022, they worked with VLT and VHCB to conserve 182  acres of important cropland,  which is also important for watershed health and wildlife habitat. The conservation of those acres was added to an  expansive block of 4,000 acres of farmland and forestland in Weybridge and Addison that  provides critical habitat connectivity to a variety of species, including white-tailed deer,  bobcats, and bears, giving them more room to move in response to climate change. (This was  the family’s second conservation project. Back in 2020 the Jameses conserved another nearby  property in Weybridge.)

    Part of the farm straddles over a mile of the Lemon Fair River, just before it meets Otter Creek.  A large wetland complex, covering approximately 47 acres, spans both sides of the river and is permanently protected from future development. Monument Farms added to this by retiring their low-lying, flood-prone croplands so the river has more room to spread out when flows are high, and helps prevent working farm soils from washing away, which also improves water quality downstream. There’s a promising sign that this is all working: the giant floater mussel, a state-recognized threatened species that relies on clean water, is found in nearby Otter Creek.

    The Jameses also protected their 27 acres of rare “Sand-Over-Clay” forest (sand over clay soils come from the glacial lakes and seas that once covered this region). Special protections in the conservation easement ensure that this forest will retain its ecological integrity and natural processes; agricultural and forestry uses are not allowed within this special protection zone.  

    Wildlife and natural resources on the farm are also helped by the James’ commitment to sustainable farming practices. They follow a comprehensive nutrient management plan and strive to exceed the state’s regulations regarding water quality. Farm Manager Peter James sits on the board of the Champlain Valley Farmers’ Coalition, an organization focused on working with farmers to improve agricultural water quality. To maintain soil health and prevent erosion,  they regularly rotate crops, practice no-till methods, and use a dragline manure system to reduce soil compaction and runoff.  

    The Jameses pride themselves on their practices to reduce their carbon footprint, the highlight  of which is a biodigester that converts manure into methane that produces electricity which is  then sold back to the grid and used to offset electricity costs on the farm. The digested manure is then separated into liquids and solids. The solids are used as bedding for their herd and the liquid is used as fertilizer, helping to create a closed loop of inputs and outputs on the farm.  

    Their connection to the land and wildlife runs deeps; Peter shared that he “would rather see wildlife running around than try to manufacture cropland where it should not  be.” (https://vlt.org/featured-properties/monument-farms/)


    About the Author

    Stacy Cibula is the Agricultural Program Director at Vermont Housing and Conservation Board staff, where she has been working since 2020. She holds a bachelor’s degree in urban planning from Michigan State University and a master’s in public administration from the University of Maine. In 2018, she was recognized by her community as an Extraordinary Woman for her achievements related to farmland conservation in the Monadnock Region of New Hampshire. During her time off, she enjoys exploring Vermont’s back roads from her bicycle.