Farm bill passes U.S. Senate

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Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

copyright the Chronicle February 5, 2014

by Bethany M. Dunbar

The federal farm bill passed the U.S. Senate Tuesday, 68 to 32.

The bill includes a key provision for dairy farmers, called a Margin Protection Plan.  Similar to crop insurance, it allows farmers to buy into a plan that will protect their prices should the federal milk price normally paid to them drop, or should their production costs rise dramatically.

A statement from U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy says the hoped-for supply management plan that was in the Senate version of the bill was stripped out.  But as a member of the conference committee, Senator Leahy was able to make a change that will help smaller dairy farmers more than large corporate farms.

Small farms will be able to enroll at lower rates and get higher protection, the statement explains.

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In Orleans: Rare magnolia tree succumbs to wind and bugs

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This rare magnolia tree, which has been thriving in Orleans for about 60 years, was damaged by last week’s heavy winds and rain.  The tree, which has been studied for years by UVM horticulturists, has been infested by parasites and will have to be taken down, said current owner Kimberly Campbell.  Photo courtesy of Kimberly Campbell

This rare magnolia tree, which has been thriving in Orleans for about 60 years, was damaged by last week’s heavy winds and rain. The tree, which has been studied for years by UVM horticulturists, has been infested by parasites and will have to be taken down, said current owner Kimberly Campbell. Photo courtesy of Kimberly Campbell

by Tena Starr

ORLEANS — The heavy rain and wind that hit northern Vermont last week had an unusual victim:  the magnolia tree that has, for some reason, been thriving in Orleans for nearly 60 years.

Magnolias don’t generally overwinter in far northern Vermont — they barely manage in southern Vermont.  But apparently someone forgot to tell this particular tree it was not supposed to survive an Orleans County winter.

Kimberly Campbell said the storm took down a section of the tree, the part her family called the rope swing branch.

“I heard this big cracking sound and turned just in time to see the tree go down,” Ms. Campbell said.  “It had ripped the power box from the side of the house.”

She’d initially hoped the rest of the tree would survive, but the crew who cut up the felled section noticed it was infected with parasites, weakening the whole thing.

Sadly, the rest of it will have to be cut as well, Ms. Campbell said.  If it fell, it would take out the power lines for the neighborhood, she said.

Ms. Campbell, who bought the house where the magnolia is in 2007, said she’s learned more about it in the past week than she ever knew before.  People have dropped by to tell her stories about the tree, which UVM’s horticulture department has been following for years.   “They’re going to try as hard as they can to grow one,” she said.

The species is Magnolia acuminata, or in common language, a cucumber tree magnolia.

It’s quite rare, especially this far north, said Mark Starrett, an associate professor at the University of Vermont.  It’s one of the parents of several modern types of yellow-flowered magnolias that have been hybridized and are now widely available, he said.

Its rarity is due to the fact that when it was planted in Orleans the climate was colder, with more severe winters, and it was thus less likely to survive, Mr. Starrett said.  Also, it’s not a particularly showy tree, and he suspects that 60 years ago Vermonters weren’t all that prone to trying to grow exotic plants.

He said he’ll try to propagate plants from seeds from the Orleans tree.  Any seedlings that result will be distributed around Vermont, he said.   Some will stay on the UVM campus and others will be distributed through the Vermont Hardy Plant Club.

Norman Pellett came to UVM in 1967 as Extension ornamental horticulturist, and made frequent trips around the state advising nurseries and greenhouse operators, landscape architects and technical school program teachers.  Through that work, he ran across a variety of uncommon plants in Vermont, he said.

The only other big cucumber magnolia he’s seen is in Rutland, although others might exist, he said.

Irene Lanoue, who still lives in Orleans, said her late husband, Rouville, planted the tree two or three years after they got married in 1953.

“He sent away to the Michigan Bulb Company for it,” she said.  “I don’t know how he picked it out.  I can’t remember how he came to order that tree.”

