Daton Fleury is a retired dairy farmer and sugar-maker in Richford. In December of last year, he retired from the Franklin County Natural Resources Conservation District’s supervisory board after 50 years of service. This August, Franklin County NRCD staff Jeannie Bartlett and Brodie Haenke sat down with him to learn more about the changes he’s seen in farming and conservation over his life.
(This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Scroll to the bottom for pictures.)
Jeannie Bartlett: We were joking that we’ve been listening to extra NPR recently, trying to hone our interview skills. [Laughter]
Brodie Haenke: Yeah, we’re no expert journalists… We’re hoping that you’ll tell us about the history of the Conservation District here in Franklin County – because you’ve been there, been part of it for almost it’s entire history, from almost the very beginning.
Starting of the District
Daton Fleury: I think Frank Myott was the main guy that started the District up here. Frank Myott, Ed Combs, Hosanna Montcalm…
Jeannie Bartlett: And how did you decide to get involved? What were you doing at the time?
Daton: Well, I was just farming same as usual, and Frank Myott had sold his farm so he didn’t qualify. And he called me and asked if I wanted to serve. That’s why I started at it.
Brodie Haenke: Why do you think he asked you?
Daton: I have no idea. [Laugher.] But they used to have a Goodyear Award [for conservation], and my father and Frank Myott went to Arizona on that as a Cooperator once. We always used good practices. When they came out with this rotational pasture program, we’d done that for years already. So it was nothing new to us.
At one time, Wilton Rowse ran an office out of the post office here in Richford. He worked for the Soil Conservation Service, but he worked this end [of the county]. So we had closer contact with the [Soil Conservation Service, now Natural Resources Conservation Service, “NRCS”] than we do now. There was the office in St. Albans and then the one up here. It was only about three guys in the whole outfit at that time.
Practices & Equipment
Brodie: Around the time when you were getting started, what practices were farmers most interested in doing with the Conservation District?
Daton: Well, they had a lot of practices then that kind of fell out of favor. One was drainage. And with that dragline they dug an awful lot of ponds, which was water conservation. And the other one was obstruction removal, taking rocks out of the meadows and stuff, which we did a lot of here. You ended up picking a lot of those by hand… which wasn’t fun.
Brodie: So it sounds like the conservation district owned some big equipment!
Daton: Yeah, well at that time there were very few private operators. So when I started, the District had a bulldozer and a dragline. The bulldozer mostly had a stone rake on it and was clearing land. Obstruction removal is what they called it. But with the cost of finding somebody to operate it and the breakdowns and stuff, it got to the point that it wasn’t paying. They sold it just when I started.
Nutrient Management & Phosphorus
Brodie: Was the conservation district helping farmers try to figure out how much fertilizer they should be putting on their fields?
Daton: I think so, yeah! Well, also it qualified you for certain free stuff by signing up, like… well, of course now they figure we had too much, but, superphosphate was free. If you had so many animals, you got so much free that you put on with it. And lime was the same way. You signed up for so many tons of lime and that was part of the programs.
But they used to bring superphosphate in on railroad cars.
Jeannie: And this was the Conservation District, that made it free?
Daton: I guess the USDA, I’m not sure that part – I just remember I had a lot of it. You put that in with the manure and it got spread that way.
Jeannie: So how did you feel when you found out that there was such a thing as too much phosphorus?
Daton: [Laughter] Yeah, I don’t know as though we ever did find out. But they keep telling us we’re running too much down to the lake. That’s all I know.
Jeannie: What do you think has changed in farming over the last 50 years?
Daton: Well, farmers are leaving left and right, they can’t stay in it no more. Not that they don’t want to, we grew up with that stuff. It’s just second nature to keep farming. [Growing up] you had, I think eleven farms from Richford to Berkshire Center that were milking cows. There’s one now. And, of course, he’s making up for all of them that went out.
There was a lot of real small farms. You had farms that had ten cows, or less, which went by the wayside a long time ago. When they went to where you had to have a milk tank, a lot of them didn’t want to invest that kind of money- which, you couldn’t blame them any.
When my father put a tank in, there were only eight in Franklin County.
[The bulk tank] eliminated a lot [of farms]. Because they just couldn’t see the price. Milk cans didn’t last too much longer because some of those guys sent milk that wasn’t cold. The night’s milk was cold, but the morning’s milk was just out of the cows and they took it all and put it together. Well, that didn’t help quality, let’s say.
