White Pines, Red Cedars Thrive in Vermont’s Abandoned Pastures

Published by the Vermont Community Newspaper Group in The Other Paper on November 23, 2022

Young white pine tree getting started in an abandoned cow pasture.

“Look there,” the retired sheep farmer said as he slowed down and pointed to a ledgy, overgrown hillside. “That’s what I was talking about – see the white pines and junipers?” We were driving along a back road a number of years ago as he was telling me the story of his dairy farming neighbor’s struggles, and how I could read some of the chapters of that story in the plants.

In years past, he told me, the scrubby hillside had once been open pasture that the dairy farmer had run all his cows and heifers in. The animals had kept the grass and other greenery well grazed, except for the prickly-leaved plants they avoided, like white pine tree saplings and juniper shrubs. What the cows didn’t eat, the farmer clipped out every year or two so they wouldn’t shade out any of the valuable grass. 

Juniper shrubs are very prickly so cows avoid eating them, and they survive in pastures if not clipped out.

But the dairy industry’s latest market pressures were pushing his neighbor to either size up or shut down his milking operation, and he finally decided to sell his cows. The pasture was empty. A second neighbor down the road, though, decided to size up and asked the farmer if he could lease the empty pasture for his heifers. The pasture was too far away from the other neighbor’s barn to walk the milking cows back and forth twice a day for milking, but the heifers that were too young to be milked could graze there without much trouble. The second neighbor would then be able to increase the number of milking cows on his own pasture once his heifers were moved.

The first neighbor agreed, and the heifers were brought down the road and happily grazed in the pasture that summer. Over the following years, the heifers continued to graze the grasses, although there were fewer of them than the cows that had been there previously. With no more pressure to maximize the grazing area, the regular clipping of the prickly-needled saplings ended.

Now that the pasture was undergrazed, the prickly tree and shrub seedlings got well established. The time came when the second neighbor decided to shut down, too, and the pasture no longer had any grazing farm animals. But the white pine trees the heifers hadn’t eaten had a head start on the other plants that started coming in as the pasture transitioned toward forest. 

This white pine tree got a head start on the other trees seeding in to an undergrazed pasture that was later abandoned.

After the sheep farmer clued me into this landscape history story, I started to look for this pattern in my other research projects. Where I could, I watched for pastures that were still being used, those being undergrazed, and those recently abandoned, and looked at the kinds of trees that were first coming in and their relative ages. At sites further along in their forest regrowth, I looked at aerial photos I could find from decades past to reconstruct the stages of their landscape histories. 

I noticed that not all abandoned pastures went through an undergrazing stage, but those that did showed this pattern repeatedly: in the undergrazed pasture situations, the prickly white pines, especially, stood out above the goldenrod and other early meadow plants. The head start the white pines had over the poplars, birches and other early species that came in after grazing stopped is visible even many decades later. In the areas of the Champlain Valley with limy soils, red cedar trees were the ones getting the head start. The large white pines and the red cedar trees then became good clues for me to watch for.

Red cedar in the foreground and white pine in the distance in an abandoned pasture.

With this new focus, I also began to notice that other farmland uses, such as old corn fields and hay fields, often had somewhat different reforesting patterns than the old pastures. When I tuned into the subtler differences, I found I could also use those forest patterns as clues to reconstruct a more detailed history of the past farm land use on research sites. 

With 80% of the Vermont landscape having been cleared of forest in the late 1800s, and a significant percentage of that open land in pasture, there are lots of places where the pasture abandonment stories have played out. In Vermont, we are currently losing pasture land at a higher rate than other land uses. As dairy farming is transitioning to feeding cows inside year round now rather than pasturing them, the next chapter in pasture abandonment is being written.

During stick season, I find myself looking for the green foliage of the white pine trees and red cedars standing out against the mostly brown forests, and look for other signs of abandoned pasturing. When I find them, I also think about the generations of dairy farmers who’ve made difficult decisions about their land that can be read in patterns on the landscape decades later.

Copyright 2022 Jane Dorney