In any event, once it started growing, he was curious about what it was, Mrs. Lanoue said.  “He planted it and it started growing.  It wasn’t supposed to.”

But the Lanoues didn’t learn that until later, when her husband contacted UVM to ask about what he had.  “He wrote to the Extension Service at UVM and they sent up a man to look at it.”

Steve Matthews was a paperboy for the Lanoues at the time the tree was planted.  “I knew it was a magnolia tree, and it wasn’t supposed to be growing here,” he said.

He’s kept up with the tree throughout its lifetime and on Sunday picked up some of its pods from the brush that remained on the ground, and sent them to Mr. Starrett.

“We’ll see if we can get some seeds from it that might be able to germinate,” he said.

He said he doesn’t think that’s likely with the seeds he picked up, but he hopes something will work out so a species of the exceptionally cold hardy Orleans magnolia can be propagated.

Ms. Campbell said the tree wasn’t showy like the magnolias in the South.  It had huge leaves, she said.

“They looked like great big elephant ears.  They’re huge and sprouted at the end of the leaf you see kind of these longish pink things.”

It had a lemon peppery smell, Ms. Campbell said.  “It’s been a great shade tree,” she said.

Mrs. Lanoue said she regularly walks by her old home and checks on the magnolia.  It will be sad when it’s gone, she said.

contact Tena Starr at tenas@bartonchronicle.com

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Sterling College hosts Governor’s Institute on Farms, Food and Your Future

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High school student Toby Marx-Dunn of Jericho attempts to plow a straight furrow under the guidance of Sterling College draft horse manager Rick Thomas (at left), while Sterling students Lee Droste (at right) and Dave Martorana (immediately to the right of Mr. Marx-Dunn) help with the animals.  Sterling hosted the first Governor’s Institute on Farms, Food, and Your Future.  Photos by Bethany M. Dunbar

High school student Toby Marx-Dunn of Jericho attempts to plow a straight furrow under the guidance of Sterling College draft horse manager Rick Thomas (at left), while Sterling students Lee Droste (at right) and Dave Martorana (immediately to the right of Mr. Marx-Dunn) help with the animals. Sterling hosted the first Governor’s Institute on Farms, Food, and Your Future. Photos by Bethany M. Dunbar

by Bethany M. Dunbar

CRAFTSBURY COMMON — Toby Marx-Dunn, a high school student from Jericho, was listening to National Public Radio one day, and it got him thinking about the food he eats.  He decided he wanted to know more and get better, healthier food.  This impulse led him to sign up for a brand new summer Governor’s Institutes of Vermont — one called Farms, Food and Your Future.

Last week the impulse left him standing behind the back ends of a pair of large, patient workhorses in a farm field at Sterling College.

Sterling was one of the hosts of this year’s institute, the first one to focus on these subjects.  Mr. Marx-Dunn seems to be not alone in his impulse, judging by admissions numbers at Sterling.  Last year the college — which teaches sustainable agriculture and food-related topics — had about 90 students.  This fall the doors will open to a full class of 110.  Tim Patterson, director of admissions and financial aid, said the dorms are full.

The Governor’s institutes are residencies for high school students with accelerated learning on college campuses in specific subject areas.  This year’s institutes included ones on the arts, engineering, information technology, mathematics, and Asian cultures.

On Wednesday, July 31, Toby Marx-Dunn picked up the handles of a plow behind two big horses named Daisy and Rexi.  His new job was to try to make the thing go straight.

“It doesn’t go straight by itself,” he reported shortly after plowing his very first two furrows.  Asked if it was fun, he said vehemently, “No.”

Not fun, Mr. Marx-Dunn explained, because it’s much harder than it looks.

Even so, Mr. Marx-Dunn and a dozen other high schoolers did get the basics on how fields are plowed, and why good soil is important, and how Sterling plans to enrich the soil on the particular field they were plowing that day.  Draft horse manager Rick Thomas explained that plows can only dig so deep, and the soil was hard below the furrow.  In order to loosen it up and add some organic matter to the hardpan, they would plant daikon radishes as a cover crop.  These radishes grow fast and have deep roots.

