There is this interesting phenomenon afoot wherein farmers have become celebrities of a sort, in small subsets of society. It is the strangest thing to me. I grew up feeling, well, judged as the farmer’s daughter and fairly ashamed of what my family did. Yeesh. I’ve said it. I’m so embarrassed by that; everything my family stands for and has created is honorable, representative of hard work and dedication, and yet, somewhere along the way I wound up with the impression that it was somehow less than, that if you came from farm folk, you were somehow less than.
It would be easier to explain why I didn’t want to farm. To a child, the farm seemed like the heaviest of anchors. It meant you worked on Christmas, your birthday, your kids’ birthdays, when there were funerals, when there were weddings, when it rained, when it poured, when it was far below zero. It meant that 365 days a year and 24/7 you were responsible for the lives of 120 animals who counted on you for their survival and whatever you couldn’t provide for them you had better figure out who could and fast! I grew up feeling sheer terror at the thought of anything that would require that much commitment. Relationships are cake compared to a dairy farm. And there was also this small matter of my hatred for creatures of the bovine persuasion. They were so dumb! And always getting out of fences and taking attention away from, well, me! (says 13-year-old Abbie). To add insult to injury, man oh man do they smell!
As with anything else, I aged and my all knowing teenager wisdom seasoned a tad. I was able to sort out a bit better the lay of the land. I studied Journalism in college and found a love for writing and documentary film. I read Pollan’s “The Botany of Desire,” and “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” I listened to my dad as he talked through his thoughts about an organic transition. I watched the trees bud outside my office window and listened as my body wished with every fiber to be out and about and moving…In the spring of 2007 a fire burned half of our barn down. And we were forced to consider the future of the farm. I could not for the life of me, even then, fathom how on earth I would ensure it’s future, but I knew that it had to exist. I couldn’t imagine life where cows weren’t milked everyday in those barns and put out on those pastures that my grandfather and great-grandfather and his father had so painstakingly cleared. At the time I spent my days in an office and it was losing its lustre rapidly. So at first, I just came back part time. And then full time. And then as an apprentice. And then as a future owner. None of these official, but well documented in my maturation of perspective.
My son’s emergence into this world was the turning point. When you become a mother, you begin to think about how your child ought to be raised, right? And I thought back to my childhood and mysteriously, it didn’t seem so bad. I was outside. I was loved. I had parents who loved and believed in what they did and therefore were able to raise their children within the same mentality. I was busy and active and curious and engaged. All of which seemed pretty crucial to a formative childhood. And while pregnant, I had bit the bullet and begun milking cows. I’ve always adored field work. I love my tractor, I really do. Always have, even as a sulky teenager. I put music in my ears and make hay while the sun shines and there’s nothing better. It was the cows, those hateful beasts that were always the stumbling block.
Until I was pregnant. And they were pregnant. And I got it. And then I had my baby. And I nursed him. And I really got it. I believe that had I not been blessed with Eli I would still be here on the farm, but it is mothering that makes me a dairy farmer. I was finally able to have compassion and empathy and adoration for those beasties that gift us with their milk to nourish our families. And the organic path allowed for a holistic framework of farming that was close to what I’d grown up knowing, but further evolved and based in curiosity and an alignment with self education and Nature that fulfills every piece of my soul.
Dairy farming is obviously not what I imagined for myself. But I find myself content. And while I feel stressed with the inevitable shuffling that comes from having a child and working and a husband who owns his own business and trying to keep writing on the side because I love it…I sleep at night fulfilled. I don’t have pieces of myself that feel missing or empty. I start my day and end it with a mission, a vision, and a product. In one day I can milk cows, deliver a calf, mow fields, bale them up, pick a few tomatoes from a plant near the barn, eat said sun-ripened jewels, watch my son frolic across green pastures with his dog or adoringly watch his beloved grandfather put up a fence or mow a field.
