Leon Corse represents the fifth generation of Corses on their 400 acre farm in southern Vermont. Their presence on the land for 142 years is a testament to intelligence, patience and a strong stewardship ethic.
The land they have worked for a century and a half is “Hill Country,” and it is hard farming. The farm sits at an elevation of 2000 feet in the southern range of Vermont’s Green Mountains and, as Leon points out, it is not well suited to crops and the machinery required to grow and harvest them. It is because of this landscape that Corses have always pastured their cows.
Much of their owned acreage is woods, some of which is managed by Leon’s brother as what is known in New England as a “sugar bush.” In other words, the trees are tapped for maple syrup production. For farming purposes, only 80 acres are open to pasture and tillable land, not enough to feed the Corses’ herd of 60 Holstein and Holstein/Jersey cross cows. But the Corses have been smart over the years. While they have only 80 acres to farm, they actually farm close to 250 acres in the area.
To do that, the Corse family has agreements with 26 surrounding landowners to use and work land that was once 15 other farms, but that people have since bought up for second homes, or retirement homes. It is a win-win situation. The acreage is kept open and tended, and landowners experience the added benefit of a landscape scrupulously maintained as the bucolic place they were attracted to in the first place. As Leon points out, “In this area there’s actually more available land than there are farmers.”
The Corse dairy was not always certified organic. “Luckily, Organic Valley had a producer solicitation meeting for area farmers. I went, mostly out of curiosity, and I came home thinking, ‘Wow, we really need to consider doing this.’ Six weeks later, I made my decision.” Initially, the Corse’s decision to transition to organic was based entirely on finances, but, Leon says, “It didn’t take very long for the philosophy to follow. We didn’t think the transition would be too difficult, because we were pretty close to organic already.”
The farm was certified organic in 2008. “Most of the landowners we work with were quite supportive of the transition. They wanted to know where the milk was going so they could support it, so in the process we brought along a few customers to Organic Valley!”
After college, Leon “had all kinds of ideas about manipulating the pastures for more or better this and that. It took me ten years to realize that you need to work with Mother Nature. We have not put plows in the ground in at least twenty years. We manage what’s out there and we sometimes frost-seed with clover. If there’s one obvious difference in our pastures since we went organic, it’s that we have more clover. The synthetic fertilizer we used on our pastures before forced the grass to grow so fast, the clover didn’t have a chance to come through.”
The Corse Farm Dairy has received countless top quality milk awards, both when they were conventional and since they have transitioned to organic. Leon tells people, “Our cows have been pastured for 142 years. I think pasturing is part of what makes our milk so high quality. Indoors, our free stalls are bedded with kiln-dried sawdust. We re-bed the stalls every week and we maintain them three times a day. I think that goes a long way to keeping the cows comfortable, clean and happy. Plus, there’s strict consistency to how the cows are handled and milked. Linda sets the standard there because she’s the most meticulous. We all do the routine exactly the same.”
Linda and Leon have raised three children on the farm. Son, Caleb is working off farm now while son Henry is away at college, but their oldest child, Abbie, moved back to the farm two and half years ago. After getting a degree in journalism and working in that field for a while, she realized that she wanted to do something where she could feel some ownership.
Leon chuckles and says; “As the kids were growing up folks always said how lucky I was to have sons to take over the farm. I always said I’m betting on my daughter. And she would always say, ‘No way!’Abbie is dyed-in-the-wool organic. Since she came back right on the heels of the transition, I like to think she kind of transitioned with the farm.” Abbie is the sixth generation of Corses on their farm, her son, Eli (7 months) could be the seventh.
But Leon’s main concern is that the farm continues to operate as a farm, whether it remains in the family or not. “I think the fact that it’s organic helps to ensure that outcome. People have worked for hundreds of years to make this place what it is, even before my family took over this farm 142 years ago. It would really hurt to see all that work go for nothing.”