Conservation Opens the Door for a New Way of Farming
Transition from dairy to regenerative farming allows for new understanding and opportunities
"The easement really made it possible to transform the farm and my approach to farming. Now when I look ahead, all I see are opportunities.” —Brad Wiley
MUCH OF BRAD WILEY’S childhood was spent in the company of his grandfather taking care of the family’s 465-acre farm in Johnsonville. “Thanks to my father’s undeniable talent for running a business and his passion for the herd, my grandfather was able to concentrate on the physical farm and I was encouraged to follow along. He fixed everything, including the land. Looking back on it now, I realize a lot of what he was doing—managing the wood lot, shoring up the creek beds, manicuring the fields—was conservation. He never overfertilized or over-tilled and he regularly rotated crops. He was always looking ahead.”
Many years later, it became clear to all that the gift for looking ahead had made its way down the family tree to Wiley. “In 1990, a few years after I graduated college and returned home to help run the dairy operation, I started going to town meetings,” recalls Wiley. “It seemed to me the developers in the area were having too much fun. I knew that if someone didn’t make a fuss, those folks wouldn’t play fair. ‘Fair’ being adhering to the planning code established by my father and others. I wanted to do what I could to keep the land from being lost to farming in the future.” Meanwhile, back on the family farm,looking ahead was proving problematic.
When more is less
Working alongside his father, Wiley kept the dairy operation going. “Honestly, it had never been suggested that we ever do anything other than dairy,” says Wiley. “This place has been dairy since all the way back to 1882. But things got tough, real tough, in the early 2000s. Not only did my dad step away from the operation, but we were on this hamster wheel of always trying to keep up. We’d add more cows to make more money but that required more buildings, more inputs and so on. I couldn’t see a way out. I scaled things back to make it more manageable and started to rent a little bit of the land. And while I didn’t have a lot of debt, even that wasn’t enough. In time, I sold off the cows and began renting everything but the buildings.”
A new perspective brings new opportunities
Then, around 2018, Wiley connected with Elizabeth Collins, an old family friend. As it turned out, Collins also had a passion for land and farming but took a very different approach to the effort. As she shared her experience and knowledge gained from working on organic, grass-fed beef and mixed-use farms, the self-described ‘stubbornly open-minded’ Wiley began to look at the family farm through a new lens. “Elizabeth’s holistic approach to farming was eye-opening. It was much bigger picture thinking and it helped me realize I had a lot more choices and opportunities than I thought,” says Wiley.
Just as the two began to explore new ways for operating the farm, they learned of a new dairy transition program. Wiley reached out to Renee Bouplon at ASA who was familiar with Otter Creek Farm thanks to previous easement applications that were not awarded. But this time was different. As it turned out, the dairy transition program aimed to help farmers accomplish exactly what Wiley and Collins had set their sights on: transforming Otter Creek Farm from a dairy operation to a diversified farm that worked in harmony with the land.
“The timing was uncanny,” recalls Elizabeth. “You had to apply within one year
of ceasing dairy operations and Brad had done that eleven months earlier. As a result, our application got accepted within 30 days. That was a huge weight off our shoulders and allowed us to think even bigger about what we could do.”
Transforming the farm for the betterment of all
The walls of the Otter Creek Farm office are covered with lists and both short- and long-range plans. But the most important information is contained in their mission statement: Otter Creek Farm is committed to the stewardship and use of our resources to produce income to regenerate and maintain the opportunities the farm provides for the family, customers and community.
Today, Wiley and Collins are using their resources to manage a herd of 40 grass-fed beef cows and their calves, grow 100 acres of hay to feed the herd and sell to other farmers, and operate a Farmstay featuring three fully outfitted platform tent sites that provide guests with a chance to connect to the natural world and be introduced to the workings of a farm.
“The easement really made it possible to transform the farm and my approach to farming,” says Wiley. “Now when I look ahead, all I see are opportunities.”