Going with the flow on the farm
Elwin Neill Jr., right, a second-generation farmer in the Mad River Valley, is shown with his son Forrest Neill.
Standing in the Neill farmyard on a beautiful summer day in 2012, it is hard to imagine the changes that have taken place here over the last year to ensure the farm’s survival. The Neill farm sits on a hill overlooking the Mad River and some of the farm’s 600 acres. Situated in the Mad River Valley watershed, most of the farmland is within the river’s floodplain and has a long history of flooding. The Neill family has been operating this farm along the Mad River for over 50 years. Owner Elwin Neill Jr. owns and rents over 4.5 miles of riparian corridor along the Mad River. Reducing the impacts of flooding has long been a priority for the farm. To combat flooding the Neill’s have adopted a number of conservation practices. These management practices provide environmental and agricultural benefits while also increasing flood resiliency.
The extreme flooding of August 2011 created hardships all over the state of Vermont, and the Mad River farm community was among the most affected. Tropical Storm Irene came in a year when landowners had already experienced higher than normal levels of flooding. The Neill farm was hit with three flood events in 11 months. Prior adoption of conservation practices on the Neill farm proved to do more than keep unused nutrients out of the river. The conservation practices also helped save their land from washing away. “There was minimal damage for the amount of water that went through here,” said Elwin of the Aug. 28, 2011, flood.
Through a pilot buffer program organized by the Winooski Conservation District in 2003, Elwin Neill established both 25-foot and 50-foot grassed filter strips between the river and annually tilled cropland on multiple flood-prone fields he cultivates along the river. A filter strip is an area of permanent grass that serves to capture nutrient and sediment runoff from fields before it enters rivers and streams. During flood events, the grass filter strip also slows down flood waters and traps sediment. Another practice Mr. Neill chose to do in 2003 was the permanent seeding of small or narrow flood-prone fields from corn to grass. These seeded down fields increased flood resiliency in 2011 as the grassed surface slowed flood water velocity and decreased the amount of scouring and erosion on his agricultural fields. “At the time I wasn’t too enthusiastic about it, but they sure have proved to work,” Elwin said of his participation with the buffer program, which meant giving up valuable corn production land to grass.
Another conservation practice Elwin believes is a “no brainer for everybody” is cover cropping. He says cover cropping is the biggest thing one can do for water quality because the plants take up nutrients and protect the field with vegetation, rather than leaving exposed soil through the winter and early spring months. Cover crops help control flooding by slowing flood waters, plus they act as a green fertilizer and add organic matter to the soil. In a cover cropping system, annual grasses, grains or legumes are sown on bare ground as soon as possible after harvest. At the Neill farm, they plant a winter rye grain cover crop every fall. Though every farmer should consider cover cropping, Elwin warns it is not a “one size fits all” system. A farmer should walk their fields with a conservation technical expert and determine what practices are needed to combat the resource concerns of their specific system.
One of the crushing effects of a flood, such as the one caused by Irene, is the cost to repair stream banks. Elwin is thankful rock veins had been installed as a repair measure in one of his larger fields in the fall of 1998. In this practice, rocks are angled into the stream at a specific degree to direct water to the middle of the stream, dropping sediment, building the bank, and scouring the bottom of the stream rather than the stream bank. The transfer of energy in the water is essential to successful stream bank repair designs. The Neills were able to repair the damage sustained from Irene with their own permitted rock resources on the farm, estimated at $50,000 worth of stone.
Stone material was a big savings for the Neills, but there were plenty of hidden costs associated with Irene. The farm held the stone to repair their riverbanks, but they did not own all the equipment needed to perform such a job. An excavator, bulldozer, and hauling trucks were rented for $25,000, and their use increased the monthly fuel cost for October alone by over $7,000. Thirty acres of corn, estimated at $30,000, were lost to flooding waters, and over $10,000 worth of round bale hay washed downstream. The grain bill also went up by 25 percent after the flood due to low quality feed left to produce after the storm. Good quality feed was at a premium, and Elwin was aware his system could not sustain these changes. After holding the Dairy of Distinction designation for many years, the Neills decided to sell their milk cows. Elwin said he would have had to take out a loan in order to keep their milkers, and “it was not worth it to borrow money to lose money.”
The Neill farm no longer specializes in dairy production, but they are still raising about 110 cows for beef and are not looking back. The family takes pride in treating their animals with respect and feeding a very high quality feed diet to produce a superior beef product.
Thanks in part to the conservation practices that were installed, the farm’s land base is still intact, allowing them to diversify their operation. An expanded vegetable operation is in the plans for next year, and a portion of the farm may be converted to organic. By leveraging federal, state and local conservation program resources, as Elwin has done in the past, farmers can receive technical and financial assistance to install critical conservation practices.
When asked about the future of the Neill farm, Elwin and his son Forrest both smile and say, “Stay adaptable and diversify.” The Neills continue to cultivate opportunities to diversify the products they produce and are confident their land will remain sustainable for generations to come. As with many Vermont farms, the story of the Neill farm in Waitsfield is one of hard work, adaptation, and good stewardship of the land.
Mary Sturgeon is the outreach coordinator for the Natural Resources Conservation Service.