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Summer School: How to listen to the land

A photo of a man in a hat carrying a wheel of electric line, walking down a pasture hill through brown grass. A green hill rises up in the background.
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
During the summer grazing season, Stephen Leslie moves a portable electric fence every 12 to 24 hours to a different patch of paddock. It's called intensive management grazing, and Stephen does this, he says, to help rebuild soil fertility at Cedar Mountain Farm in Hartland.

Cedar Mountain Farm looks like a lot of other small Vermont farms: big red barn, old grain silo, a backdrop of rolling hills.

How Stephen Leslie describes his work, however, is perhaps a little different. He calls it “listening to the land.”

Find our full Summer School series here.

Stephen and his wife, Kerry Gawalt, took over management of this Upper Valley property in 1999. They produce raw milk, cheese, beef and vegetables, among other things.

At the start, Stephen says they tried to put in place something similar to the 400-acre farm where he and Kerry met and apprenticed in New York.

“And got here on the land, and set about imposing my mental model on the landscape," Stephen says.

A photo of a couple horses, framed by their necks, manes and heads, with sunrays shining into the lens, which creates an ethereal effect.
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
Stephen Leslie says his journey of learning to listen to the land began by working with Norwegian fjord horses at Cedar Mountain Farm.

Their model included using four Norwegian fjord horses instead of a tractor to till, mow and haul other equipment.

But over time, Stephen’s approach evolved. The horses are still here. But now they do less, because the farm no longer tills its garden.

He says the horses are who first taught him how to listen. He had to slow down. Control his reactions. Learn their world and their way of seeing.

And eventually, that listening translated across the whole farm.

“My thick skull maybe started to open a little bit more to... hear what maybe the land was trying to tell me about what it wanted, what direction it wanted to go in," Stephen said.

A photo of light coming through green trees on an otherwise shady pasture with brown grass.
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
Silvopasture is one of the methods Stephen Leslie is using to restore health to pastureland at Cedar Mountain Farm. He says the trees provide not only shade to grazing animals, but also help keep water in the soil.

Part of that direction is intensive management grazing for the farm’s Jersey cows. This essentially means the herd grazes on a different patch of pasture every 12 to 24 hours during the warmer months.

Stephen says this promotes soil health.

“Can we really get them to graze more evenly, eat a variety of forbs out there as well and disperse their manure and urine over the entire field so that they're actually building fertility," he says.

The farm received federal funding from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service 13 years ago. The money helped pay for an improved cow trail from the barn to the fields, a spring-fed watering system and portable electric fencing.

During the summer, Stephen moves that fencing every single day.

A photo of the lower half of a person's body standing in grass, one gloved hand holding many skinny white polls with yellow plastic attachments on their ends.
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
Stephen Leslie moves portable fencing every day during the warmer months at Cedar Mountain Farm as part of the farm's intensive management grazing system for its Jersey cows.

I join him one sweaty, August afternoon, with thunderclouds puffing overhead.

Accompanying us is Maisy the Jack Russell Terrier.

“Queen of the hill, working dog par excellence, notorious ratter, bane of woodchucks," Stephen says.

First he yanks the skinny white posts out of the ground. He moves them all to a new spot, and pounds them back in with a pair of nippers.

Then using what looks like a giant reel, Stephen rolls up the electric line (which has been shut off, by the way). Once he reaches the new pasture spot, he unspools the line back onto the fence posts.

A photo of a bearded man with glasses standing in front of a building covered in green vines wearing jeans, a blue shirt and a battered hat and holding a hand tool.
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
Stephen Leslie stands for a portrait at Cedar Mountain Farm in Hartland, Vermont. He holds his nippers, the hand tool he uses to pound portable fencing posts into the ground.

A lot of listening to the land, Stephen says, necessitates this daily interaction with it.

“There's an old saying that the farmers' most valuable action is their footsteps upon the land," he says. "So it's getting out and observing, seeing. Yeah, really, observation is key.”     

Over time, he says those observations accumulate, and add to what he learns from fellow farmers, scientists and policy makers.

Two vertical photos side by side, one of longer, greener grass and one of shorter, browner grass.
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
A side-by-side comparison of how pasture ideally does (left) and doesn't (right) look after cows graze on it. Stephen Leslie says it's best for the grass to still be about five inches long after the cows have been through.

As we traverse the top of the pasture hill, Stephen points out some bright green patches in the field below: micro-wetlands.

He says he keeps the cows away after realizing the wetlands could hold more water and more carbon if they were allowed to recover and grow.

"There's one area where some wild blue irises came in, and woodcocks start coming back in and nesting," Stephen says. "Eventually little pine trees start succession, and poplars."

He says the surrounding pasture is actually greener, too.

"So that’s just like, one example of... how the view from inside my head changed — and I no longer saw that as marginal land, and began to understand that it had this really deep intrinsic value to the overall health of the system," Stephen says.

A photo looking downhill on a field that's green and brown, with sunlight hitting an extra-green patch next to a tree.
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
One of the micro-wetlands that Stephen Leslie is creating "cow exclusion zones" around, to allow those wetlands to recover and grow.

Listening to the land isn’t always easy.

“We're operating within the real world, and we have to — we have bills to pay, and there's a lot of economic pressure to produce product," Stephen says.

But he says to look at land and only see products to sell is a sad place to end up.

It is largely where modern-day agriculture has ended up. In Stephen’s research of the history of this farm and others in the Northeast, he traces many of the issues we face today — climate change, biodiversity loss, injustice — back to the arrival of European colonists.

They cut down old growth forests to build settlements, and displaced the Indigenous people who had stewarded the land for thousands of years.

European colonization kind of resulted in the obliteration of that entire ecosystem," Stephen says. "As much as I admire the ingenuity and, you know, incredible toughness of our Yankee forebears, their worldview was — was wipe the slate clean and and implant European-style agriculture.”

A photo of a small white and brown dog, a Jack Russell Terrier, standing next to brown Jersey cows eating hay inside a barn.
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
Maisy the Jack Russell Terrier ("queen of the hill... bane of woodchucks") keeps an eye on some of Cedar Mountain Farm's Jersey cows, who weren't able to graze outside during the day as much this summer due to dry conditions.

In order to really listen to the land, he says you have to start by… doing nothing.

To be in place without an agenda. To simply be present on the landscape.

Eventually, you’ll learn more about that place. Then you can put that learning into practice.

Stephen says that could look like a rooftop garden in the city, or farming with horses and cows in fields.

A photo of a cloud rising like steam above the treeline and into blue sky. The cloud is purplish colored and it backlit by the sun.
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
Stephen Leslie says the first step to listening to the land is to actually do nothing, and simply be there.

“Being able to just be doing this work, you know, and seeing how nature, how the land, how the animals respond to, in many cases, just stepping out of the way, and allowing natural processes to recover — that's hopeful,” he says.

Stephen’s ultimate hope is for repair. To heal present-day wounds — both on the land and in the human community — that began long ago.

A square illustrated logo with an apple of a school chair in some grass with headphones and a curled cord leading from them, with the words "summer school" below
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public

All summer long, Vermont Public reporters learned how to do something. Find the full Summer School series here.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet digital producer Elodie Reed @elodie_reed.

Elodie is a reporter and producer for Vermont Public. She previously worked as a multimedia journalist at the Concord Monitor, the St. Albans Messenger and the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript, and she's freelanced for The Atlantic, the Christian Science Monitor, the Berkshire Eagle and the Bennington Banner. In 2019, she earned her MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Southern New Hampshire University.
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