Wildlife management area created as working dairy farm is saved

Bill and Ursula Johnson sold their landmark dairy farm in Canaan, Vermont, creating a wildlife area at the same time. Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

by Bethany M. Dunbar

copyright the Chronicle 8-8-2012

CANAAN — A landmark working dairy farm here has been sold to a young farm family while a new wildlife area was created, protecting six miles of frontage on the Connecticut River and ensuring public access for fishermen, campers, and bird watchers.

It was a complicated deal and one lots of people wanted to celebrate at the Bill and Ursula Johnson farm on Friday, August 3.  About 70 people attended, including the heads of several state agencies, plus local legislators — Senator Bob Starr and Representative Bob Lewis.

Secretary Deb Markowitz of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources said the Johnsons’ sense of civic duty in wanting to make the whole thing happen was laudable.

“This is just one more example of what it means to be a Vermonter,” she said.

Secretary Chuck Ross of the Agency of Agriculture said when he was approached about this idea that it was so clearly a wonderful project that it was a “no-brainer.”

Vermont Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Pat Berry said the project is unusual because it brings together three of Vermont’s top values:  working lands, conservation, and public access.

“Look around you.  This is a big deal,” he said.

Bob Klein of the Nature Conservancy agreed.  “What makes Vermont so special is the integration of those things,” he said.  “Every project is a manifestation of a collection of values.  Conservation isn’t something somebody else does.”

The deal took more than two years to put together.  The Johnsons sold 849 acres, of which 583 is being kept in farming, with conservation easements.  The remaining 266 is being made into a state-owned Wildlife Management Area (WMA).  The property and easements cost $1.45-million, according to Tracy Zschau, regional director of the Vermont Land Trust.

She said the first step was to buy the conservation easement, which was about $450,000 of the total cost.

The first main funding source was the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation’s Upper Connecticut River Mitigation and Enhancement Fund.  Representatives of the fund put up the money for the easement plus the additional $1-million to buy the property, with the understanding that VLT would find others to help share the cost.

In the long run, Ms. Zschau said, other funding sources agreed to help, and the New Hampshire group ended up paying under $500,000.

Funds came in from the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, the United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resource Conservation Service, Pew Charitable Trusts, and the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation.

The Nelson family bought the working dairy farm.

Cy and Andrea Nelson bought the 583-acre working farm, with easements in place, for $965,000.  The Nelsons will also have a free lease on 50 acres of land within the state-owned WMA in exchange for allowing public access to the river.

Mr. Nelson said he was glad to have the opportunity.  It was not a simple decision though.

“It was a big commitment financially and for our family in general,” he said.  Cy is the son of Doug Nelson, who was also on hand for the celebration.

“I’ve worked for him on the family farm since I was a kid,” he said.  Now he and his wife, Andrea, have a two-year-old daughter of their own, named Sloan.  They are expecting again soon.

Mr. Nelson said the Johnsons helped make the transition very smooth.  The Nelsons are employing the same five workers the Johnsons did, which they said has made a big difference.  Some of the employees live in housing on the farm.

Cy and Andrea Nelsons have 215 milking cows in Canaan and 250 in Coventry.  He said the river-bottom rock-free land on the Johnson farm is ideal for farming, and the corn is doing extremely well this year.

“I think we’re as good as anything,” he said.

“The dairy industry is a pretty unique industry.  Our profits are always fluctuating.”

Bill and Ursula Johnson have retired as farmers, but Mr. Johnson still serves the area in the state House of Representatives.  Mr. Johnson represents the towns of Brighton, Canaan, East Haven, Lemington, Newark, Norton, and Westmore.  Ursula Johnson worked in the field of conservation.

Over and over again in the course of the day, officials remarked on what a wonderful job the couple had done keeping the land in great shape.  Where many farmers would have drained a lot of the wetlands in order to make more pasture or hay land, the Johnsons kept a lot of it intact, and as a result there is a tremendous abundance and variety of birds and wildlife.  On Friday, people saw half a dozen great blue herons, a northern harrier (marsh hawk), and several other species of birds.

After the speeches, people were invited to take tours of the farm or two parts of the WMA.  One was north of the main barn, and the other was south into part of Lemington.

“There’s not a written plan for this area yet,” said Fritz Gerhardt of Beck Pond LLC, a conservation scientist who led the Lemington tour and pointed out some highlights in the farm land and wetlands.  The WMA plans for the whole state will be discussed at a public hearing in Montpelier on August 21.  People who have ideas for what should be done with the property will have a chance to give their opinions.

Joan Allen of The Nature Conservancy, Ms. Zschau and Jane Lazorchak of the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department were credited as being the three masterminds behind the complicated project.

“This is exemplary by national standards,” said David Govatski, president of Friends of Pondicherry, based in New Hampshire.  Mr. Govatski did a bird survey for the land trust that showed 89 species, some of them rare.  He said the wetlands are home to hundreds of wood ducks, American bitterns, and purple sandpipers to name a few.  Of the species found in the survey, 30 species of special concern to conservationists were noted.

contact Bethany M. Dunbar at bethany@bartonchronicle.com

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