And some of them at wintertime didn’t ship anything. But up here, we always sent milk. But at times the road didn’t get plowed for months. We used to go cross lots, go cut ‘cross that meadow and come out by the other farm. That’s the way we went to town.
Jeannie: So how did you ship your milk if the road wasn’t plowed?
Daton: Well we’d take it down there and they’d pick it up down at the neighbor’s.
Jeannie: How many cows did you have at that point?
Daton: Thirty-five, I think.
But we always came back to maple. When we sold syrup, it paid off the debt for the winter. That’s the way you kept going! We did a lot of other things besides that. We’d pedal sweetcorn and stuff downtown. There were a couple stores in Richford that would take all you could bring. Because if it was fresh, people would buy it!
Yeah… You didn’t get much for [the milk. And in the winter] you didn’t have much milk [to sell.] I know my father said at one time if we get three fifty a hundred [pounds of milk] and it costs you seventy-five cents a hundred to get it hauled, that didn’t leave too much. But that’s the way it was.
But we got by. We always had that big garden and we never went hungry. But you didn’t have all these, well – you didn’t even have tractors at the time, it was horses. Very few places had tractors.
Jeannie: What was it like when people started using tractors?
Daton: Well, it was completely different. My father bought one that the bank had repossessed. The guy couldn’t pay for it and the bank sold it to [my father]. That’s what we started with. And of course, at the time there was nothing much that went with it. So you used it for drawing stuff, but until you got the equipment to go with it…
Brodie: How old were you when the farm got the tractor?
Daton: I don’t know. Well, ten, I guess.
Daton: You see at one time it was [four] creameries: two in East Berkshire, and two in Enosburg taking canned milk.
Jeannie: Do you know what the creameries did with the milk?
Daton: Very little of it went for fluid milk. They separated it, so most of those places made butter and powder. There was a market for powder back then and right now, I guess it’s not good. But there was always a market for skim powder. The butter I think mostly went to cities, but the powder I’m not quite sure. A lot of it went into animal feed – high protein stuff.
Jeannie: And when those Creameries shut down…?
Daton: Oh, same as everything else they kept shutting them down one at a time until there was just one in Enosburg.
Selling the farm
Jeannie: When did you sell your cows?
Daton: Steve sold them probably six or seven years ago. He had a chance to sell them right when the price was high. He said that last milk check was the highest price he ever got for milk. But they had a chance to sell and they all [cows, heifers, calves] went to one place. The guy who bought them was doing a real good job with them, but he lost his lease and I don’t know what happened to the cows.
Jeannie: And how many cows was it when Steve sold?
Brodie: Is that the most that you’d ever had?
Daton: Yeah, well, right around there.
Daton: The sugaring operation has completely changed from what it was. Because we had only buckets, you had to go and get them every day. But now Steve’s got it all on tubing and with a vacuum on it and we still boil with wood. I have people that come here and say that it’s better than what they get from boiling with oil and [reverse osmosis], and especially the pressure filters. Because they put that stuff in it in order to get it through [the filter]. And people say they can taste it… Well, that ain’t nothing! The guy up the road here, ‘course he has got a big operation. I had two different guys that worked for him come by and buy syrup. And up there, it’s free if they want some! [Laughter]
Now, I’m not saying it wasn’t good syrup, but…
Brodie: When do you remember the conservation district working on the first stream tree-planting projects?
Daton: I don’t remember doing it until we got into selling trees. But the Missisquoi River Basin Association, they’ve planted a pile of trees. And they were getting young people involved in it so they could see what it was doing. And there’s plenty of things right along-side the road, that you can see where they went. Right at the end of State Park Road, on 105? They tried old cars and everything in there before and [it kept eroding]. But when they planted trees, it stopped it. And down at Winn Paradee’s that little stream. They planted trees up through there and I tell you, it’s a regular forest out through there now.
Jeannie: Do you feel like there was a moment when you started seeing the benefit of trees? Or have you always been a fan of trees along rivers?
Daton: We always have.
Jeannie: You probably know that not everyone shares your appreciation of trees.
