Town of Monkton pays to conserve open land

MONKTON — Brothers Greg and Rob Cota have been farming since they were old enough to reach the tractor pedals. Now, at ages 69 and 78, respectively, they are ready to sell their land and retire.
But the idea of selling their rolling acres of prime farmland to a developer is not appealing.
“I don’t want to see houses on the land, I want to see cattle on the land,” Greg Cota said. “That’s what rural Vermont is about — it’s farming.”
This past Thursday, the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board agreed to spend $504,000, in cooperation with the Vermont Land Trust, to put toward purchasing development rights for 218 acres on the Cota Brothers Farm, which straddles States Prison Hollow Road east of the Monkton town office. 
That money will be added to the $100,000 that the Monkton selectboard last month appropriated from town preservation funds for the development rights.
“This is a great way to keep a working farm a working farm and conserve some of our open working landscape,” said Monkton selectboard Chair Stephen Pilcher. “And for the landowners, Greg and Lillian Cota, when you go through this process you don’t get top dollar for your farm. This is a real commitment on their part. They care deeply that this land stay as farmland and not be developed.”
The VHCB’s process is competitive. Each year the VHCB selects 20 to 25 land conservation projects to support and lays out around $5 million-$6 million in combined state and USDA funds.
“We’re very excited,” said the VHCB Agricultural Director Nancy Everhart, reached just after the VHCB’s decision to allocate the money conserving the Cota Brothers Farm. “It’s a tremendous resource that was treasured by the Cota family. And what we heard today at the board meeting is they’re so excited to see it protected and kept in farmland forever and in active ag production and transferred to the next generation of farmers.”
With funding to purchase the development rights secured, the next phase of the project — crossing the i’s and dotting the t’s — could take six months to a year, Everhart said.
The Cota Farm is significant for a number of reasons, according to Allen Karnatz, the Vermont Land Trust’s Champlain Valley farm project director. 
The 218 acres are high-quality agricultural soils in an area of Monkton that is highly desirable for development. The acreage is just east of Monkton center, putting it easily on commuter routes to Burlington, Vergennes and Middlebury. The Cota brothers are already working to sell the farm to a younger farmer, Matt Baldwin, whose family has a track record of conserving farmland and wildlife habitat. Baldwin has been leasing some of the Cotas’ acreage and farming it for the past couple of years. The acreage also includes small sites with archaeological importance and some wetland and riparian areas. 
Finally, the soil itself is classified as “some of the best in Addison County; 78 acres are prime agricultural soils, and 105 acres are classified as of statewide importance,” according to Karnatz.
The $100,000 from Monkton’s Agricultural and Natural Areas Fund represents Monkton’s largest conservation outlay ever and over half of available preservation funds, Karnatz said. He emphasized that the strong town support that such a contribution represents is important when the VHCB evaluates potential projects. 
“That leverage is huge,” said Karnatz. “Monkton really leads the way in Addison County in terms of having a conservation fund. It speaks to the people in town who say ‘We want to help agriculture and conserve land.’”
To date, the Monkton Agricultural and Natural Areas Fund has helped preserve close to 500 acres in Monkton and over 800 acres regionwide. From 2010 to the present, Monkton has contributed funds to preserve what is now the Nature Conservancy’s 365-acre Raven Ridge Natural Area in Monkton, Hinesburg and Charlotte, as well as significant portions of three Monkton properties: the Claflin Farm, the Spooner-Muzzy Farm and Orb Weaver Farm. For these projects, Monkton contributed a total of $101,300.
Monkton property owners pay 2 cents extra on their taxes to contribute to the conservation fund. Greg Cota joked that he is getting back some of the money he paid into the fund over the years.
Knowing that the land can be conserved as a working farm — and especially knowing that their Monkton neighbors support this conservation — means a great deal to the Cota family. 
“I was in tears,” said Lillian Cota, Greg’s wife, when she described learning that the selectboard had voted yes to conserve the family’s farmland.
“Greg’s lived on the farm all of his life,” she said. “And it’s just a really big thing that’s happening. We want it to happen. We don’t want houses built here. And we’re glad that we’ve got Matt to take over and farm it.”
The Cota brothers sold off their dairy herd between 2007 and 2012, but over the past two years Baldwin has been renting most of the Cota acreage and working toward bringing the farm back to dairying, with a focus on organic farming. 
Baldwin was a good candidate for purchasing the land because organic farming requires that cows spend time on pasture, Greg Cota pointed out. 
And the local and state funds mean the Baldwin has a chance to make a financial success while keeping the land open.
“It gets a young farmer an opportunity for a farm so that he can afford it,” Cota said.
And he recognized the financial sacrifice he was making.
“We could have got double the money selling it for houses, but money isn’t everything,” Cota said.
With Baldwin bringing dairy cows back onto the land, Lillian Cota said that this spring she again had the joy of seeing calves and heifers let loose on pasture for the first time.
“When they first go out in the spring, when they first get to go out on grass, it’s just totally amazing,” she said. “They just get out there and run and jump and buck. Every spring it’s the same.
“So it was wonderful to see that this year. And it really hit home more that now it’s still going to be happening.”
Editor’s note: John S. McCright contributed to this story.

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