From Liberal Arts to Livestock: A Vermont Couple’s Path to Regenerative Farming

By Caroline Santinelli

Skier, yes. Climber, definitely. Sailor, absolutely. But farmer? That was a surprise to Sean Willerford, who in 2018 left the world of corporate tech start-ups to join his partner Annie Hopper as a full-time farmer on the shores of Lake Champlain in Panton, Vermont.

I met Sean and Annie while attending Middlebury College, where Sean studied International Politics and Economics and Annie studied Environmental Science and Biology. Living together in the outdoor interest house, we spent classes, evenings, and weekends exploring the beauty of the natural world around us. In these early years, Sean and Annie’s relationship to the land was primarily recreational and academic—charting Lake Champlain’s gentle waters by sail boat or studying the local bird population in a conservation biology lab. Through these adventures, they fell in love—not only with one another, but also with the rolling Green Mountains and vast, grassy valleys of Vermont. I was therefore unsurprised when, a year after graduating, Annie and Sean packed up their belongings from the little rental house they shared with friends in Washington DC and beelined it back to the Champlain Valley.

Returning to the place that felt like home, the two began a project that, six years later, has transformed into Scuttleship Farm—a livestock farm built on the principles of regenerative agriculture, which produces food while capturing carbon, improving water filtration, and increasing biodiversity.

Most people born outside of the traditions of farming are mystified by how to begin on a path in agriculture, particularly without any formal training. So I recently called up Sean (Annie was out moving the chickens) to discover more about their path to regenerative agriculture and to learn his perspective on how more young people can find their footing as farmers. 

Caroline Santinelli (CS): You began Scuttleship Farm shortly after leaving Washington DC in 2016, but when did the vision to start the farm come into being?

Sean: It was all Annie’s doing, really. She finished up her internship at Fish and Wildlife, and decided that D.C. wasn’t for her. Her parents had some land up here [in Vermont]. So, she decided to come up here and go to farm school at UVM and get some sheep and try it. Her program was a certificate program in sustainable farming, which focused on regenerative farming practices. I always just knew it as the UVM farm school. Now, we have a regenerative grazing farm. All grass—grass fed cattle and sheep.

CS: I remember in my environmental studies courses with Annie at Middlebury, we visited a lot of farms in the Champlain Valley area. I don’t think many of those farms were focused on regenerative practices. What made you both want to incorporate regenerative farming despite that not being the norm in an area with deep agricultural roots?

Sean: Yeah, I mean, it was there. It was there from the beginning. That was part of the original vision. Looking around the landscape in Vermont and seeing how dominant farming is, especially down here in the valleys—mostly by just industrial dairy— we realized more and more how destructive that was to the landscape. Then, Annie got exposed to a lot of ideas about regeneration that built on that original vision at the farm school. That, and we connected with the grazing community that was already here, and we learned from them. She started with five sheep. Now, six years later, there are about 100 ewes and 160-170 lambs.

CS: Wow! I remember coming up to stay with you guys in the summer of 2016. By then you had those five sheep, and I think you had some chickens. I remember helping you build a small garden and paint a fence. Will you tell me what it looks like now? How has it grown?

Sean: Oh yeah, a lot has changed. The fields around here look great now. Very, very healthy— lots of new species. We built a barn. But the bigger thing is that by BJs Farm Store—most of the way into Vergennes, right where Basin Harbor Road shoots off—there's a farm there, and we bought that. We spent a few years renovating it, and set it up for sheep—put it in a new woodshed barnyard, fixed up the barn, and rejuvenated some old cornfields, turning them into pasture. So we've been grazing there, and then we also picked up a contract with Maple Wind Farm who are a grazing farm up in Richmond, Vermont. They have a small USDA chicken processing unit, and we have a contract to raise for that. So when you were here, we were doing a chicken house with a few chickens, moving it around the yard. We’re still doing that, but now it's 1000 chickens at a time and two houses, and we’re dragging them [the houses] across the pasture with the tractor every day.

CS: Oh my gosh, you have 1000 chickens now!

Sean: At any one time, yep. But you know, it's like a seven or eight week product. So we only do that in summer.

CS: Okay, so you have sheep. You have chickens. Do you also grow produce and do any other livestock?

Sean: No, no. We have a small garden for us, but no plant farming unless you count grass, which we use to raise the animals.

CS: How many species of grass do you think are now there after your efforts?

Sean: Oh god, I haven't counted. I mean definitely double digits. But, I couldn't tell you if it was 15 or 40. The different legumes coming in, the amount of batch that's volunteering in there [, and the other forb plants [a flowering herbaceous plant species] growing—the diversity of the land is just incredible. It really was a monoculture before. You know, it would look beautiful when you stood and looked out across the field. But then if you look down, it was just bare ground and some grass sticking up.

Seeing it evolve over time from tons of bare ground and one species of grass to this beautiful polyculture—more bugs, more birds, more plants. So much has come to life in the few years we've been doing this.

CS: That’s incredible to hear. And, you didn’t start as a full-time farmer. Can you tell me about your journey to Scuttleship, and what made you decide to join Annie in this endeavor?

Sean: Well I moved up here [to Vermont] with Annie, but I was working remotely for Spark Fund, which is a fintech, climate-focused startup in DC. Then I was laid off from that, and I was starting to look for other jobs. One day Annie asked me, “Hey, do you want to come work on this farm with me and see if we can make a go of it?” So I said, “sure.” I had never seen myself farming, but at that point I'd been helping out with it and had started to learn about the practices, especially the importance of working with the natural cycles and ecosystems. I was really kind of geeking out on it. So it was pretty natural to say, “sure, I'll just dive in.”

CS: Do you feel like some of the skills that you acquired prior to diving into farming helped you build Scuttleship?

Sean: Oh, absolutely. I think the only reason we've gotten as far as we have is because we're able to work smarter, not harder, and see all the little efficiencies we can add. The way we do fencing or the way we're moving the animals across the land lets us be so much more flexible than your traditional grazing practices. I think it was just being flexible and good at solving problems, which was encouraged in the education and jobs we had before this. We’re really open to experimenting and learning. Figuring stuff out on the fly, despite not having any training in it, can enable you to be adaptable. You know—look stuff up, learn stuff wherever you can, build a network, and find people you can talk to about it. You’ll learn fairly quickly.

CS: It sounds like curiosity and a willingness to do the work are key ingredients in your farming practice. Do you have any other advice for somebody who's aspiring to start a regenerative farm or interested in transitioning their farm, but wasn’t born into agriculture like you and Annie?

Sean: Read. Read and watch YouTube videos and learn. Just learn as much as you can because there's so much knowledge out there. You don't have to figure it out yourself. The knowledge is out there. You just gotta put it all together and apply it to your context. So seek out the resources, meet people, find a network, and use it.

I guess the one other piece of advice I would add, specifically people who are interested in grazing, is that there is so much land out there. Often, you can get someone to let you use it for free or not very much money, you don’t need to own it. Especially in Vermont, people have big meadows, and they pay someone to come mow it. But they also love seeing animals out on the landscape, which will “mow” and tend to the land in healthier and climate-friendly ways. You don't need to buy land. All you need are some animals and some good electric fence, and you’re in business. And, maybe a trailer.

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