Daton: Well, I realize that, but I’ll tell you what: To me trees are the biggest benefit we’ve got here. You know even just the carbon [dioxide]. People don’t realize that, but it’s part of it. When they cut down the rain forest in Brazil, that there’s a big thing.
Brodie: While we’re on that, I one thing I wanted to ask you is, have you noticed the weather changing?
Daton: I don’t really too much. I mean, up and down, you know. Some years are warmer and wetter and vice versa. But I guess they say that the temperature is going up all the time. I know we didn’t ever start sugaring until 1st of March. Well, now, if you don’t start 1st of January, you’re going to lose part of it. So it’s got to be changing.
Daton: The other thing is wildlife has changed, too. Very seldom we ever saw deer here back in the 40’s. Now you see them all the time. Of course, there were no turkeys here at all. And geese and ducks- didn’t ever see those either.
Brodie: I remember reading that there were a lot of ponds being dug on farms [in the ‘50s], one selling point was that you could attract ducks to your farm.
Daton: I imagine some places, yeah. We got a pond, way up in the pasture, but whether there’s any ducks there or not I don’t know. Well right there on that lagoon, which they ain’t supposed to be… The old duck hatched a whole bunch up there this spring. There was nine little ones out there. Yep. There’s usually a couple of them swimming around there now. I don’t see them right now. The other day that I was at home there was a whole mess of turkeys out in that field. There were six old ones and some of the little ones.
Brodie: Ever seen a moose come through your property?
Daton: Oh, yeah, yeah. There was one came one time, and we had some dry cows over there and it scared the living daylights out of them. That moose hung around here all day long, went down there in the pasture and laid down. I talked to the game warden. He told me, he says, You can take it. He says all you got to do is call me and I’ll tag it. But the moose finally left and I was just as happy. But the big thing around here is bear – there didn’t used to be any.
Brodie: Yeah. I know a lot of trees have grown back where there they’d been cleared a hundred years ago. Do you think that’s part of the reason that there’s been a bounce-back of wildlife?
Daton: Yeah, I think so. I’ve got two people with game cameras back here and mostly they’re looking for deer, but my nephew has one on the other side of the sugar place and, he’s gotten a picture of a bear I think three times this year.
If you’d been here before- [barn swallows] nested up there [in the porch rafters]. I kept knocking it down and they kept building it faster and I’d knock it down, and finally I said, OK, I give up. [Laughter] They raised four out there.
Brodie: Has the view right here changed much since you’ve lived here?
Daton: I think the land that’s open is cleared more than it used to be. That whole lower pasture had stones all over it, which we cleared.
Jeannie: It’s amazing – this is a view that doesn’t look like it has probably changed a lot, which is kind of a rare thing. Probably a couple of new houses that weren’t there…
Daton: Yeah, but there’s places got a lot more houses than we have here. Places there was nothing there before and there is now. And some of them you wonder if that was a good place to put a house, you know. To me, it was marginal, maybe wet, but they seem to do something with it.
That’s what a lot of farmers did, they sold off lots, where we never did. You go up the road here. Where Steve lives was part of the farm up top and there’s one, two, three… There’s six houses up there now. They weren’t all one farm, but mostly. I realize people have to live somewhere, so you can’t blame them too much. Some of them want to get away from cities. Maybe you like it in a city, it bothered me.
Brodie: I like it out here.
Daton: That’s good. We put up with a lot of truck traffic, course, with these big farms. But it’s farm country, it don’t bother me any. Some days it doesn’t smell the best, but that don’t last very long.
Jeannie: Would you have any advice for a farmer trying to start out today?
Daton: You can’t start in the milk business because there’s no market. Won’t anybody take it, it’s that bad. I guess you could start out with other stuff. Like those guys up Hyde Park – they sold the cows and went to goats. I’m not sure I’d want to milk 1500 goats. But they got it set up so they got twenty on the side, I guess, and milk forty at a time.
Jeannie: Is there something that you think a farmer starting out today should make sure to listen to from farmers of your generation?
Daton: Well, it’s going to be a hard pull no matter what they go into.
Many thanks to Daton Fleury for his years of thoughtful leadership on our Board, and for sitting down to share these stories with us. Thanks also to Stephen Fleury and Jason Fleury for their support. This interview received financial support from the VT Agricultural Clean Water Initiative Program (staff time) and the Lake Champlain Basin Program (audio equipment.)