Before the Choinieres’ farm was certified organic in 2002, Guy says, “We spent way too much time tending to sick cows. Everybody told me that going organic would improve the health of my animals and that in turn would keep our family healthy. Since we transitioned to organic, all of that has fallen into place. We worked hard to improve our soil health which improved the feed we grew for the animals which improved their health and our family’s health.”
When the Choinieres moved here from Canada three generations ago, they figured out quickly why the land was so cheap. “On this side of the Rock River, it’s sand. They say Montreal was built on sand trucked out of this area. So learning how to build soil has been my top priority because the health of the farm overall comes from that. I’ve been lucky to be able to work with my grandfather and my dad. After 60 years of each generation learning from the one before it, we’ve made mistakes, but we also did a lot of things right. I’m going to do the same.
Guy appreciates the network of Organic Valley family farms in their area. Over the years, the other farmers have provided valuable advice to support the Choinieres and their work to improve the soil. “The first few years after going organic, I went overboard to micromanage the soil quality. But one of my farmer-mentors gave me the greatest advice, which was, ‘Just give it the right nutrients at the right time and it will do the work.’ Now I focus only on four ingredients: air, water, organic matter and minerals. I don’t try to micromanage beyond that.”
As for the cows, the entire 100 acres on the home farm is dedicated to pasture. Ninety Holsteins rotate twice a day to fresh forages throughout the grazing season. The family owns more acreage down the road, but it’s too far for the animals to walk, so Guy dedicates that land to growing winter feed, mostly hay.
The Choinieres’ farm has become what used to be the norm in agriculture: a classic diversified farm, where farmers grow and raise as much as much as they can right on farm to provide for their own needs, plus some extra to sell into the local economy to support folks who don’t have a farm but really appreciate good, healthy food from their neighbors. Think of it as the original local food movement. The Choinieres raise chickens (broilers and layers), pigs and beef that they sell from their farm store.
The farm is a constant learning opportunity for visitors. “Our local resort is very connected to area farms,” Guy said. “We host a weekly farm tour during the resort season for their guests. We also do a lot of tours for school kids and professional organizations. And because of the farm store, we attract people from the city [Burlington] who really like to have a tour before they buy food.” Since the Choinieres’ milk goes into Stonyfield organic dairy products, they have a video cam of their operation on the Stonyfield website to support the connection for consumers who want to know where their food comes from.
“It’s a lot of work and we’re all really busy, but because it’s such positive work, we don’t get discouraged. When we were conventional, we didn’t like what we were doing, which was treating sick animals most of the time instead of putting our time into productivity. Now when Beth comes home from her off-farm job, she jumps right in. My son and daughter, Matt and Hannah, are superpeople. They’re active in school and doing great academically, and I think that’s because they see their work going toward something positive.”
Hannah has decided to go into healthcare, and Matt recently won a $10,000 Sustainable Agriculture Scholarship from Annie’s Homegrown.
The family lives and works together on the farm. Beth and Guy live in the original farmhouse built in 1873, and Henry and Raymonde, Guy’s father and mother, live in a house they built for themselves within a stone’s throw of the original house.
Henry and Raymonde, are in their seventies and are a vital part of daily farm life. “At first, they were a little skeptical about the organic thing because I was creating so much change, but they never held back,” says Guy. “They let me do it and they’ve been on board ever since. My Mom takes care of the chickens, does the bookwork and keeps us organized and well fed, and Dad’s in the barn fixing tractors.
“Most and best of all,” Guy says with smile, “I give props to Beth. She had never set foot on a farm before we were married 20 years ago, and she has never complained once about this crazy life. She has been our rock solid support. I never would have been able to do this without her.”