LeAnna Compagna, along with her husband Mike, is an organic dairy farmer at Scholten Family Farm in Whiting and Weybridge. The farm is owned by her parents, Roger and Patty Scholten. In 2022, LeAnna became a member of the Champlain Valley Farmer Coalition and, in January 2023, was elected to the Board of Directors.
LeAnna Compagna was raised in farming.
And if she has anything to say about it, her children and their children will be, too.
To be certain, she’s not trying to coerce her four offspring into leading the agricultural lifestyle she has chosen for herself.
But she is bound and determined to ensure farming in Vermont is environmentally and economically sustainable for generations to come.
LeAnna knows the task before her is monumental.
Growing up, she witnessed her parents, Roger and Patty Scholten, struggle against the economic tides of the dairy industry and then find hard won success after they made the switch from conventional farming practices to organic in 2007.
A year later, Patty launched her artisanal cheese-making operation. She would go on to delight taste buds all over the world with her cave-aged creations.
LeAnna and her husband Mike joined her parents on their Weybridge-based farm in 2010. They quickly expanded the herd from 60 to more than 100 cows.
Knowing they wanted to farm long-term, LeAnna and Mike soon started searching for a second site. They eventually found their current location in Whiting, leasing the farm for two years from the original owner before her parents purchased it.
Today, LeAnna and Mike have 250 mature cows in Whiting, while her parents have 50 in Weybridge. All of their milk is shipped to Organic Valley, and Patty’s cheese operation is a fond memory following her retirement.
In the midst of it all, they’re currently working on a farm transfer from Roger and Patty to LeAnna and Mike.
“We’re trying to figure out the best way to do it financially so Mike and I succeed long-term, but Mom and Dad can retire,” explains LeAnna. “It’s a good relationship in the sense that my parents let Mike and I take full ownership of this place in every other regard than actual written ownership.”
Emphasis on full.
They own 500 acres and rent 800, all in hay and pasture, and oversee the work of three employees. LeAnna takes care of calf management and feeding, breeds heifers and cows, and fills-in as a milker. Not to mention, she homeschools their four children, ages two, five, six, and ten.
When we visited LeAnna on a bright, blustery day in early March 2023, the children were getting quite the education in animal husbandry, mechanics, quality & compliance, and economics.
The family was busy moving calves, while Mike was hard at work preparing their no-till drill and baler for spring. Calf vaccinations and dehorning were top priorities for the week, as was completing their annual organic certification paperwork.
Although the land was still coated in a hefty blanket of snow, LeAnna was able to point out the many steps she and Mike take to protect water quality, support soil health, and address climate change.
As organic dairy farmers, thirty percent of their cows’ dry matter intake must come from pasture. In turn, they rotationally graze, moving their cows from paddock to paddock to ensure they have continuous access to a diversified base of grass species and nutrients without destroying the soil. Meanwhile, riparian buffers line their pastures and laneways to protect nearby waterways from nutrient leaching.
With the support of Vermont’s Capital Equipment Assistance Program (CEAP), LeAnna and Mike recently invested in a no-till drill to plant winter rye and other cover crops, as well as to restore species in their pastures, such as clover and Italian rye.
They’re also experimenting with diversifying the species of crops they grow on their farm overall. At the top of the list is sorghum, a high-energy feed for cows that pulls nutrients from the soil they wouldn’t normally get with grass.
“Last year’s drought was an eye-opener for us,” explains LeAnna. “Sorghum helps us make sure we have the volume of feed we need to get through the drier months.”
Also as organic farmers, they do not spray any herbicides, pesticides, insecticides, or synthetic fertilizers on their land.
Regular readers of our Featured Farmer series might be wondering, “What about their corn!?”
LeAnna and Mike do not grow any corn for their cows. When they first moved to the farm, they transitioned all corn ground to organic grass over the course of three years.
“There’s pros and cons to it,” LeAnna points out. “We do not miss having that huge push in the spring to get everything planted, but we miss the tonnage and energy that comes with corn. With the heavy clay soils, organic corn is very difficult to grow and manage the weed population. With the amount we were investing for chicken manure for fertilizer and the seed and the fuel and the labor, we felt we were not getting a good return.”
As LeAnna and Mike look to the future, they have many ideas about new practices they would like to implement.
“We would eventually want to put in a new barnyard especially for outdoor access for our cows in the winter so they’re not traipsing through mud,” LeAnna shares. “That will reduce run-off, too, because it would all get scraped and go directly into our manure pit.”
Laneways from the pasture to the barn present another opportunity for improvement. Each year, they cover more and more of them with stone or wood chips.
“We’re looking to reduce the amount of haylage we put up each year, and doing more wrapped round bales,” LeAnna adds, “That reduces run-off and leaching from the bunks.”
One of the downsides, of course, is the amount of plastic they’ll use to wrap those bales. LeAnna and Mike acknowledge the trade-offs farmers must make some times in choosing which practices to try.
“At the end of the day, a good farmer has good management practices,” she says. “It’s not that they’re big, small, organic, or conventional. What you choose to consume is your own choice, and that’s the beauty of America and the diversity of products we have.”
As for all farmers, experimenting with and implementing new practices in order to be better stewards of the environment has presented LeAnna and Mike with some obstacles. Money, time, and people power are common barriers, as well as the clay soils Addison County is (in)famous for.
But as organic farmers, they most of all find there’s a lack of research about new organic methods they’d like to try. It seems as though there’s been more research around improving conventional practices.
“We often times have to trial-and-error things on our own, and consult with other farmers who’ve tried different things,” she explains.
At the same time they’re finding barriers, LeAnna and Mike are also finding sources of support.
“More intelligent people!” Mike chimes in with a laugh, as he comes through the barn office.
Kidding aside, checking in with other farmers for their experience and wisdom has greatly elevated LeAnna and Mike’s farming practices.
And that is a significant reason why LeAnna decided to join the Champlain Valley Farmer Coalition in December 2022. It’s an opportunity to network with other farms and be informed about what’s happening in Vermont agriculture at the legislative level.
“We plan on farming for the next 30-plus years of our lives and so we need to be actively involved in how the agricultural community is changing and moving, and we want to be part of that narrative,” LeAnna says. “It’s always better if you can be proactive versus on the defense.”
Why do LeAnna and Mike muster the sheer will, determination, and power to care for the environment through agriculture?
For them, it just makes sense–and cents.
“When you don’t take care of the environment, it’s not going to take care of you,” observes LeAnna. “To be a financially profitable farmer, you have to take care of the soils and the plants because that’s what feeds the rest of the operation.”