High school students at the Governor’s Institute on Farms, Food and Your Future walk through the turkey pen to see the pasture at Sterling College in Craftsbury.

High school students at the Governor’s Institute on Farms, Food and Your Future walk through the turkey pen to see the pasture at Sterling College in Craftsbury.

Also that day, the students met a flock of young turkeys destined for a flock of Thanksgiving tables, and they learned about the difficulty of growing turkeys to the right weight, why pasture is good for them and why they are good for pasture, and a little about heritage breeds.

Sterling raises 1,000 birds a year on its farm.  The young turkey poults the students saw that day had already grown 12 pounds in a month and a half, so the farm manager explained they would have to be processed and frozen well before Thanksgiving, so they would not be too big to fit into a regular oven.

In between these outdoor adventures, the students heard about how the cafeteria works at Sterling College.

The college grows 20 percent of its own food, and 44 percent of the food in the cafeteria is grown on local farms.  Faculty, staff, and students all eat together and each helps with the work of putting that food onto the tables.

Anne Obelnicki, director of food systems, explained to the group that last year the college grew 760 pounds of rutabagas and because of the skill of cooks at Sterling, no one got sick of rutabaga.  She said they used it in all sorts of unusual ways, even mashed as an ingredient in cake.

“I think that deliciousness is part of sustainability,” she said.  If the food doesn’t taste good, people won’t keep eating it.

She said another part of sustainability is making the food affordable.

“The food at Sterling doesn’t cost any more than at any other college,” she said.  She said people are always saying local food is more expensive, but it doesn’t have to be.  Sterling has great cooks, she said, who can make a delicious meal out of rice and beans, for example.

Ms. Obelnicki passed out free samples of salami made at Sterling, which she explained is made with raw meat and bacteria so it will ferment.

At Sterling, she said, “We don’t just eat to eat.  We eat because we’re trying to live our education here.”

Ms. Obelnicki said students at some colleges have started a “real food” challenge.  They go into their college cafeterias and start asking questions about how much of the food is local, organic, and fair trade.  If a series of questions can be answered in the affirmative, she said, the food can be called real.  The students who came up with the idea set a goal, she said, “Let’s get real food into our college — 20 percent by 2020.”

Under these guidelines, Sterling’s cafeteria has about 70 percent real food, one of the highest percentages in the country.

Jonathan Kaplan, lead faculty for the Governor’s Institute on Farms, Food, and Your Future, teaches biology and history at Lyndon State College.  He is a former state advisor for the Future Farmers of America (FFA).  Lyndon State is also a participant in the real food challenge.

After hearing Ms. Obelnicki’s discussion of Sterling’s food system, he told the students they might want to take that real food challenge back home with them.

“There’s nothing stopping you from going back to your high school and making this happen,” he said.

Christian Feuerstein, director of communications for Sterling, noted the college now offers minors in draft horse management, climate justice, and sustainable food systems.

contact Bethany M. Dunbar at bethany@bartonchronicle.com

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Sodden skies torment farmers

A horse grazes on what’s left of its pasture, along Elm Street in Barton, just as Tuesday’s downpour subsides.  Photo by Chris Braithwaite

A horse grazes on what’s left of its pasture, along Elm Street in Barton, just as Tuesday’s downpour subsides. Photo by Chris Braithwaite

by Tena Starr

“It’s kind of a nightmare.”

That’s how Brandon Tanner of Glover described this summer’s weather and his own efforts to put in hay for his dairy cows.

“It’s one of those things where you’re forced this year to get what you can get when you can get it,” Mr. Tanner said.  “There’s no planning, no helping other people.  It’s sort of you do yours when you can do it the best you can.”

He said he managed to get his first cut, as usual, back in May.

“Soon as I got done haying we had a snowstorm,” he said.

Mr. Tanner isn’t alone in his frustration with this year’s odd weather and, lately, relentless rain.

