The Vermont Land Trust is a nonprofit land conservation organization that works to permanently conserve farm, forest, and community lands statewide. According to the trust, they have worked to conserve 1,750 parcels of land covering 525,000 acres, or about 8% of the private, undeveloped land in the state. The conserved land includes more than 765 working farms, including, now, the Corse farm, run by fifth-generation farmers Leon and Roy Corse.
A conservation easement is a legal agreement between a landowner and a land trust or government agency that permanently limits uses of the land in order to protect its conservation values. While the Corses will still own the land and be responsible for paying taxes on it, they can also sell it or pass it on to heirs. Should the land be sold, the new owner would be limited in their usage of the land as the easement is “rolling basis,” meaning the easement does not end with purchase by a new owner. Corse says this will keep the land intact, preventing subdivision, as well as protecting the original farmhouse, built in the 1830s, from being sold separately.
Four years ago, Leon and his brother Roy separated the farm’s sugaring and dairy businesses. The land associated with each needed to be divided as well, with the dairy business requiring more valuable land. To buy out the land, Leon and his wife Linda turned to the Vermont Land Trust, and with a $500,000 grant from the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board (the land trust’s funding mechanism), the Corse farm’s land was split, along with the purchase of acreage bordering the farm.
“It was our initiative,” said Leon Corse. “We had talked about it for quite a few years and we were trying to figure out how to keep the farm in the family. It was a way to make sure the farm stayed a farm and to get it so we could still transfer it to our children or our grandchildren.”
The Corse farm is the largest of Whitingham’s three dairy farms still in operation, and Leon is the fifth generation to run the farm. He is assisted by Linda, their daughter Abbie, and several local part-time employees, including four teenagers who help while going to school. According to Corse, each generation has left its legacy, from his great-grandfather who “burned the mortgage,” to his grandfather who expanded the buildings, and his father who expanded acreage in the 1970s, a time when 20 to 30 local dairy farms fell to the wayside.
For Corse, organic farming is his historical contribution. “It has become harder to be a farmer, and we were much more comfortable preserving the farm because now it’s certified organic. I’m a fifth-generation farmer and I can see something that each of those generations did that made it feasible for the farm to continue. I’m pretty much convinced my legacy will be the transition to organic.”
”If you want to keep farming and forestry as economically viable, you have to have a land base,” said Joan Weir, southeast regional director of the Vermont Land Trust. “That’s the reason we believe maintaining open tracts that are not developed is in the best interest of Vermonters.
“People decide to leave farming for lots of different reasons. For those who continue to farm, selling development rights and placing easements on property are ways a farmer can continue to operate and see an influx of money. Many farmers also feel strongly about maintaining open land for the purpose of farming.”
Corse’s 57 milking cows produce about 300 gallons of milk each day. Organic Valley, the farm’s milk buyer, comes every other day to collect. Organic dairy has become a high-demand product in the business, and Organic Valley operates in 34 states nationwide, taking on new farms for supply based upon market demands for milk, keeping a sustainable milk price in the process. The company also rewards farms like the Corses’, based on the quality level of the milk.
In 2012, the average farm price per gallon of organic milk was approximately $2.67, with a July low of $2.51. When compared to the price per gallon of conventional milk at $1.53, with a low of $1.39 in July, the transition to organic dairy is a no-brainer.
When Leon and Roy were growing up there were 10 to 12 dairy farms in Whitingham. Now Leon’s farm is one of three. “We work some days in July from 3:30 am to 9 pm, but I maintain this isn’t a job, this is how I spend my time, and you have to look at it that way. Those who look at farming just as a job usually don’t last very long,” said Leon.