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In Suburban South Burlington, a Holdout Farmer Plans to Expand

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Corie Pierce - MOLLY WALSH
  • Molly Walsh
  • Corie Pierce

When for-sale signs sprouted on the Auclair Farm in South Burlington last September, Corie Pierce knew that she had to act quickly. She hoped to acquire or conserve the rolling 375-acre property near her own organic beef operation, Bread & Butter Farm, which straddles the SoBu and Shelburne town line on Cheesefactory Road.

It seemed unlikely that the plum Auclair property would remain agricultural. It's in the city's Southeast Quadrant, an area being developed so quickly that the South Burlington City Council has taken preliminary steps to impose a nine-month moratorium on new construction projects. Each evening, rush-hour traffic from Dorset Street and Hinesburg Road heads south to paved cul-de-sacs in fields where cows once grazed. The Auclair Farm is a bucolic oasis.

"There's just been this relentless march of development," said Sarah Dopp, president of the South Burlington Land Trust.

Although zoning rules aim to regulate growth in the Southeast Quadrant, hundreds of new homes have been built there over the last few years. Roughly 280 could have been constructed on the Auclair property, one of the largest remaining tracts of open farmland in a suburb of 19,000 people.

But this time, farmers and conservationists beat the bulldozers. Last month, the City of South Burlington, the Vermont Land Trust, the nonprofit Dirt Capital Partners, and Bread & Butter cooperated on a transaction to acquire the Auclair land for $2.8 million. The deal sets the stage for the property to be permanently conserved for farming and public recreation, and it gives Bread & Butter an option to purchase much of the land in the coming years. In the short term, Bread & Butter will manage and lease it.

"I still don't believe it," said Pierce, who played a key role in orchestrating the transaction.

So, too, did the Auclair family, which has owned the property for four generations.

"We're very happy that it's going to continue to be farmed," said Jennifer Auclair Morway, who grew up on the farm, which was founded by her great-grandparents, Arthur and Grace Auclair. "We just wish we could have kept it."

Arthur Auclair started out delivering milk over dirt roads in a horse-drawn buggy. As his markets expanded, he grew the dairy operation by acquiring more land — and more cows.

His son Tony Auclair diversified with the Auclair Riding Ranch in 1967, which included a large stable of horses and offered trail rides and hayrides. Tony and his wife, Milly, also taught square dancing. Multiple generations of Auclairs built houses along Hinesburg Road. Eventually, the family's combined holdings reached more than 1,000 acres in four towns and 400 head of cattle.

Tony Auclair - COURTESY OF THE AUCLAIR FAMILY
  • Courtesy Of The Auclair Family
  • Tony Auclair

Morway grew up bottle-feeding heifers, helping Milly in the family's tack shop, and occasionally driving her grandfather's big Cadillac in the fields. By the time he died in 2011, at age 88, most of the cows had been sold off and some of the land, too, according to Morway. The family held on to the core of the property until last month.

About a mile away, near the T-intersection of Cheesefactory and Hinesburg roads, Bread & Butter hosts 45 Devon beef cows grazing the fields, 25 pigs nosing about, chickens and a vegetable CSA program. With Friday Burger Nights in summer and Music for Sprouts classes for children led by Pierce's husband, Chris Dorman, the 143-acre suburban sanctuary has become a community institution.

Pierce, its sole owner, grew up in New Hampshire and, as a child, visited her grandparents on their farm in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom. She later worked summers at a New Hampshire vegetable farm, planting lettuce and pulling carrots.

"The first day I worked there, I fell in love with it," she said.

Pierce, 44, earned a bachelor's degree in biology and environmental studies at Middlebury College. After working as a teacher, she attended a farmer-training program in Santa Cruz, Calif., then landed a job managing and teaching at a winter vegetable-growing program at Michigan State University. There, she met her husband, with whom she now has two children, ages 7 and 11.

The couple moved to Vermont a decade ago so that Pierce could start her own farm. She bought her land from the Leduc family, who, like the Auclairs, also ran a South Burlington dairy for about 100 years. When the last of the clan decided to retire from farming, they worked with the Vermont Land Trust to conserve and sell the property. Pierce bought it with a business partner, Adam Wilson, who managed the pastures and sold bread from the farm. Two years ago, he left to start his own bakery in Huntington called Running Stone Bread. 

For years, Pierce had eyed the Auclair land for a possible expansion of her operation. But given its value and competition from developers, she thought it would be impossible. When she reached out, though, the Auclair family was interested in conservation — for the right price and under a tight time line.