Farmers, strawberry growers, boaters, anyone who enjoys a day at the beach — they’re all likely to say “Enough already.”

Although Mother Nature isn’t.

There’s some hope that by the end of the week the stubborn weather pattern will break down, permitting a couple of consecutive rain-free days by the weekend, said meteorologist Lawrence Hayes at the Fairbanks Museum in St. Johnsbury.

The problem, he said, is that Vermont has been stuck in between two upper level features involving a serpentine jet stream that moves northward.  The sources of its air is the Gulf of Mexico and the southeast coast, hence the subtropical air in Vermont.

Also, “the air has been so copiously humid (dew points around 70) that any shower that forms is risk of generating at least moderately heavy rain,” Mr. Hayes said by e-mail.

The result of all this has been a lot more rain than usual, as well as more rainy days, in both May and June.

According to the Chronicle’s weather records (which record weather in West Glover) precipitation in May was 7.88 inches — almost double the long-term average of 4.03 inches, and exceeded only in May of 2011.  It also snowed in May.  The Chronicle’s weather records go back to 1987.

In June, there was some rain in West Glover on 21 out of 30 days.  It added up to 6.23 inches, well above the long-term average for June of 4.14 inches.

In St. Johnsbury the 14-day stretch of measurable rainfall from June 23 to July 7 was the longest consecutive day stretch there during the warm weather season, meaning May through October, Mr. Hayes said.

For most, the soggy weather is simply an annoyance.  But for some, it has economic consequences, as well.

Peak View Berry Farm in Orleans doesn’t have any strawberries at all this year, although it’s not due to the wet weather that’s plagued so many strawberry growers in Vermont.

“We lost our strawberries in January when the thaw came and then it got so cold in February,” said Michelle Bonin, who owns the farm with her husband, Marcel.  “The thaw literally pushed all of our plants out of the ground.  That was something we’d never seen.”

The Bonins have since put in 13,000 new plants and are hoping to have a crop from the ever bearers in October.  But even tending the new plants is tough with the wet weather.

“A few days ago I wanted to cultivate my strawberries and couldn’t because of the mud,” Marcel Bonin said.  “The ground is saturated.  I’d have a mess.”

In Westfield, Gerard Croizet at Berry Creek Farm said he’s lost 20 to 25 percent of his strawberries to the weather, mold in particular.

The berries are big, although softer than usual, and the yield has been good, he said.

It could be a lot worse, though, Mr. Croizet said.  “I know some people lost most everything.”

“I’m not depressed,” he added.

Both the Croizets and the Bonins grow vegetables as well as berries, and say that weeding is a big problem with their fields so wet.  And while some crops are doing well in the subtropical weather, others are struggling.

Mr. Croizet said he’s worried about disease at this point, particularly late blight, which might make an early appearance due to the moisture.

“I don’t remember nonstop rain like that,” he said.

“I think it’s extraordinary, I think it’s quite dramatic for the whole area,” Mr. Bonin said about the unusually long stretch of rainy days.

He said his Orleans farm stand is usually open by the last week in June.  It’s not this year.  “I don’t have anything to put in it,” Mr. Bonin said.

For dairy farmers, the persistent rain not only makes it hard to make any hay, but also the quality suffers.

Most farmers make round bales these days — those plastic wrapped bales that resemble giant marshmallows.  It takes a comparatively short stretch of dry weather to make a round bale as opposed to a square one, but this summer has daunted even those attempts.

It takes at least a couple of days to “put up something that’s not going to be an ice cube,” Mr. Tanner said.

If the hay is too wet, it will be frozen solid come winter when the farmer wants to feed it to his animals, he said.

That’s one problem.  Another is that some fields are so wet farmers can’t even get on them to hay.

And yet another is that grass, especially orchard grass, declines in quality — meaning it loses protein — once it begins to head out.

“You can always supplement grains in order to make up what you lost on your grass, but especially the past three years, that’s been sort of unaffordable,” Mr. Tanner said.