The opportunities for all the aspects of life I love to marry together within my career path are nothing short of a blessing. Thanks to Organic Valley I have been a spokesperson for the Environmental Working Group and the Pesticide Action Network. I’ve attended The Young Farmer’s Conference at Stone Barns as a presenter twice. I’ve been offered writing and blogging and learning opportunities for which I am eternally grateful. I sit on the Organic Valley Farmers Advocating for Organics committee which was one of the first to put up seed money for the Just Label It campaign. I am always, always learning, whether it be about soil or seed or marketing strategy or milk quality. And that for me is the pinnacle; the forever engagement in truly being the change I wish to see in the world.
I grew up in a small town where everyone used to have a dairy farm. Each tract of land could be linked to family that used to milk cows. By the time I was growing up my family’s dairy was the last one in town. It is interesting to be a new dairy farmer in a town where everyone of a certain age remembers their own life as a farm kid or the heartbreak of selling the family land. Often what people say to me is a proud explanation, “It’s in your blood.” I think it’s true.
My grandfather bought our farm and started dairying in the 1930’s. He bred excellent Holsteins that all trace back to one cow, Chaseholm Segis Pontiac. In 1975 my father took over the farm and began his own legacy of expert herdsmanship that my childhood benefitted from. I grew up in the typical way for a Dutchess County farm kid: showing cows at the fair, fitting contests, 4-H, FFA, milking, fixing fence, feeding calves and making hay.
I always took life with the cows really seriously. I loved knowing each of them and I loved the way that people in our dairy community could share and honor that sense of pride for working hard and appreciating quality cows. In many ways it has been the cows that invited me into a dairy farming life.
I have often wondered who I would be if it weren’t for these animals. Asking made me realize that it wasn’t only the cows. My father retired from dairy farming when I was in college. In that same period he sold the dairy herd and 100 acres of land. Coming back to the farm didn’t mean coming back to chores and the smells of the cows anymore, it meant the land and it meant family. It was hard to lose a part of this property; hard to say goodbye to a herd of cows, hard to feel like our farm – once the last dairy in town – was now just the last one to be sold. When I think of who I am, the first thing I picture is the hayfield across from my parent’s house. I think of the land that I have been so privileged to grow up with, the space and the beauty, the sense of place and safety, and I know what roots feel like. There is no me without Chaseholm Farm and I can tell you that everyone in my family feels the same way.
I took over the family farm in March this year; for the past two years I have been researching, planning, and dreaming about this first season. My goals are to transition our dairy to a grass based system, maximizing our efficiently through Management-intensive Grazing while also making improvements in the land, the plants, the cows and their milk. I provide milk to my brother’s cheese company, The Amazing Real Live Food Co., so I’d like to see my butterfat and protein components rise for him as well as for my future ventures in direct raw milk sales and cultured dairy production. I want to be good to this land and these animals as they have been good to me. I want to build something fulfilling and connected and dairy farming feels like my way to do it.
The morning chores are my favorite; the cows, with sleep still in their eyes, lumber slowly to the fence to see what I am going to bring them; the chickens are ready to be released for another day’s adventure; the lambs are eager and bright-eyed for their breakfast. As the sun rises over the Mission Mountains, I feed, water, talk to, and pet our numerous animals that call our farm home, and there is no other way I would rather start the day. I think Connie prefers the evening chores, walking the pasture to see when and where we are going to move the cows, collecting eggs, and of course, feeding the lambs. Together we are starting a new dairy, called The Golden Yoke, in western Montana.
Connie, the other owner of The Golden Yoke, grew up on what she likes to call “Old MacDonald’s Farm” in rural, southwest Virginia, where her family raised tobacco, beef cows, and vegetables. Her mom was raised on a dairy farm, and when Connie switched college majors to dairy science, she thought that her daughter had gone mad. But Connie has found a passion and love for dairy while working on farms across the United States. On the other hand, I grew up in a military family. I showed horses for many years, but that was my only large animal experience until I studied abroad in New Zealand. I was able to work on a dairy there and fell in love with it, so when I returned to the U.S., my dream became to learn more about dairy cows and some day have my own farm. Now with several years of experience, I am sure this is the path I want to take.
Similar to the rest of the nation, the dairy industry in Montana has been in decline for the past few decades. With around 70 dairies remaining across the fourth largest state in the nation, farms are few and far between. While almost all of these 70 produce fluid milk for processing by larger companies, there are also three dairies that bottle and/or process their own milk, but that is the extent of the dairy industry in Big Sky Country.
