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Stay the Course: Six Generations of Stewardship on the Corse Family Farm

by Amy Overstreet

Over the years, the Corse family developed a strong working relationship with the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and implemented soil and water conservation practices to ensure a healthy and sustainable future for their dairy operation and herd of 60 grass-fed dairy cows. In a part of the state not considered ideal for farming, they continue to defy the odds. Instead of working against the land, they work with it to mimic nature’s rhythmic cycles. Neither bedrock, nor wet, heavy soils deter them from their goal to farm sustainably.  The Corse family formula for success includes fierce determination, commitment to conservation, and a deep and loyal pledge to stay true to family heritage and tradition.

Carrying the Torch
Abbie Corse grew up on her family’s dairy farm in Whitingham, Vermont, with her parents Leon and Linda and two brothers, Henry and Caleb. The 34-year-old earned a degree in journalism at St. Michael’s in Burlington, Vermont, and went on to pursue a career in the arts. Had you asked Abbie upon college graduation if she would ever consider returning to the family farm, her answer would have been an emphatic, “no.”

It was a barn fire in 2007 at the Corse farm that marked her turning point. In a critical moment, the question became, “Should we continue and rebuild, or sell the family farm?” Leon and Linda had to consider all the options and then pose the reality to their children.  “If there is any thought in your mind that you might want to be here someday, we need to know, even if it isn’t going to be for ten years.”

Three-year-old Niko (foreground) and six-year-old Eli are the seventh generation of the Corse family to care for the land in Whitingham, Vermont.

At that point they were two years into their transition to organic. If they continued, the cows would need to be moved to a local farm and milked eighteen miles away in order to complete the transition. It was a logistical nightmare, but one Leon and Linda felt worth doing if there was a chance one of their children might eventually wish to continue their farming tradition. The switch to organic was incredibly important to Abbie and she couldn’t imagine a world where the family farm didn’t exist. So, she told her parents, ”Yes. At some point, I do want to come back.” It was a revelation that surprised everyone, especially Abbie.

Stewardship Is In Their Blood
The one person it didn’t surprise was Abbie’s then-boyfriend and now-husband, Dave. A year or so later, in spite of making the decision to relocate back to their hometown and living a few miles across town from the farm, Abbie still hadn’t made the jump to go back to farming. It was Dave who reminded her that the happiest he’d seen her was the summer they had met again, while she was filling in for her brother. Worried about finances and insurance, and other practical life concerns, Abbie couldn’t figure out how it was going to work to come back, but Dave assured her that they would figure it out. If this was where she was going to be happy, they would make it work.

Now, Abbie works alongside her parents, while raising their two sons, six-year-old Eli and three-year-old Niko. “You don’t realize, when you’re growing up here, how entwined you become in the rhythms of the seasons and the pull of the land,” says Abbie. “But once I had been away for long enough I came to realize that it was integral to my wellbeing and something I didn’t know how to be without.”

The Corse family first purchased this land in 1868, and Abbie is the sixth generation to carry on the family’s steadfast commitment to conservation. To this tune and that of wishing her father’s knowledge to be passed along to more than just her, she encouraged her parents to consider a mentoring program for beginning farmers. After a few years of thought and reviewing options, Leon decided that the best way to accomplish this was through the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship Program (an independent non-profit organization and a National Apprenticeship under the US Department of Labor-Employment and Training Administration). Leon became a Grazing Master and was the first to sign on as a Master in Vermont. This spring they welcomed the first Dairy Apprentice to be placed on a farm in Vermont. The beauty of this program is that it encourages pasture-based grazing practices as the most affordable and realistic option for beginning farmers interested in a sustainable way forward.

USDA-NRCS Soil Conservationist Sylvia Harris worked with the family recently and says Leon truly embraces conservation. “He has adopted practices like rotational grazing and grass-based farming because he is, at heart, a grass farmer, and understands the importance of keeping his pastures healthy so his animals will thrive.” With a degree in plant and soil science, Leon says that it took him ten years to realize he needed to farm the way this farm needed to be farmed. “You have to work in concert with the natural resources. If you work with Mother Nature, and not against it, life is much easier,” he says.

Leon’s wife Linda is also very active on the farm and serves as the youngstock manager and bookkeeper, and is the afternoon milker three or four times a week. She is an active conservation leader and serves as Chair of the Windham County Natural Resources Conservation District and treasurer of the Vermont Association of Conservation Districts. She was also the first female to serve on Windham County’s Farm Service Agency committee. But Linda had no farming experience prior to meeting Leon. They met thanks to Linda’s sister, who knew Leon through a square dancing club. When Leon heard that Linda was studying accounting in college, he remarked, “A farmer can always use a bookkeeper for a wife.” She says that soon after that, Leon called her for a date and seven months later, in 1980, they wed. “My only experience with a farm before I met Leon was when a friend in school let me learn by touch about electric fences!”

Seven generations of the Corse family—from left to right, Linda, Leon Abbie, Niko, and Eli.

Going Organic and Staying Committed to Conservation
The family hasn’t plowed in thirty years. As a result, they have seen a marked improvement in soil health and forage quality. They also eliminated the use of nitrogen fertilizer and have seen clover make a comeback. “On paper, this isn’t a viable farm,” Leon explains. The soil maps indicate that the soil is very wet and acidic, with lots of dense material and poor drainage. Harris says that there are many obstacles to farming with this type of soil, but that the family has worked hard to overcome those by building organic matter through intensive grazing management. In addition, a very short growing season and high winds add to the challenges.

