Six Generations of Caring for the Land and Each Other
BROTHERS Dan and Jim Sheldon’s family dairy farming history in Washington County dates back as far as 1830. So it’s hard to tell if the land on which they operate Woody Hill Farms belongs to them or if they belong to the land.
Situated on 1,500 acres across three farm locations in Salem and Jackson, the sprawling dairy operation is one of the largest in the county and home to a herd of roughly 2,600 cows, including 1,250 milking cows and an ever-changing number of heifers and dry cows.
As Jim recalls, “The roots of today’s operation really took hold in 1946 when our father and uncle moved to Salem from Hebron to start Sheldon Brothers’ Potatoes & Dairy. While Dan and I grew up on the farm, Dad didn’t make us rise with the sun or participate unless we wanted to do so. He encouraged us to pursue whatever we were interested in and funded our college educations. Dan also spent some time in the Peace Corps. But, in time, we made our way back. Sometimes it just takes being away from things to make you recognize what you really want.”
A new generation brings a new vision
After spending a few years earning their keep alongside their father, Dan and Jim purchased the farm from him for $1. “That was the minimum he could sell it to us for,” recalls Jim. “It took me a number of
years to recognize the generosity and care, really, that he demonstrated in that transaction. He could have charged more but he was more invested in making sure we had what we needed to succeed.”
One of the first things the brothers, along with two cousins, did was take out a loan to build a barn that still stands at the main dairy operation. Next, they set their sights on expansion.
Dan recalls, “Very early on a farm credit consultant told us, ‘Whenever a neighboring farm goes up for sale, that farmer is going to ask you to pay double the value for it. And you’re going to do it. If you want to be in agriculture, you’ve got to have land — they’re not making more of it.’ We heeded that advice six times over the years, acquiring an additional 1,200 acres. It’s those purchases that has allowed us to build the operation to what it is today.”
But it was while thinking about where the farm will be tomorrow that the brothers began to consider what an ASA conservation easement might mean to Woody Hill Farms and their family.
A conservation easement helps bring the future into focus
“In 2000, my daughter Jenni and her husband Mark Cary joined the business,” says Jim. “And in 2012, they fully took over the operation. Now,” he adds with a chuckle and a wink, “Dan and I just do as we’re told.” On a more serious note, he says, “As our dad did with us, we began looking for ways to make sure that Jenni and Mark had the resources to not just run the farm, but to do it successfully. As one of the founders of ASA, I was well aware of how easements worked and what it could mean for them. There really was no hesitation on anyone’s part to pursue it.”
The recently implemented conservation easement covers Woody Hill Farms’ 283-acre property, also known as the Keys Farm, in Jackson, with extensive footage along the Battenkill. “The goal is to always improve and invest in the operation,” says Jim. “In recent years we made four major barn additions, including a free stall barn with sand beds and a self-feeding calf barn. We installed a new milking parlor and a waste storage and transfer system. Plus, we expanded our use of cover crops and implemented practices to buffer streams. Ultimately, it’s all about the land; both securing it and preserving it for long-term viability and the success of future generations that choose to follow the same path that the five previous generations of our family have taken.”
"Very early on a farm credit consultant told us, '...If you want to be in agriculture, you've got to have land - they're not making more of it."
- Dan Sheldon