The vision we have for our dairy is a different model than what is found in the state right now and is much more similar to our farm experiences in Vermont. We are going to be intentionally small, seasonal, pasture-based, and will process our own milk into value-added products. Connie and I have chosen to be dairy farmers because we love the lifestyle: interacting with animals, being a part of a vibrant, farm-based rural community, and managing a farm with the human and ecological community in mind.
Our dream is slowly becoming reality. Last fall we joined a LandLink program and found the property we are now farming. We moved onto the land in December, so this is our first season here, which means we have a lot of learning to do about the forages, water rights, and the grazing potential of these 40 acres. Just as we were about to commit to purchasing our first bred heifer, I found out that I had received a Fulbright scholarship to study dairy policy in New Zealand. Because of this amazing opportunity our game plan has been slightly altered, and we chose to buy more young stock, which we will discuss in next month’s posting.
Until next time, the girls of The Golden Yoke.
“You’re from where?” People sometimes like to ask me twice, that is if they didn’t believe me the first time. Morro Bay is a sleepy beach town in California–a pleasant place to grow up, where the words “frost” and “sweater” completely eschew the vocabulary. I’m still enamored with the ocean, but over the last ten years I’ve found my home in Northeast milking parlors.
My west-coast dwelling family is supportive, and not entirely surprised. I grew up as a rugged tomboy, most often found forcefully encouraging my sister to play football with me. The only hint of dairy-related foreshadowing I can scrounge up is an inexplicable seventh-grade obsession I had with cows. The wooden Holstein I made in shop class has migrated with me across the country, currently adorning my kitchen wall.
When I sent my sister the picture of me about to take out the manure (see first blog submission), she posted: “Wow Ash, you sure look happy covered in all that shit!” Not that they’re surprised that I’ve found farming suits me, moreso that it’s a foreign lifestyle compared to how we grew up; and she tends to stay a little cleaner than I do. On the other hand, my dad spent the summers of his youth on his grandparents farm in central California, so he surmises it’s somewhere in my blood. At any rate, dairy farming has undoubtedly become exactly my path.
Milking is just about my favorite thing to do… in the evening time, I look forward to it like a kid on Christmas Eve. I’m actually super practical about it, I don’t gush all about my cows… even though they’re some of the greatest creatures I know. I hope all dairy farmers feel that way about their animals. In few other careers does one have the opportunity to develop such a routine closeness to animals. And not to get mushy here, but who doesn’t enjoy feeding calves?
At this point I’ve milked in somewhat of a gamut of barns in Vermont and New York. I went from hand-milking a couple of cows at Farm & Wilderness Summer Camp and Education program, to machine-milking 50 organic Holsteins in a step-up parlor—a system with automatic take-offs, where the milking claw senses when the cow is done milking and automatically retracts from her udder. I also managed a few 20-head Jersey herds, both in stanchion barns, one with a pipeline and the other just had buckets. I’m in process of buying a farm equipped with a pit parlor, and I’m in the process of outfitting a dump station to pump the milk to the bulk tank. Yet another version of the same good ol’ time: there are many ways to get milk out of a cow.
Throughout my milking journeys, I’ve come across many motivating characters, and have had the opportunity to work with an unparalleled caliber of people. The most inspiring of whom demonstrated to me that it really all comes down to attitude. Surging out of a warm bed to the barn in 30 degrees below zero, the words “frost” and “sweater” just about make up the vocabulary; in those moments, there’s nothing to do but smile and keep moving. The year-round 70 degree California central coast strikes me as lovely, yet dull in comparison. I’ve found myself at home in upstate New York where the sun sometimes shines, but when it doesn’t, the cows are always able to warm up the barn.