Pierce contacted city officials. They were willing to discuss using the city's open-space funding to help.

The early interest was encouraging, but things on the farm in the fall of 2017 were not. On October 13, a Ferrisburgh slaughterhouse recalled 133 pounds of Bread & Butter's hamburger meat after E. coli sickened two children who ate at Burger Night. They recovered, and Pierce later had to issue assurances that the farm's food was safe.

A few weeks later, a windstorm wrecked the plastic-sheathed hoop houses where Bread & Butter grew greens during winter, and cold killed the crops. Then coyotes attacked the farm's turkeys one night under a full moon. "They took all our big ones. It was awful," Pierce said.

Pierce, who has four full-time employees, didn't pay herself last year and dipped into savings to help the farm stay solvent. But she continued to work on the Auclair transaction, with support from one of her employees, Brandon Bless, who hopes to one day become a partner in the Bread & Butter.

Pierce reached out to the Vermont Land Trust, as well as to Massachusetts-based Dirt Capital, which was founded by a former Goldman Sachs exec. The organization provides startup and bridge loans to farms around the Northeast. Pierce, Morway and Bless also met with city officials.

Billy Auclair, Jennifer's father, in 1961 - COURTESY OF THE AUCLAIR FAMILY
  • Courtesy Of The Auclair Family
  • Billy Auclair, Jennifer's father, in 1961

They pulled together a deal that satisfied the Auclairs and effectively took the land off the market. Multiple developers also made offers, but they all involved housing developments, said Morway, who, with her sisters, is a trustee for her grandfather's estate.

"When we were approached by Bread & Butter, we went pretty far out of our way to make that work," she said. "It was a long process."

The Auclair land was sold in three parcels for a combined $2.8 million. The Vermont Land Trust bought a chunk on the east side of Hinesburg Road, which it intends to sell to Bread & Butter.

Dirt Capital purchased two other parcels, one on the north side of Cheesefactory Road and the other on the south side. The nonprofit plans to sell most of the land to Bread & Butter or another farm. The City of South Burlington contributed $605,000 to an Auclair family trust to reduce the Dirt Capital purchase price, in exchange securing rights for trails or another public use.

The project isn't fully cooked, though. The Vermont Land Trust is working to secure state, federal and private funding to create conservation easements that legally restrict development, according to Siobhan Smith, its vice president for conservation and stewardship. Those easements would lower the future price tag on the land to its agricultural value, so Bread & Butter, and possibly other farms, could afford to buy it. Other details also need to be worked out, including trail routes.

In addition, Bread & Butter is talking to affordable housing builder Champlain Housing Trust about the possibility of carving off enough Auclair land to build approximately nine houses, possibly for farmworkers. There is little to no affordable housing near the farm, and using a small piece could ease the shortage and still keep most of the land open, Pierce said.

It's a complex deal but an important one, Smith said: "We're at step one in this march forward, because now the land is at least owned by a variety of folks who are pursuing a conservation outcome."

One naysayer has emerged. City Councilor Thomas Chittenden opposed the council's decision to allocate city funds for the project. He called it a "vote to enrich Bread & Butter Farm" and said that it would have been better for the city to purchase the land outright and maintain full control. He also voted against an interim zoning resolution that placed a temporary moratorium on new development in the Southeast Quadrant and some other parts of the city, calling it "heavy-handed."

The council voted 4-1 on October 15 in favor of the draft resolution, and it went into effect temporarily. A public hearing and a possible final vote are set for November 13.

Chittenden, who owns land in the Southeast Quadrant and is a descendent of Vermont's first governor, believes even a temporary building freeze is unfair to landowners and people who need homes. The housing shortage has driven prices up, and landowners should be able to build according to development regulations, he said in a statement.

Others disagree. Dopp, the president of the South Burlington Land Trust, said it's vitally important that people have open space wherever they live. She is in the process of conserving her 40-acre parcel in the Southeast Quadrant and currently leases pastureland to Bread & Butter. She hopes that the Auclair transaction will preserve agriculture in one corner of South Burlington for many years to come.

"When does it stop?" Dopp asked about the pace of development. "We sort of feel that South Burlington has done a great deal toward contributing to the housing stock in Chittenden County. Do we have to do it all? I don't think so."

The original print version of this article was headlined "In Suburban South Burlington, a Holdout Farmer Plans to Expand"

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