Planting the seeds for Tree of Life Farm
Everybody talks about how they want to support better farming practices but if you actually try to do them, mostly what you will encounter is a seemingly unending series of obstacles.
— Cameron McMahon
MONKTON — Cameron McMahon has spent much of the winter soaking up knowledge, and he can talk a brilliant blue streak.
Geoengineering, Saudi grazing practices, the history of labor unions, sustainability finance, coppicing, ecology, Norwegian forest management, transportation, building design, ocean farming, soil restoration, rural economies, furniture-making, wetlands regulations, conflict resolution.
But he’s itching to get outside and work.
“There’s theory, and then there’s everyday actions,” McMahon told the Independent during a recent, socially distanced visit to his farm in Monkton. “I’m all talked out on sustainability — it’s time to do.”
A couple of years ago, McMahon leased 230 acres from the Willowell Foundation and began developing Tree of Life Farm, described as a veteran-owned and operated farm using regenerative agricultural methods to grow soil and community.
“Regenerative agriculture is the most hopeful thing I have ever read about, which is why I’ve dedicated my life to it,” McMahon said.
According to the Tree of Life Farm website, “Regenerative agriculture is a system of farming principles and practices that increases biodiversity, enriches soils, improves watersheds and enhances ecosystem services. (It) aims to capture carbon in soil and aboveground biomass, reversing current global trends of atmospheric accumulation. (And) it offers increased yields, resilience to climate instability, and higher health and vitality for farming and ranching communities.”
McMahon, 35, became intimately familiar with this land as a teenager in the Walden Project, an outdoor, alternative public education program operated by Willowell that serves students in grades 10-12.
One of his classmates during that time was Tasha Ball, who now serves as Administrative Director of the Willowell Foundation.
“Cameron’s very driven,” Ball said. “He has a big vision and big ideas.”
Since his time as a Walden Project student, McMahon and the Walden Project’s founder and director, Matt Schlein, have remained friends, McMahon said. When Schlein offered to sell him the land, McMahon took his time giving the proposition careful thought before taking the leap.
They closed the deal in October.
McMahon promptly sold 10 acres to a neighbor to help bring down the purchase price, then granted Willowell a hundred-year lease on another 30 acres. More than half of what remains is under a conservation easement, but that leaves McMahon with plenty to work with.
During the Independent’s visit, he was practically vibrating with energy and ideas.
Which is a good thing, because now that winter is drawing to a close, he has a lot of work to do.
Some of the farm-related projects on McMahon’s short- and medium-term to-do list include:
• building an 1,800-foot road and a parking lot.
• planting a windbreak hedge along Bristol Road that will include an outer row of basswood trees and an inner row of locust trees (the latter for firewood).
• putting together and operating a mobile sawmill.
• purchasing 10 Jacob sheep ewes and one ram, along with four stocker beef calves.
• designing a food forest trail.
• building a charcoal kiln.
“At first I’m trying to limit my enterprises to those that can break even,” he said. “The goal eventually is to have diversity on the farm so we’ll always have the chance to earn income from something.”
McMahon has already accomplished quite a lot since moving to Monkton.
Two springs ago he planted more than 100 elderberries.
Last summer he pulled down the decrepit barn and silo that used to greet Willowell visitors, and he’ll use some of the reclaimed barn wood to build furniture, instruments and a multipurpose building on the previous structures’ footprint.
A few months ago he built a modest off-grid home for his family, which, as of this month, includes a newborn baby, Audra.
Tree of Life Farm is not some spur-of-the-moment back-to-the-land project. In a way, McMahon has been training for this for nearly two decades.
“I developed a rough draft of the idea for this project when I was 19,” he said.
After high school he “bounced around backpacking for a while,” then served in the U.S. Marines for four years, deploying once to Afghanistan.
Upon his return he studied at the Yestermorrow Design/Build School in Warren, Vt., learning about ecological design, permaculture, natural building, woodworking and regenerative agriculture.
From there he went to Columbia University, where he earned a BA in Sustainable Development in just two and a half years. After graduating cum laude he returned to Vermont and earned an MBA in Sustainable Innovation at UVM. A PhD at UVM may be on the horizon.
In addition to his accelerated education schedule, McMahon has worked jobs in construction, in a factory, on a farm, and on a tall ship. For five years he was even a professional dog sledder.
So he clearly knows how to do stuff.
Some of this training and experience is reflected in the problem solving he details on the Tree of Life Farm Facebook page, such as this Dec. 2 post.
“Current thinking is to be converting the plow I have into an off brand keyline style chisel plow (as that progresses I will try to document it well),” he wrote. “This would be used to crack through our heavily compacted and sad clay soils and makes it easier to plant many thousands of seeds and cuttings.”
But there are some things that can’t be problem-solved with tools or agricultural skills.
“Everybody talks about how they want to support better farming practices but if you actually try to do them, mostly what you will encounter is a seemingly unending series of obstacles,” he wrote in a Nov. 20 Facebook post after a frustrating visit from a state regulator. “This modern pioneering game is a lot more about understanding permitting and regulatory requirements than it is about actual farming.”
Additional frustrations have emerged as McMahon has applied for USDA grant money for various projects. So far, he’s found no support.
“They turned me down cold,” McMahon told the Independent. “It was like, ‘Come back when you have some cows.’”
But he has found allies.
“Just had a really nice and productive meeting with folks from the Nature Conservancy,” he wrote in an Oct. 20 Facebook post. “We talked about my plans with the farm and management goals with the easement. There is good alignment and it felt like a positive conversation. It is nice to be building healthy relationships with other stakeholders in this land.”
Above all, McMahon views Tree of Life Farm through a community-centered lens, contributing not only to local food systems but also to local culture systems. He envisions community art, a community nursery, and his current design for a farm store includes classroom and event space.
Perhaps there will eventually be community farming.
“I don’t love growing veggies,” McMahon acknowledged, “but I do like designing systems. I could be like a business incubator — plug people in who have a passion for growing vegetables.”
But for now the days are getting longer, the ground is growing softer, and the earth is calling. Now is the time to chop wood and carry water.
“Enlightenment is found in the everyday tasks, and in the connections,” McMahon wrote on Facebook last fall. “Focusing on healing land and helping others is how I maintain the pace I work at, because it builds me up.”
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].
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