I guess you could say I just fell into to dairying. I grew up on a cattle ranch but our distance from town meant that we couldn’t just run to the store every time we ran out of milk. My brother’s and I were avid milk drinkers so at one point our family acquired a milk cow. When my husband and I bought our current farm, we needed to figure out what we would do and a grass based dairy was high on my list. The problem was the land we bought had been neglected and wasn’t able to support beef cows let alone the high nutritional needs of dairy cows. So, we started out with some sheep “to eat the weeds”. I happened to buy some crossbred ewes that had some East Friesian (dairy breed) blood in them and that was the catalyst that led me to where I am today.
Dairy requires so much knowledge that I took a job milking cows at a local dairy just to gain some experience. Even working there for two years didn’t really prepare me for running my own dairy but it did give me a head start. Anytime someone tells me they want to dairy and have never even owned animals before it makes me shudder. I think of all the things I had to learn the hard way even with my background in livestock. That’s why I signed up for this blog. I hope I can pass on valuable information so someone starting up has an idea of what is entailed in this business. I don’t want to discourage anyone from doing it but having some advance warning would have been nice for me.
There are so many things about having my own dairy that I love. I’m a schedule person. I like waking up the same time every day, even on weekends. I’m slightly obsessive compulsive; I like things to be the same every time because it makes me more efficient. And of course, I love working with the animals. Running my own business can be scary sometimes, but I know I wouldn’t be able to go back to working for someone else.
What I don’t like is evening “chores”. Maybe I’m a bit spoiled but I feel my family is important and I like to spend time with them in the evening. But that’s a challenge with a dairy. Everyone knows, you have to milk twice a day, right? Well, not really and I’ll share that with you in a later blog. Just suffice it to say,” You can have your cake and eat it too”. Don’t get me wrong, dairying is hard work. But when you own your own dairy, and you’re willing to take the road less traveled, it can be a great lifestyle.
Hi, I’m Sarah Lyons Chase, of Chaseholm Farm in upstate New York.
Today I can say that Chaseholm Farm is a third generation dairy. I was lucky to grow up in a Hudson Valley farming family that held onto its land through the peaks and troughs of living on a commodity milk check. My interest in farming is deeply connected to this land and the cows we have raised here, just as I am. It is exhilarating to be on the brink of beginning of another lifelong farming journey on our Chaseholm Farm.
My older brother moved home two years before I did. He started a cheese company on the farm; since I returned three years ago we have been working together and our collaboration can now extend to my dairy herd managed for his cheese production.
Chaseholm has been a conventional dairy but with “retro” management- my Dad didn’t like to use pesticides or buy GMO corn seed– we’ve had the same tractors since the 50’s and our dump station milking machines were only replaced by a direct pipeline system three years ago. I feel proud of coming from a humble and dedicated small dairy.
My farm dreams hold onto our history while improving systems and adapting to the problems dairy farmers face today. I am aiming to create an efficient grass based system that will raise healthier cows and high quality milk at a lower cost. I am not going to push my cows for maximum milk production; I want to live sustainably, to make a living wage while treating the land and animals with deep respect and care, continually improving.
Thanks for following along with me this season!
Hi! My name is Laura Ginsburg. Connie and I are starting to build our dairy, the Golden Yoke. We are the first new dairy in Montana in over two decades. Not only will we be the first new dairy in many years, we will be the only grass-based, seasonal dairy in the state.
I am currently in my last semester of graduate school at the University of Montana, where I am in the Environmental Studies program. I am writing my thesis on the effects of supply management on Montana’s dairy farmers and work as a research assistant for a local agriculture non-profit. Connie works full-time at a growers’ cooperative, and has a degree in dairy science from Virginia Tech.
We are driven by our passion for dairy farming and our love of cows. I fell in love with dairy farming while studying abroad in New Zealand, and do not have an agricultural background. Connie grew up on what she likes to call “Old MacDonald’s Farm” in rural southwest Virginia, where her family raised tobacco and had a market garden. She has worked on dairies across the United States, as a herdsman for a 4,000-cow Horizon dairy in Idaho to the only employee on a 35-cow organic dairy in Vermont. The majority of my dairy experience was in Vermont, where I relief milked for multiple farmers and helped with pasture management.
