There was an unmistakable smell in the air at Pine Island Community Farm in early March — unmistakable, but unexpected.
“We made an arrangement so that people could drop off their Christmas trees here,” explained farmer Chuda Dhaurali, as he approached a pen containing a few dozen 3-month-old Nubian goats munching on balsam firs.
After the holidays, the farm in northwestern Vermont collected nearly 300 trees from as many families. It was an event designed to be as fun as it was utilitarian.
“We had hot cocoa and candies for the kids, and they all wanted to see the goats,” Dhaurali said. With their soft coats dappled white and chestnut brown, doe eyes, and characteristic lop ears framing long muzzles, it’s easy to understand why.
“They are so friendly with people, but they are quite noisy,” he added as they bleated for attention.
Recycling Christmas trees is just one way that Pine Island helps give back to the local community and the lands and waters that sustain it. The farm embraces solid conservation with business sense, and is proof that it’s possible to make a living on the land while looking after it. It’s also host to newcomers to this nation - immigrants eager to embrace their new home, but wanting to keep reminders of their old one, too.
Born out of a partnership between the Vermont Goat Collaborative, the Association of Africans Living in Vermont and the Vermont Land Trust (VLT), Pine Island Community Farm was established in response to a pronounced need for a source of livestock and produce for the growing population of new Americans who have been resettled in communities around Burlington through the United Nations Refugee Agency.
Located in the delta of the Winooski River, the largest tributary to Lake Champlain, the farm also created an opportunity to protect vital wetland habitat through a partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program.
“The Pine Island area contains some of the best wetland habitat Vermont has to offer, including silver maple floodplain forest and the oxbow wetlands,” said Chris Smith, supervisory fish and wildlife biologist at the Lake Champlain Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office in Vermont.
Given that the site is also at the heart of the largest population center in the state, Smith said “the ability to do restoration work in this area is very, very important.”
A new vision for the farm
Dhaurali, a native of Bhutan who spent 18 years in a refugee camp in Nepal before moving to Vermont, has helped realize a new vision for the farm. Pine Island is a former cow dairy purchased by the Vermont Land Trust in 2012.
Cows made way for goats. For cultural and religious reasons, goat is a dietary staple for many new Americans coming from countries in Africa and Asia. But not only is it harder to find goat meat in the United States, it’s difficult to know much about the source.
“If you buy meat from a store, you don’t know what part of the body it came from, or if it was a male or a female,” which can be important factors for some holidays and celebrations, Dhaurali said.
Dissatisfied with the packaged meat available in stores, many people were going to great lengths to purchase live goats to slaughter themselves. “We used to have to go all the way to Massachusetts to find a goat, wasting six hours in the car, plus the cost of gas,” Dhaurali said.
The farm serves its customers with custom slaughter facilities for goats and chickens. It also serves the local agricultural community by taking in livestock that has no production value.
Theogene and Hyacinthe Mohoro, a couple from Rwanda who run the farm’s poultry operation, purchase spent laying hens from egg producers in addition to raising chicks on site. Many of the young male goats — called bucklings - that Dhaurali raises are bought from Vermont goat dairies that have no practical use for males.
“It was serendipitous,” said Miles Hooper, the farm manager for Ayers Brook Goat Dairy, established right around the same time as Pine Island. “Here we are starting this goat farm, and we find an outlet for our bucklings.”
Hooper sells goats to Dhaurali when they are about three months old, after they have been weaned. While his costs are covered by the transaction, it’s not a profitable arrangement; it’s an ethical choice in light of the typical fate of young males.
“If not for Chuda, I would have to figure out another way to make it work,” he said, adding that he is glad to be able to support Pine Island. “I think what they are doing is about as creative and needed a service as you could possibly think up.”
Giving back to the land
Addressing a range of cultural, economic, and environmental needs in the community was fundamental to the vision for the farm. “It was important to figure out how we could fill a gap by doing something that was needed and didn’t already exist,” said Siobhan Smith, vice president for conservation and stewardship for VLT.
“Whenever feasible, we are trying to figure out: How can we draw from the waste stream to help close the loop environmentally?”
From the outset, the partners were intent on keeping the land in farming because of the rich history, and soil, at the site. They were also committed to implementing agricultural practices that would allow nature to take its course in the adjacent wetlands. The farmers agreed to give up seven acres of potential grazing land along the Winooski River to plant a riparian buffer.
The buffer project was funded primarily by a U.S. Department of Agricultural Service program, but the Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) covered the remaining expense to make the project no cost to the landowner. The Service also provided technical assistance to ensure that the project reflected habitat goals for migratory birds, at-risk species, and priority aquatic species.
“Some of the best opportunities for restoration are in agricultural areas, and we want it to be as easy as possible for farmers to participate in habitat restoration programs and projects,” said Smith.
At Pine Island, that relationship has evolved to be about more than just restoration.
“It is such a representative project,” said Katie Kain, a biologist and staff member of FWS Partners Program. “The farm viability component, the riparian buffer, the innovative farming operation, and partners who are really engaged in management.”
It’s also permanent. Kain explained that the area where they did the restoration work has been designated a special-treatment area that has to be protected in perpetuity.
“The buffer can’t be cut down, or hayed, or have any agricultural activities,” she said. “But the farmers are still able to graze the goats up next to it, and it’s working well for them.”
Dhaurali for one is accustomed to adapting to his circumstances. His father had been a farmer in their homeland of Bhutan, and when they moved to the refugee camp in Nepal, he says, “We couldn’t raise animals because it was very densely populated, so my father would buy goats from outside and sell them to other families.”
Now he has 230 acres to raise goats, in a place that reminds him of his homeland.
“When I moved here it felt similar – a lot of space on the landscape, the river, the animals, and it’s a very quiet place,” he said.
Seeing all of Vermont’s open farmland upon his arrival, he recognized the possibilities it held, but never dreamed he would find himself at the center of a new farming enterprise. “When we moved here, we know the United States is a land of opportunity,” he said, “But I never thought I’d be a farmer in a place like this.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service supported this Nature's Good Neighbor through our Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, a voluntary initiative that works with private landowners to improve fish and wildlife habitat on their land. Assisting the Service were the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, the USDA’s Farm Service Agency and the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, among others. A phone call or email is all it takes to learn more with one of our 250 private lands biologists. If you are interested in improving habitat for fish and wildlife on your land, please find your local Partners for Fish and Wildlife biologist.
Bridget Macdonald is a public affairs specialist with the Northeast Region in Hadley, Massachusetts.