From cows to community

Sheldon man stops dairying, volunteers more

By Tom Benton

Staff Writer

The Facts

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SHELDON – These days, longtime dairy farmer John Gorton – of Gorton Farm & Engineering – is trying not to have a cow.

“I’m trying not to spread myself too thin,” he admits. “I’ve become a professional meeting-goer.”

After almost four decades of farming, Gorton’s getting out of the business. “Farming is like pushing a snowball up a hill,” he said. “A snowball starts small, and as you take the load uphill it gets bigger and bigger and harder and harder. If you can make it to the top of the hill, then the snowball starts rolling down the opposite side of the hill and getting bigger and bigger and bigger. If you can’t make it to the top of the hill, then the snowball just gets bigger and bigger until you can’t push it anymore.

“And that’s really where we got to.”

Gorton isn’t optimistic about the future of Vermont farming. “They just can’t compete with guys out west, milking 30,000 cows. Missouri has a perfect climate for pasture. You can run 300 cows in Missouri. A hundred 300-cow dairies in Missouri can wipe out the whole organic industry in the state of Vermont. The processors are going to figure out, ‘Wow, we could set up a plant in Missouri and have a few dairy farms within 50 miles of us, and get milk a hell of a lot cheaper than we could truckin’ it all over the state of Vermont.’”

“Over the next few years you’re going to see a very small number of a bunch of very big farms,” he predicts. “Anyone who’s milking 100 or 200 cows is probably not going to be in business, even if you don’t have any debt. There’s just no money in it.”

Gorton was milking 80 cows. Now he has 36, which he’s selling. “By September, I don’t want to have any animals,” he said.

Gorton is stepping out of the farm – and into the church. Not for the first time, either.

“I’ve been active in the church my whole life,” Gorton said, even during his time as a Navy officer on a submarine. During that time, he served as a Protestant lay leader – basically, a chaplain on Sunday mornings. When he returned to his hometown, Sheldon, after he got out of the Navy, Gorton continued to do lay speaking.

“I continued to do church services when asked,” he said. “I typically do about two church services a month.”

That led to the Sheldon food shelf, born after an elderly church patron donated 1,400 shares of AT&T stock and $100,000 to the church. The stock couldn’t be sold, and half of the money had to be invested. Only the interest could be used. “We decided we want to do something with part of the interest,” Gorton said. “We needed some of the interest, because we don’t have a very big congregation.”

Gorton and his fellow church leaders decided to take 10 percent of the earned interest and use it in the community. At first they helped families who had recently lost homes to house fires. But after a few years of the money sitting still, talk turned to food shelves.

“It started small,” Gorton said. “I made up 24 boxes of about 45 pounds of food a box, 1,000 pounds of food. Took me three months to give that food away. Three months to give away 24 boxes of food.”

Now the food shelf serves 150 families in less than a week.

“I’ve given out probably somewhere between 8,000 and 10,000 pounds of food in the past week,” Gorton said. “People come from all over Franklin County. We’ll serve anybody who comes and asks us for food.”

He says the food shelf has become a part of his life. But teaching parenting classes? That’s new.

“I started going to Hunger Council meetings,” Gorton said. “Trying to figure out what we can do to feed people.”

At one meeting, Gorton met a worker from the Department of Children and Families (DCF), who suggested he get involved with Vermont Promise Communities, a statewide initiative to support communities through health education, human services and community planning. Sheldon, Swanton and St. Albans have been designated “Promise Communities” for Franklin County.

“So I went ahead and went to a Promise Communities meeting,” Gorton said. “At the first Promise Communities meeting, there was a woman from Prevent Child Abuse Vermont. They provide education, materials and also set up support groups for parenting. The woman at this meeting says, ‘We’re really looking for male facilitators at these parenting meetings,’ and I look around the room and I’m the only male in the room.”

A week later, Gorton reached out and said he’d like to become a parenting class facilitator. He took a multi-hour training course, was subjected to a thorough background check, and then, on a Friday, learned he would begin training mothers-to-be in “nurturing concepts” the following Monday. He’s been at it eight weeks now.

“It’s really how do you be a caring parent, and how do you teach your children to be loving and caring,” Gorton said. “That’s really what it’s all about.”

A month into teaching, Gorton received an email: the Swanton Promise Community needed a facilitator. They had only one. “I said, ‘Hey, I’ll try it, and if it winds up being too much, you’re not any worse off than you are now, right?’”

He’s been facilitating the Swanton Promise Community meetings now for four weeks. Still, even with this social workload, Gorton doesn’t think his new life is a far cry from the barn.

“It’s the same thing we face as farmers,” he said. “The buzzword now is ‘affordable.’ You’ve got affordable housing, affordable health care, affordable food… there isn’t anything that’s affordable. I spent my life understanding how steam and water and lube oil and hydraulics work together to make a ship run. Systems are systems. If you understand system engineering and system management and how to analyze and perfect systems, you can apply it to anywhere.

“That’s where I’m kind of fitting it. We have systems in the state of Vermont that are broken. How do we fix it? How do we maximize the effectiveness of that system so we can make what’s broken better and help families? That’s the way you protect people in the state of Vermont. You strengthen families.”