The decision to be grass-based and seasonal has raised a lot of eyebrows out here, where all dairies are confinement systems. We believe in the restorative power of grazing for the land and for the health of the cows, and saw outstanding results for both at a dairy we worked at in Vermont. Because of our jobs, school commitments, and being young farmers, our plan is to start slowly. Over the past two months we have been matched through a land link program to 40 acres in the Mission Mountains (St. Ignatius, MT) and have purchased our first two heifers.
We only want to milk around 20 cows, and are open to the idea of taking several years to scale up to that size. We are also exploring the idea of milking sheep, which would make us another anomaly in the state. Neither of us has much experience with sheep though, so this will be a more in-depth learning process which will include farm visits to neighboring states. Our friends and the local community are very excited about supporting and visiting our farm, and we are also going to be utilizing creative financing to fund our initial start-up costs. The whole process of watching our dream come into reality is exhilarating and sobering, and we look forward to sharing it with others who have the same dream as us.
Hi! I’m Abbie, mama to Eli, wife to Dave (who is NOT a farmer, but a wildly talented builder), and daughter to Leon and Linda. Along with my parents I farm here in the rolling hills of southern VT. We’ve been stewarding the land since 1868 and are excited to have you join along with our adventures this season.
I was never going to be a farmer. My life’s goal was to go to college and hightail it out. Growing up, though appreciative of the beauty of my surroundings, I was unable to fathom how I would ever be happy here. And my father raised my brothers and I under the dictate that unless we woke up in the morning happy to do what we did, it wasn’t worth doing. Farming, for me, didn’t seem worth doing.
Nonetheless, life is a journey that sometimes lands you not so much where you want, but where you need. And I had some lovely jobs in some lovely places and I realized that I wasn’t doing them very well. My soul was never fully engaged. May rolled around and I looked out my office window and wanted to run outside and soak up the sun. Growing up as the oldest child in the 6th generation of a dairy farming family my existence was based (though I never registered it at the time), on the rhythms and routines of Nature. I could be outside whenever I liked, sometimes more than I liked, with the option of constant motion. I am not so good at sitting still.
But, as my dad would say I am dyed-in-the-wool organic. For me, it truly is the only option. And though our farm has a long history of attempting to work with Nature instead of against her, we only officially transitioned as a certified organic dairy in 2008. My dad will openly admit that for him the lure of organic initially was its sustainability factor and not the environmental kind. Conventional milk prices were a disaster and even a farm as well established as ours with as little debt was struggling. After looking a bit into the transition process he learned that our journey towards organic, comparatively speaking for a lot of conventional dairies, would be straightforward.
I was a wholehearted cheerleader of this transition. I loved reading about the standards Organic Valley would be asking of our farm. Dad has always fostered a mentality of quality over quantity and OV is based on the same premise. We would be compensated fairly for our milk and paid quality premiums. At 2000’ this land is not well suited to growing anything but grass; the 142 days our 60 cow milking herd spent on pasture fit well within the organic model.
Growing up, I was notorious for hating cows. They were awful beasts that made life inconvenient. It wasn’t until I was 8 months pregnant and following them up the road that cows and I understood each other. It was a “light bulb” moment. I realized these awful beasts were simply misunderstood. They were lactating mothers!
So, I got it. The farm informs mothering. Mothering illuminates farming. Having my son was a double gift. It empowered me to believe what my husband had always told me; “the only place I’ve ever seen you truly happy is on the farm.”
For current photos, please feel free to follow along with me at instagram.com/tractormom.
Hi, I’m Laura Sluder and I run Blue Sage Farm.
Blue Sage Farm is a small sheep and goat dairy located in southern Idaho. The farm philosophy is to let the animals do as much as the work as possible. While I have been farming since 2001, I didn’t start dairying until 2009. It has been a huge learning curve even though I had a background in farming and ranching.
As with most farms today, one of us has to work off the farm to “pay the bills”. In our case, it is my husband Paul. He has his own small business that offers him some flexibility to be able to help me when I need an extra hand and our kids, Jake and Izzy help some too. Otherwise, I run this 80 acre, 100 head (sheep and goats) farm by myself. I’ve gone from 6 ewes to 250 ewes and now am back to 85. I’ve added the goats recently and experienced a whole new set of rules for them. In the future, I’d like to grow to 200 ewes and 50 goats but first I need to develop a market for all that cheese and ice cream.
