Meet the Farmers: Two Addison County Cattle Farmers Share Their Philosophy

By NORA PEACHIN

The Cesarios’ livestock graze at Meeting Place Pastures in Brandon.

CORNWALL — Cheryl and Marc Cesario have been managing their beef cattle farm, Meeting Place Pastures, since 2009. The couple bought their first property and expanded in 2016, both with the help of the Vermont Land Trust. Today, in addition to these two properties, the couple rents land around Middlebury. They graze 35 beef cattle for Middlebury College every year, a portion of the 90 cattle the college purchases annually.

In contrast to the rurality of Vermont, the Cesarios grew up in suburbia. Marc first developed his interest in farming at the University of Massachusetts (UMass), where he studied Environmental Science. He recalled how, at the time, “mainstream environmentalism seemed to sort of take the humans out of the ecosystem. 

“It was always an ‘us versus them’ thing, which didn’t meld with my vision,” Marc said.

He wondered if “maybe it would be better if we viewed ourselves as part of the ecosystem.” Rather than seeing farms as inherently bad, Marc wanted to figure out how to make farms part of the solution.

He left UMass after his freshman year and got a job at a vegetable farm in Amherst. “When I took that job, I was a vegetarian,” Marc said. “I ended up being there for about ten years. After about four or five years, I managed everything on the farm that had to do with livestock. So, I was able to start debt-free and rent-free.” 

“The debt came later,” Cheryl joked. She explained the challenges that came with starting their own farm. 

“The trouble is, when you want to go buy a farm, it’s really difficult if you don’t have a lot of assets,” she said. “Anything that was somewhat decent, with a livable house and a facility that was standing, was off the bat about a half a million dollars.”

For years, she would look online for opportunities. Finally, she found the property that they currently farm. They started as a diversified operation – “meat birds, a lot of pigs, not very many cows.”

About four or five years ago, around the time when their daughter Normandy was born, they shifted their focus exclusively to cows. 

“We looked into custom or contract grazing, which is pretty much summer camp for cows,” Marc explained. “We have three or four different clients, who send us cattle… and we get paid per animal per day [to graze them here]. Before, we were trying to sell meat to customers. Now, we’re selling grass to a different customer.”

Cheryl and Marc described how they simulate natural conditions for the cows. The farmers act as predators, keeping the cattle moving across the landscape with temporary fencing. This prevents the cows from overgrazing and allows them to stay in herds.

Marc described the “benefit to the animal, benefit to the land, and benefit to our wallets” that comes from their management style. “The cow is going out there, and harvesting its own forage, as opposed to us cutting that forage and using fuel and equipment and labor to bring that feed to a cow in a barn,” he said. “And then that cow is depositing its own urine and manure on the field, instead of us having to use fuel and labor to collect it from the barn and put that back out on the fields.”

However, Marc continued, “unfortunately, over the last fifty or sixty years, a lot of animals have been bred for not pasture-rearing. They’ve been bred to function on grain, or with mechanical harvesting, or with a lot of individual treatment, particularly in the dairy world. Everyone is focusing on weight gain, and that has geared breeding practices and protocols.”

“We’re trying to, in our own way, modify the gene pool for a more vigorous herd,” Cheryl said. 

“We’re creating an environment for the animal to be an animal, and hopefully in twenty years, they can fend for themselves for the most part, beyond the daily moves,” Marc added.

The Cesarios see themselves as more than just beef producers. Marc believes his main job is to make sure the solar energy, nutrient, water and carbon cycles are functioning within their ecosystem. He posits that managing beef is almost the byproduct of the aforementioned work.

Mainstream environmentalism seemed to sort of take the humans out of the ecosystem. It was always an ‘us versus them’ thing, which didn’t meld with my vision.”

— MARC CESARIO

They explained how they maintain a diversity of healthy grasses, and manage for deep roots, in order to sequester carbon in their soil. Cheryl also noted that perennial plants decrease runoff and increase water infiltration.

“If all the agricultural soils in the world worked on increasing organic matter in the soil by one percent, we could reduce the amount of carbon in the air to preindustrial levels. That’s not hard at all,” Marc explained.

Meeting Place Pastures has increased the total carbon levels in their soil over the past 10 years by 150 percent. “And that’s just by managing for deep roots,” Marc said. 

“What we’re seeing these days is droughts and flooding, droughts and flooding. Let’s heal our soils to be able to hold onto that water so we don’t have this flooding,” he said.

An energy audit conducted by the University of Vermont found that Meeting Place Pastures was carbon neutral on the production side. They are also a net zero greenhouse gas emitter. “This is not a case of doing less bad, this is a case of doing more good,” the pair concluded.  

Marc spoke to how the management of the cows, specifically with regard to the use of fossil fuels, is a significant culprit of environmental damage. The couple acknowledged that there are many beef farms doing harm, raising “so-called grass-fed beef.” “It’s challenging. How is the customer supposed to know?” Marc said.

The couple has had to deal with many people’s misconceptions about their work. 

“I’ve had people come up to me at the farmers’ market and tell me they’re going to shoot me in the head, telling me that’s what I do to animals and therefore that’s what should happen to me,” Marc explained.

“It is true — I’m choosing to kill an animal. But I’m creating a healthy habitat for microbes, so if you look at it holistically, I’m creating much more life in this situation than death,” he said. “But maybe as humans, we relate more to a cow than we do to a worm or a microbe. We see more of ourselves in a cow than in a microbe.” 

The couple spoke about how any food and any farm can have a positive or negative impact on the environment. Their wish is for consumers to ask themselves if their food is having a positive impact on the environment, rather than simply deciding to eat meat or not. In Marc’s eyes, this approach is too black and white.

Cheryl and Marc both addressed people’s sometimes unrealistic expectations of agriculture. 

“I think there’s a customer base that’s putting too much on the farmer on a daily basis, requiring them to do it all and not being realistic about those farmers’ lives,” Marc said. “And that’s a cultural and societal problem.”

 He went on to cite the high rates of suicide among agricultural workers, underling the pressure many farmers feel. While the exact numbers for rates of suicide among farmers are uncertain, according to the Center for Disease Control and Protection, death by suicide is more common in rural areas than in urban ones.

Despite the challenges the couple faces, they value their ability to provide for themselves and their family — which now includes Normandy. 

“It’s pretty cool to be able to look at where we came from and what we’ve created, and to know that sunshine pays for all this stuff,” Marc said.

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Meet the Farmers: Two Addison County Cattle Farmers Share Their Philosophy