It might not be the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or the Baseball Hall of Fame, but Vermonters take their Agricultural Hall of Fame pretty seriously. And this year, three Cabot family farmers were honored in the class of 2018: Clara Ayer of Fairmont Farm in East Montpelier, Beth Kennett of Liberty Hill Farm in Rochester and Robert Foster of Foster Brothers Farm in Middlebury.Farmstays, farm camps and farm-made compost are the kinds of innovation that landed three Cabot family farmers in Vermont’s 2018 Agricultural Hall of Fame #cabotfarmers #cabotcheese Click To Tweet
“From generation to generation, Cabot produces sharp leaders,” said Anson Tebbetts, Vermont Secretary of Agriculture, Food and Markets (and, yes, Cabot produces really good sharp cheddar, too, he acknowledged with a grin). “Bob, Beth and Clara are leaders on their farms and in Vermont. No matter the chore, they all are willing to work hard to make sure Vermont is a better place to live, work and raise a family.”
Clara Ayer actually received the call that she’d won the title of “Emerging Leader: Stepping Up to Become the Next Generation of Leaders (age 40 and under)” on her 30th birthday. “It is an amazing honor, a real surprise, and quite a way to start out my next decade,” she said.
The young farmer feels a deep commitment to her third-generation family farm where she works with her parents, brother and cousin. “I just feel really lucky,” she said. “My parents were offered a lot of wonderful opportunities early on and they have always worked really hard to make the farm something us kids could come back to if we wanted.” Like her parents, her generation is working to keep opportunities coming. “We’re doing what we can to keep this farm thriving for the next generation.”
Clara not only handles bookkeeping, marketing and human resources for the 50-employee operation, but is also very involved as a farmer advocate and educator. She created a popular series of “Life on the Farm” summer camps that fill up every year. In addition to cultivating her own next generation (two-year-old Carson), Clara is helping to ensure that many kids know what it takes to produce good, wholesome food. “It’s important to keep thinking outside the box,” Clara says.
Beth Kennett was in the middle of preparing a roast beef dinner for 20 with zucchini-corn-cheddar casserole and from-scratch chocolate birthday cake served with homemade raspberry ice cream, but she found a few minutes to chat about being named “Ag Innovator: Bringing New Energy, Ideas, and Opportunity to Vermont’s Working Landscape.” Beth pioneered the concept of farmstays before “agritourism” was a movement in the United States. It was based on necessity during the early 1980s dairy downturn, she explained: “We need to diversify. I had to figure out a way to utilize the assets of a big, old farmhouse.”
For more than 30 years, the Kennetts have welcomed guests from all over the world and received media acclaim as broadly. The roast beef dinner was for folks from Alabama, London, New Jersey and Texas. Some are familiar with farming and others have never been on a farm before. At Liberty Hill, they see what real farm life is like. “We do not ‘Disneyfy’ it,” she said. A recent day included the opportunity to see a calf being born, help bring in 800 bales of hay and, not-as-standard, everyone jumping up from breakfast to assist with a round-up of escaped cows. “You are coming to be part of our farm family,” Beth says. “Walk in the door. Take your shoes off. You’re home.”
Beth has also been a tireless advocate and educator on the practicalities and the broad economic and social benefits of agritourism. As the former president of Vermont Farms!, she has traveled and spoken widely on the topic, sharing the challenges and the potential for all kinds of farm-centered tourism. “It’s not about me and my pancakes” she said. “It’s about economic development.”
There was a lot of pressure on Robert (Bob) Foster to earn the “Lifetime Achievement: 30+ Years of Outstanding Service to Vermont Agriculture” spot in Vermont’s Agricultural Hall of Fame, he said with a chuckle. “My dad and two uncles are both in it. It’s kind of cool to be in there with them and I’m really proud and humbled to be part of this class.”
Bob has been on the leading edge of dairy diversification since the early 1980s. He coined the term “Cow Power” when he saw the opportunity to source clean-burning, environmentally safe, abundant energy from right under his feet—literally. The Fosters were the first in Vermont to install an anaerobic digester on their Middlebury dairy farm, producing electricity through generators powered by methane gas released from treated cow manure. With a continued focus on closing the loop and leveraging natural cycles, the family has since built one of the region’s larger manure-based compost companies. Six members of the fourth and fifth generation work together on the farm and the company called Vermont Natural Ag Products whose signature product is MooDoo® organic, composted cow manure. “Part of it is using materials other people call waste. We’re helping the environment as well as ourselves,” Bob said. “In the current lexicon, it’s what they call sustainable.”
For decades, Bob has held leadership roles on many boards and he drove development of the Vital Capital Index, which helps Cabot farms measure and manage their impact on their community, the environment and their bottom line. It’s critical, Bob believes, for the public to support diverse agricultural practitioners who are not only producing good food, but also working hard to protect the soil, air and water. “We are all trying to do our part,” he said.