I use Management intensive Grazing and am able to graze most of the year. I only feed hay for a couple months in the winter. Of our farm’s 80 acres, I strive to have a ratio of 70% pasture / 30% annuals for grazing on a 3-5 year rotation. I also grow oats to feed the sheep and goats in the parlor. I’d like to be 100% grassfed but haven’t accomplished that yet.
There aren’t very many options for goat and sheep dairy producers in our area. There are no creameries close enough that one can sell milk to so processing it yourself is really the only option. I started out taking my milk to a local farmstead cow creamery but even though they were small compared to the Glambia and Kraft plants in the area, their equipment was much bigger than I was able to fill. It was extremely inefficient to take my milk there and tie up their plant for a whole day for such a small amount. After a year of shipping it there, I found a small creamery in the next state who was willing to make cheese for me but shipping the milk 6 hours away didn’t work very well either. In the fall of 2010, I purchased my own cheese making equipment and by the following spring, I had a partner who brought in her goats and was making the cheese for both of us right here on the farm. Long story short, my partner moved away in January 2013 leaving me with all the work, but also, all the income. It seemed scary at first but it really was a good thing. I took a few weeks to reevaluate my business and came up with some fresh ideas and a new focus.
I guess you could say I’m a little hard headed or I wouldn’t have gotten to where I am now. That being said, I strive to be flexible and try new things and I’m known by my farming neighbors as “that crazy lady who milks sheep and farms with draft horses”. I know no of them thought I’d stick it out this long. I like to keep them guessing what I’ll do next!
Hi, I’m Ashlee Kleinhammer, and I’d like to welcome you to the North Country Creamery.
Located on Clover Mead Farm in Keeseville, NY, we are seeking to reintroduce small-scale, premium dairy products to the eastern Adironack community. Consumers are placing more value on buying healthy and farm-direct, which has caused local product consumption to skyrocket across the country. My eagerness to run a grass-fed milking herd and continue to provide the community with local, value-added dairy products coincides with the retirement of Clover Mead Farm’s previous owner, Sam Hendren.
In the first year, the Creamery will focus on developing a line of yogurts, a few aged cheeses, and selling raw milk direct from the farm in accordance with New York State regulations. In the coming years, product line may further diversify in proportion to market demand and herd expansion. Collaboration between existing vegetable and meat Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) operations is a key component of the Creamery’s mission and marketing approach.
The former café building at Clover Mead Farm will be converted into a neighborhood CSA Distribution Center and non-CSA member Farm Store. It will open a few days per week during peak summer months to cater to the tourist population, and serve as distribution/pick-up location for the numerous neighborhood CSA’s throughout the year. The synergy between these small-scale CSA farms and the Creamery will prove beneficial both economically to local businesses and socially for the North Country community. The Creamery will capitalize on the growing trend in consumer enthusiasm for local food and commerce by becoming the one-stop-shopping mecca for high quality, local products!
After managing and working on dairy farms across Vermont and New York, I am eager to run my own micro-dairy farm. I’ve gained hands-on experience with a variety of dairies and attended numerous agricultural workshops in the past seven years. The inspiration to become a herdswoman began to percolate during my employment at Hawthorne Valley Farm. I had my first opportunity to milk a cow, which began my devotion to cow care and high-quality dairying. Since then I’ve been involved with the gamut of dairy herds, from hand-milking two Jerseys at the Farm & Wilderness Foundation, to becoming the herdsperson of 50 organic Holsteins in a parlor equipped with automatic take-off milking machines. Most recently I managed a 17-cow Jersey herd in Essex, New York, and processed small batches of yogurt, butter, sour cream, and fresh cheese. I am eager to marry the knowledge of my experiences in the self-designed, small-scale North Country Creamery.
The North Country Creamery is committed to providing the local community with rich, wholesome dairy products using sustainable farming methods. My mission is to pioneer a new line of small-scale, handcrafted dairy products in Northern New York. The Creamery distinguishes itself by producing all the milk and value-added products at the dairy farm from 100% grassfed cows.