New hands take over on Monkton farm; Land Trust keeps ‘prime’ ag soil in ag

MONKTON — Young Nathan Baldwin, all of three years old, races happily through the dairy barn on the farm formerly run by the Cota brothers, stopping to hug a few weeks’ old heifers. They nudge back playfully.
Outside the barn, some of dad Matt Baldwin’s mature Jerseys and Holsteins move through the grass, grazing peacefully. Looking south — past a small mountain of plastic-wrapped haylage —  green fields stretch toward the horizon, hugging Hogback Ridge to the east.
“To me it’s a great joy,” said 70-year-old Greg Cota. Last week, the last i’s were dotted and the last t’s were crossed in a conservation and sale agreement whereby the Vermont Land Trust purchased development rights on 218 acres of Greg and brother Robert Cota’s Monkton acreage, allowing Matt Baldwin to purchase the farm for its agricultural value alone.
“What I wanted is happening,” Cota continued. “I wanted to see cattle back in the pasture, cattle back in the barn. So it’s just a great joy to me to be able to go back and go in the barn, see cattle in there and smell that barn smell again like it used to be.”
The Cota brothers have worked the farm their whole lives. Indeed, because of their father’s early illness and death, they started working the farm independently as teenagers more than 50 years ago. Older brother Rob is now 79.
Baldwin, 35, also started farming as a teenager.
He grew up in a farming family just three and a half miles up the road in Hinesburg. But he said that interest in farming skipped his father’s generation. Instead, he pitched in and shadowed his grandfather and great uncle, who farmed well into their 80s.
“I just worshipped the ground those men walked on. And I’ve been working for close to 20 years to try to get the land base again to try to start up Baldwin farm the way it was,” Baldwin said.
Dairying has been central to his dream. But Baldwin said that generation to generation, his family’s land got broken up and he had insufficient acreage to establish a dairy herd. Since he was about 15, he’s been crop farming. Baldwin raises hay and organic feed corn. He began renting the Cota acreage in 2013. A year ago, he began raising up a dairy herd and going through the year-long process to have it certified for organic milk production. Now with the completion of the sale through the land trust, he can really begin as an organic dairy farmer.
Right now Baldwin has 32 milking cows and 55 heifers. By the spring he expects to have 85 to 90 milkers.
“Coming from a farming family that has lost farmland and had intergenerational transfers with nonfarmers, being able to acquire and run a farm like this is very, very precious to me,” said Baldwin. “This is exactly my dream come true. It can’t be much sweeter.”
   ON SEP. 27, Monkton honored the Cotas, below, for their years in farming and celebrated the conservation of 218 acres and the transfer of the Cota Farm to Matt Baldwin. Assembled that evening were the Vermont Land Trust’s Al Karnatz, left; Greg, Lillian and Rob Cota; Matt Baldwin, holding daughter Leah; Laura Baldwin, with son Nathan and daughters Eliza and Rachel.
Courtesy photo
A lot of sweat and muscle stands behind that dream, as well. It’s taken close to two decades of farming to establish himself as a dairy farmer, admits Baldwin.
Local farmers consider the Cota acreage some of the best farmland in Addison County. Close to 80 acres are rated as “prime” ag land, the state’s top rating; 104 acres are rated as “farmland of statewide importance.”
Sited as it is along States Prison Hollow Road and just minutes from the Monkton-Hinesburg road, the Cotas’ former 218 acres also would have been a tempting prize for developers.
“I could have sold the farm and made twice the money if I wanted to see houses,” said Greg Cota. “But it’s too productive of land. We farmed all our lives here. It’s Addison County but it’s not Addison County clay. It’s loam. It raises good crops.
“If you take care of the land, it will take care of you.”
Without the land trust’s purchase of the development rights, Baldwin said he would not have been able to purchase the acreage.
“It’s basically one of the most important tools in this state right now to enable young farmers to own their own land and expand operations,” said Baldwin. “Without the land trust and the backing of Monkton, I would not have been able to afford this farm. I would not have been able to get the land necessary to start dairy farming. And I might not even be able to farm in this state, the way land prices have gone. The land trust enables young farmers to get started or to stay in operation.”
While the land trust facilitated the preservation of the 218 acres, the dollars to purchase the development rights came from the town of Monkton, the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board. Together, NRCS and the VHCB contributed $504,000. Through its Agricultural and Natural Area’s Fund, Monkton contributed $100,000 — the town’s single largest contribution to conserve open land.
Since 2010, Monkton has contributed close to $230,000 to conserve close to 770 acres.
“Monkton is the real leader in Addison County in terms of their conservation fund,” said the Vermont Land Trust’s Al Karnatz. “It’s had a big impact on the types of projects the VLT can complete.”
On Sept. 27 the land trust and the Monkton Agricultural and Natural Areas Committee held a potluck and gathering to honor the Cota brothers and Greg’s wife, Lillian Cota, for their stewardship of the land.
   MATT AND LAURA BALDWIN recently purchased the former Cota Farm in Monton and will keep the land in farming.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
Addressing the crowd, ANAC Chair Laura Farrell  thanked the Cotas for “ensuring this land is kept in agriculture.” She noted too, the contribution that agricultural land makes to the region’s rural character, scenic beauty, economic vitality and food security.
“The Cotas are to be commended for their excellent stewardship and hard work over the decades that has kept this land productive,” Karnatz said in an email to the Independent. “Their decision to conserve the farm and to keep it available for future generations benefits the whole community and helps maintain our agricultural heritage.” 
Meanwhile, back in the barn, Baldwin observed that he started milking cows around two weeks ago. Five years to the month since the Cota brothers sold the last of their dairy cows, cows are being milked in the old Cota barn again.
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

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