He said that last year, a classic summer, he squeezed in five cuts of hay.  “This year, so far, I’ve done one.  I’ll be lucky if I get three.”

Evan Perron isn’t overly worried about the weather, even though he’s one of the few who still makes square bales.

“The hay I cut will be just fine, for horses, ponies, sheep, it will still be 10-12 percent…it’s nothing you could turn into milk and survive,” he said.

Mr. Perron said that when he was a kid it was common to wait until after July 4 to start haying.  “There was a time we might not have thought much of it,” he said about the long rainy stretch.  “We’d just be a week late.”

But now that people try to get 20 or 30 percent protein from their hay, “it’s a pretty big deal,” he said.

“I don’t think I ever recall such a soggy streak as this one.”

contact Tena Starr at tenas@bartonchronicle.com

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Dunbar was uniquely qualified to write Kingdom’s Bounty

Reviewed by David K. Rodgers

Kingdom’s Bounty “A sustainable, eclectic, edible guide to Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom,” by Bethany Dunbar, published by Umbrage Editions 2012, soft cover, 128 pages. $25.

Bethany Dunbar of West Glover is uniquely qualified in many significant ways to have written and illustrated her new book, Kingdom’s Bounty, “A sustainable, eclectic, edible guide to Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom.”  She was raised and went to school in Craftsbury, graduated from Lyndon State College, worked with her ex- husband as a dairy farmer for 11 years, was a reported for the Hardwick Gazette, and then for the last 25 years has been a reporter and co-editor at the Barton Chronicle.  In addition she gives a weekly radio interview about local news stories on WDEV, is a regular contributor to New England Country Folks and is past president of Vermont Press Association, still serving on its board of directors.  A fine photographer, she knows the Northeast Kingdom in great depth and has her finger on the pulse of new trends there, especially those involving food.

Kingdom’s Bounty, just published by Umbrage Editions, goes beyond a simple factual guide to being a real celebration of the people, community and landscapes of the area.  As one of the people profiled in this book (Mrs. Everts of Too Little Far,), susintly summed it up about locally grown food, “It has a story and a name behind it.  It has a person.  It has a place.”  Ms. Dunbar uses her journalistic skills to bring out  the human aide of numerous hardworking entrepreneurs and artisans who are fulfilling their personal vision of a better life and an excellent product, all of whom have put the Northeast Kingdom on the national map as being in the forefront of the local, organic, healthy food movement.  These are people who really care about what they do, who are solidly connected to the land and the cycles of the animal and plant life around them, living in a more biological rhythm as opposed to the omnipresent mechanical (and now electronic) rhythms of our culture.

This guide is generously illustrated and very attractively printed, predominately with Ms. Dunbar’s own well composed evocative photographs, which are always empathetic to the subjects.  The text has 32 profiles and over 200 listings, carefully organized alphabetically by the name of the enterprise and the town where they are located, with helpful cross references, suggested tours, and a good map.  What makes this guide special is that it combines a lot of useful information with an engaging personal narrative.  It is comprehensive in that it includes more than the edible, with entries on museums, inns, bookstores, county fairs and other activities as well as interesting side features on types of cows, barns, and not to mention the history and geology of the region.

Altogether Kingdom’s Bounty is a labor of love for the beauty of the Northeast Kingdom and the richness of its people.  We should carry a copy of it in our car to encourage exploring this amazing place we call home.

Bethany M. Dunbar will share a booth at the Orleans County Fair in Barton with the Chronicle.  The fair is August 15 through 19.  To order a copy of Kingdom’s Bounty at a special discount for Chronicle readers ($20 plus $9 shipping and handling), click here. Kingdom’s Bounty is also available for $25 plus tax at the Galaxy Bookshop in Hardwick, the Woodknot Bookshop in Newport, the gift shop at the Old Stone House Museum in Brownington, the MAC Center for the Arts in Newport, Barnes and Noble in Burlington, Hudson News at the Burlington International Airport, and the Craftsbury General Store.

 

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