If you own an old field in Bennington County, you might be hearing from us soon. We'd like to encourage you to make that field new.
During the last hundred years in Vermont, farm field abandonment was the rule. A good thing, too. Reforestation of the higher altitude hillsides helped reduce erosion and stabilize stream channels. It allowed soils to soak up precipitation and release it slowly and consistently into streams to which trout returned. It provided food and cover for larger populations of native mammals and birds. Reforestation made the name "Green Mountains" fitting again.
But how much new forest land is enough? In most lower elevation settings, we think, about as much as we have now. Our working landscapes, and the wildlife that inhabit them, require a kind of balance between forest and farmland. Not the twenty-five percent forest and seventy-five percent farmland of the early twentieth century, and not fifty-fifty. What's needed is a balance that preserves several essential components of agricultural inventory. They are future food security, the scenic views on which our tourism industry depends, and wildlife habitat – especially open field habitat for declining grassland bird species, and early successional habitat for other bird, mammal, and pollinator species.
Food security is likely to become an issue as the price of oil rises and the costs of production and transportation increase. That's why we're targeting abandoned fields with the best agricultural soils, those that are listed as "prime" or "of statewide significance" by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). (Coincidentally, this focus jibes with one of the goals of the recently released Farm to Plate Strategic Plan, a project of the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund. That goal is "Productive, fertile agricultural soil and land will be available and affordable for farming into the future.")
Reforestation has reclaimed former agricultural land up high, but in the valleys it is development, especially large-lot residential parcels, that is the greater threat. (Valley land is often easy to build upon.) So we're looking especially at abandoned fields near state highways, which generally follow river valleys.
Finally, we're targeting fields of at least five acres in size. This is an attempt at another kind of balance. Small fields are often the first to be abandoned or developed. And bobolinks, for example, seem to need a minimum of five acres to set up breeding territories. (Other species need larger fields.)
In the early phases of our project, we'll be reaching out to about two hundred owners of small fields with good soils, near highways, and of a certain minimum size, to encourage them to enroll in one of a couple of NRCS programs that offer help with delayed mowing or light brush-hogging. We'll try to help such landowners through the NRCS application process. (Warning! This will be a learning process for us, too!) In later stages, perhaps we'll be able to find other creative sources of funding to help keep the fields open until they are called upon again to provide food for people or livestock.
Shelly Stiles is the district manager for the Bennington County Conservation District, whose mission is promoting rural livelihoods and protecting natural resources in southwestern Vermont. For more information on the small fields initiative, contact the District at 802 442-2275 or firstname.lastname@example.org.