They manage around ninety acres of permanent pasture for sixty cows and now ship their milk through CROPP Cooperative/Organic Valley. Vermont NRCS Grazing Specialist Kevin Kaija worked with the family to implement practices through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). One of these practices was animal trails and walkways. “Leon told me he had a problem with animal trails and I shuddered,” says Kaija. “But then he explained that the problem was when he got one, he wanted another.” These walkways provide improved access to forage, water, and shelter, ameliorate grazing efficiency, and help prevent erosion. Other practices implemented through EQIP include fencing to keep cows out of waterways, nutrient management, pasture planting, pipeline, watering facilities, and a prescribed grazing plan. They also installed a solar powered water pump system to get water to the pastures. Abbie says that the prescribed grazing system and associated practices is a huge benefit: “it is so much easier, systematically.” Their conservation plan is ensuring that nearby waterbodies, including wetlands, are protected and that their improved soil and forage quality are paying dividends through a healthy herd. “Cold, wet, glacial soils are rebellious when placed in an artificial agronomic setting,” said Kaija. “The more artificial one gets, or the more equipment and disturbance, the less profit in the long run.”

The Rewards – and Challenges – of Farming with Family
Abbie never envisioned she would be the one to carry on the family tradition. She admits that the transition has presented some tricky moments: “I’m taking over Dad’s role on the farm, but he’s in a partnership with mom, who was our primary caregiver when we were young (and still is, she jokes), so we had to come to a place where we all understood that I couldn’t be him and mom and raise my family at the same time,” she explains. Her husband Dave owns and operates his own business off the farm. “When you farm with your partner, there’s a shuffling that can happen,” says Abbie. “My situation doesn’t allow for that.” She says it was particularly challenging when the kids were very young. “We had to figure out ways that I could be involved on the farm, but still be the primary caregiver for my kids.”

Abbie admits that the challenges can sometimes be overwhelming as she balances the role of mother and farmer. But she is eternally grateful to the sacrifices her parents have made (and continue making) that enable her to be part of the farming operation. “Realistically, I need to find another me!” she jokes. “But we are figuring it out as we go.”

The shift from a family unit to a working entity was, at times, awkward. “We were raised with an open and honest atmosphere where we didn’t always agree, and that was okay,” says Abbie. And Linda says that she took an important role of counselor and moderator between Leon and Abbie. “I spent many hours talking to them both when we started this venture,” she says. Linda says that both she and Leon had to realize and appreciate that Abbie is raising kids in a totally different world than the one in which they raised kids. “We had to adjust our perspective. Things are different today, and we are learning that.” This attitude marks exactly how this family is able to manage their process. And according to both Leon and Abbie, Linda is the backbone and keeps them both going. “Without her, we would both be lost,” says Abbie of her mom.

Leon Corse holds an old photo of his ancestors who first purchased the farm in 1868.

Linda says having Abbie work with them keeps the heart and soul in their farm, and it’s obvious that her parents are proud of her. “My hopes and wishes for her as she takes on this role are that her love of this farm, her strong beliefs in organic living, and her even stronger belief in the value of family and our roots here, will sustain her through the challenges she faces,” says Linda. “The road she has chosen is not an easy one. She is juggling being primary caregiver to her sons, strong partner and wife to her self-employed husband, on-site support to parents who aren’t as young as they used to be and who want to keep farming, and a strong advocate for organic farming when she has time to spare.”

Forever Protected
In 2013, the family worked to secure a permanent conservation easement through the Vermont Land Trust. The Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, with matching funds from NRCS, funded the easement purchase. Today, the Corse family is caring for the land with the next generation in mind. Abbie says that she and her husband feel lucky to be raising their sons on the farm where she gained her appreciation for nature. “People are isolated today,” she says. “I grew up near all my grandparents, with the passing down of stories, and a real sense of family.” She says that growing up on a farm really shaped the way she sees the world. When Abbie was young, her father was interviewed by a reporter who asked if his sons would farm after him. To that he replied, “I have a daughter too, and my bet’s on her.” Little did he know that this remark would become reality.

The Future Is Bright
Abbie emphasizes the fact that her parents never pressured her or her brothers to take on farming as a career. She said they got “the talk” at age fifteen. That talk reassured them that their parents would support their chosen career paths, even if it was away from the farm. But Abbie realizes now that farming is in her blood. “I didn’t know how to think about life without this farm.” She says it’s very interesting to watch her boys grow up on the farm, with Eli taking a real interest in the animals and “loving to be in the middle of it,” while Niko is a little less enthusiastic. But as important as she feels it is for them to grow up here and have this as a base, there will be no expectation that they should come back.

“Dave and I firmly believe that they need to be afforded the same respect in that regard that I had; to be encouraged to go and explore the world and decide with full understanding if this is the place for them.” Though overall she is overwhelmed by the reality of what lies ahead as the farm transitions to her stewardship, she is excited to think about the possibilities. She is fascinated by the idea of keeping bees in tandem with cows. And, she says she would love write a book to share the story of her family and their relationship to this land. For now, their story is still being written as the family stays the course on their path of stewardship.

Amy Overstreet has been writing about stewardship for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service since 1994. A native of South Carolina, she is learning to enjoy the climate of the Northeast and enjoys living in Vermont with her husband and two dogs. She can be reached at amy.overstreet@vt.usda.gov.

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