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Vermont Military Veteran Grows Greener Pastures in Mount Holly

Kevin Plew protected the United States through his service in the Coast Guard and the National Guard. Today he protects and improves the natural resources on his grass-based farm in Mount Holly, Vermont.

written by Amy Overstreet, USDA-NRCS, Colchester, Vermont
 

Kevin Plew set two life goals at a very young age. He wanted to be a farmer and he wanted to live in Vermont.  The Plew's with their grandsons

Plew spent time on his grandfather’s small farm and helped him with the chores. “I loved everything about it,” he reflects. Born and raised in Albany, New York, he had dreams of moving to Vermont one day to operate his own farm. Throughout childhood, his family enjoyed day trips to Mount Snow in southern Vermont’s Green Mountains. “It took me a long time to get here,” he laughs as he recalls the events of his life that eventually led him to Mount Holly, Vermont.

After high school, Plew faithfully served four years in the Coast Guard in Puerto Rico, then returned to the U.S. where he worked on several farms, gaining experience and growing his dream of having his own farm. He made his way to Vermont to work at a large dairy operation and when that job ended, he switched gears to serve as a computer specialist. He also joined the National Guard where he dedicated twenty-one years of service, including time in Kuwait. He says that during his military service, he learned many skills that make him successful as a farmer.

Kevin and Sally

Diversification is the key

Today, Kevin and his wife of twenty three years, Patti, are living their dream in Mount Holly, Vermont. They own and operate Plew Farm, a small diversified grass-based farm which they purchased in 2016. They have five grown sons, ranging in ages from 29-36, and two young grandsons, Jackson and Dominic, who live nearby. In 2011, the Plew’s began leasing land at the farm they now own.

Today, the Plew’s raise chickens, beef and dairy cows, pigs, and run a roadside farm stand where they sell chicken, grass-fed beef, pork, eggs, and their own maple syrup (a seventh generation family tradition started by Patti’s family). They have 1,300 chickens, 100 turkeys, 30 pigs, two milking cows, 16 beef cows, 118 acres of forests, and 2,000 taps for their maple syrup operation. They haven’t put all their eggs in one basket and say that developing a diverse operation has been instrumental to their success. “We are very diversified,” emphasizes Kevin.

He adopted some of his farming goals after reading the writings of grass-based farming pioneer Joel Salatin. His decision to raise his animals on grass is based on the principle that pasture based animals roam freely in a natural environment where they have access to nutritious forages. The Plew’s philosophy appears on the front page of their website: “Simply put, healthy, happy animals provide better nutrition for your family.” Their consumers include non-residents who own vacation homes in Mount Holly, as well as full-time residents who loyally buy their products at the Rutland Farmer’s Market each week.

Their meat chickens are kept in bottomless, movable pens called chicken tractors, and are moved daily to fresh pasture. Cattle and hogs are fed grass and clover pasture and a practice of intensive rotational grazing means they move the animals every day to lush pasture for the highest nutrition. This grazing system prevents overgrazing, erosion, and depletion of nutrients. Cattle are not returned to the same pasture again until the grass has had time to regenerate.

Committed to conservation and animal health

The Plew’s worked with the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to improve the health of their pastures and protect soil and water quality. “I saw a video about the assistance that NRCS could offer to military veterans and to beginning farmers,” remembers Kevin. As both a veteran and a beginning farmer, Plew is dedicated to conservation and committed to ensuring that his farming practices are beneficial to the environment, and to his animals. He coordinated with NRCS Soil Conservation Technician Sally Eugair to apply for technical and financial assistance through the Environment Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). “I feel lucky to work with farmers, like Kevin and Patti, who are dedicated to protecting and improving water quality, the health of their animals, and soil health,” she said. Their conservation plan includes nutrient management, implementation of a rotational grazing system, stream crossings for the animals, critical area planting, and a prescribed grazing plan. As a result of drought, they received assistance to install a well which helps them get water to the herd. With his own resources, Plew is constructing a bedded pack system to improve the health and comfort of his animals and facilitate manure composting. He plans to adopt a technique using his pigs to aerate the manure in the bedded pack. “I will take the seed spreader and put corn in the pack which will build up and ferment,” he explained. “The pigs then look for it and as they do, they turn it over and break it up.” This introduces air into the pack to break it down which makes it easier to take out and utilize. Kevin is excited about the benefits of this unique bedded pack system. “If you could have seen what the cows were in before,” he recalls. “They were in a lot of mud and there was little we could do, because in the winter, when it’s cold, and wet, we don’t have ideal land to run the animals on.” He explained that Mount Holly lies in what is known as the ‘snow belt’ of Vermont where an average of 110 inches of snow can accumulate in one year. He believes the bedded pack will make his animals healthier, reduce feed cost, and provide better observation opportunity to ensure his animals are in good health.  “We are grass farmers,” says Kevin. “We want to improve our grass and our soil.”

Homegrown by Heroes

Plew is an active member of the national Farmer Veteran Coalition which awarded him a 2017 Farmer Veteran Fellowship . As one of fifty chosen fellows, the coalition provides direct assistance to veterans in their beginning years of farming, and also offers a Homegrown by Heroes branding program which the Plew’s have incorporated into their marketing strategy. The coalition has over 7,000 members in all 50 states and awarded over a million dollars to help veterans establish or expand agricultural operations. The local chapter that Plew belongs to, the Farmer Veteran Coalition of Vermont, is recognized as one of the first four chapters of the national organization. They provide educational and internship opportunities, assistance with land acquisition through federal and state programing, peer to peer mentorship and an appropriate re-integration back into the civilian sector through ecological land stewardship. “The coalition enables me to communicate with other veteran farmers who speak the same language,” says Kevin. “Because of our service, we share a common set of experiences, and that makes starting conversations easier.”

Living the dream in Vermont

Kevin says that flexibility is one skill in particular he gained during his military service that he uses every day on the farm. He put his flexibility to the ultimate test in 2009 after retiring from the National Guard and learning that he had tonsil cancer. Luckily, he was treated and cured following radiation. “I knew that was a wakeup call for me to stop delaying,” he says. They immediately began raising chickens and hens, and initiated farming to provide for the family. Then, in 2011, they took their business to the next level and raised chickens for the local market.

Kevin jokingly says, “I don’t need to take a vacation. I’m living my dream right here!” And he emphasizes the importance of Patti’s contribution which includes direct sales, marketing, and outreach. With a background in marketing, she also published a blog about life on the farm. “We love what we do – we don’t consider farming ‘work’ – it is simply our lifestyle. Each day at Plew Farm is an adventure--an adventure we love,” she writes. 

When asked about his hopes for the future of the farm, he says he would love for his grandkids to want to stay here. “With five boys, I wouldn’t be surprised if later in life one of them would gravitate back here,” he said. But they will have to wait. “We joke about this, because I don’t anticipate going anywhere anytime soon,” he laughs.

This veteran and steward of the land is making a positive difference in his Vermont community. We salute the Plew family--during Veteran’s Day 2017--and everyday. Thank you Kevin for your dedicated service to our country, and to the health of our natural resources in Vermont.

Photos by Amy Overstreet, Patti Plew, and Jacob Mailhiot