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Beginning farmer seeks greener pastures, sustainable future

Blue Hill Farm
NRCS District Conservationist Kate Parsons discusses pasture management with Sean Stanton.
Blue Hill Farms
A cow grazes the improved pasture at Blue Hill Farm.

By Diane Petit

When Sean Stanton started improving the pastures surrounding his small farm in Great Barrington, Mass., his efforts not only benefited the natural resources of this scenic southwest corner of Berkshire County but also diners at a Manhattan restaurant.

That’s because he supplies the Blue Hill Restaurant in New York City’s Greenwich Village with pasture-raised beef, veal and pork, as well as eggs and farm-fresh tomatoes. At Blue Hills Farm in Massachusetts, a herd of 20 or so cattle feed in a field skirted by the Appalachian Trail and the rolling Berkshire hills. Some of the farm’s products stay in the Berkshires and some make their way to bigger markets less than three hours away in the Big Apple.

“I started farming because I wanted to know more about food, where it comes from, how it’s produced,” Stanton said. “I started on 10 acres that my parents own in Great Barrington. Then I met Dan Barber, a chef who owns Blue Hill Restaurant in New York City, Blue Hill at Stone Barns in the Hudson Valley as well as a farm in Great Barrington.”

Barber and his brother own the 135-acre Blue Hill Farm, which Stanton now leases from the Barber family. It’s a relationship that goes beyond customer and supplier, tenant and landlord. They share a belief that sustainable agriculture produces high quality food.

For help achieving his sustainability goals, Stanton turned to USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

“I’ve been working with Sean since 2006. He came in as a beginning farmer,” said Kate Parsons, NRCS district conservationist at the USDA service center in Pittsfield, Mass. “We looked at all the issues on the farm and helped him with a milk house waste system and a nutrient management plan.”

Parsons worked with Stanton on a conservation plan, which include a map of the property and a set of conservation practices that NRCS recommends.

Stanton’s plan recommended 35 acres of rotational grazing. Rotational grazing is a management system where livestock is moved from one field to another, improving pastures that were dominated by vegetation that the cows had no desire to eat.

“It’s been amazing to watch the pastures change here,” Stanton said, explaining that the action of the cows on the pasture – the regular grazing down and regrowth, and added nutrients from cow manure – has turned the grass into a nutritious food source for his herd.

This conservation work helps prevent erosion of soil and runoff of nutrients into waterways and provides healthy food for cattle.

“It’s been exciting to work with a new farmer who’s willing to try new things and to see him succeed and improve his farm and his business,” Parsons said.

Rotation grazing is an important conservation practice; NRCS worked with ranchers to implement rotational grazing on 3.7 million acres of land in fiscal 2013.

USDA has a long relationship with Dan Barber, Stone Barns and his vision for sustainable and local agriculture. Recently, USDA Deputy Secretary Krysta Harden joined Dan Barber at Stone Barns Hudson Valley educational center to address the sixth annual National Young Farmers Conference and encouraged new and beginning farmers to explore local market opportunities for sustainable farming.

Learn more about rotational grazing and other conservation opportunities with NRCS.