You know that magic moment when you finally slam your tractor out of creeper gear and start to move with a bit of speed? Starting our farm is like that, only I didn’t realized we had been in creeper gear. My wife Liz and I have been working on farms in New England for the last five years, and we’ve just moved home to Indiana to farm on our own. Welcome to Nightfall Farm! (more…)
My name is Hannah Sargent and I am a marketer turned farmer turned marketing-farmer. My fiancé Jonathon Moser and I own and run Forager Farm, a vegetable CSA in central North Dakota and are in our first season! We are on a mission to revive our food culture by providing fresh, local produce directly to our members.
In January 2013, we jetted off to Australia to live and work at Captain’s Creek Organic Farm, an organic vegetable farm located one hour north/northwest of Melbourne, Victoria. While there we managed a vegetable CSA (or vegetable box scheme as they say down under) with an average of 100 boxes going out to local customers within 100 miles of the farm every week. We learned the ins and outs of the operation and fell in love with it. (more…)
We are excited to announce the start to the Bootstrap Writing Series of 2014!
This year we’ve selected four farmers from across the country who are in the early stages of starting their farms to share their season with the NYFC community. Each writer will be writing an piece once per month through the rest of this year, sharing the inside scoop of their operation. (more…)
It is hard to believe that this is our last post as Bootstrap Bloggers. This year has flown by; it seems like it was just a few weeks ago that we were writing our first installment. When we wrote the first blog, we were looking forward to spring and now we are settling into winter. As I write this we are under a winter weather watch with forecasts for several inches of snow. And for followers of our farm, you might remember that out here in the west farmers look anxiously to the mountains for lots of snow, guaranteeing good irrigation water for next summer.
Policy is one of those subjects that people either seem to love or hate. Some farmers have no interest in getting involved with policy, even though it might directly affect them. And clearly, most policy makers at higher levels of government have little interest or relation to farming. Bridging this divide to create policy that is responsive to the needs of dairy farmers across the United States is something that we both are active with and is a frequent topic of discussion on the farm.
For marketing, like the rest of our farm venture, we are starting small with big visions for the future. We currently have a logo, a Facebook page, a domain name, and are within a couple days of launching a Kickstarter campaign. We have visions of shirts, stickers, ice cream cartons, a scoop mobile, and much more.
Pasture management in Montana is not just about building fence and moving cows. First and foremost it is about irrigation. Because of our arid climate we rely heavily on irrigation water, which is dependent on mountain snow pack. Every winter farmers and ranchers in the west look to the mountains as they plan for the following year. Good snow levels correlate to a successful growing season. Poor snow levels might mean selling off some stock, planting fewer crops, and preparing a plan for drought.
I remember hearing a statistic once, that to be an expert at something you had to do that activity for 10,000 hours. Connie and I tried to calculate all of the hours we have stood behind or next to a cow (or under during some unfortunate events), and we still think we are each a long way off from 10,000. While we may not be experts yet, Connie and I have had enough experience to feel strongly that we are capable of managing cows on our own.
Like we have said in earlier posts, Connie has a degree in dairy science from Virginia Tech. She is pretty sure that she was the one that did not fit in – always asking why dairy had to be done a certain way. Why do cows have to be confined? Why do they have to eat corn? Why are they being bred to be so big? While she had to take genetics, she didn’t really believe that good cows always equals high production…what about health, longevity, personality? Why can’t she show her calf with Virginia Tech’s logo shaved into her side?
With her degree in hand, Connie set out to learn how to dairy the way she does best, and that is by doing. She has worked on dairies large and small, confinement and pasture based, Holsteins and Jerseys. When you are a herdsperson for a 4,000-cow dairy, you quickly learn to spot a girl that doesn’t feel well even if you don’t know her personally and on a small farm you really notice because you get to know the cows. On the various farms, Connie has learned to give IV’s, AI, operate all manner of equipment, has pulled numerous calves, stood in knee deep liquid manure to fix broken pumps, and still keeps at it.
My first real cow experience was on a cow/calf ranch in Wyoming, where I was thrown into the herd management of several hundred pairs. I knew horses and had incredible desire to learn more about cows, and this was the perfect opportunity. Working on a ranch in a very rural part of the state means you learn to do things quickly and often on your own. I learned how to build fence, irrigate, bale hay, fix the baler, move cows on foot and horseback, vaccinate, drive lots of farm equipment, identify and treat ailments, and how to mix rations.
During the winter months I managed a small feedlot with 600 calves and had at least twenty named and tame enough to touch. I learned to milk in Vermont, but my confidence with cows came from my time in Wyoming. While dairy cows are a bit more sensitive than beef cows, they all pretty much want the same things: to be treated well, given good feed, and to have a nice place to lie down.
Connie and I recently met a Harvard MBA student who was travelling across country to learn about small entrepreneurs. We met at a festival that celebrates agriculture in Montana, and got to talking about the dairy we are starting. He said that the best thing about Montana is that we just do stuff, that we don’t have people helping us or advising us, we just go out there and get it done. He was really impressed by the hard work people, particularly farmers, put into their daily lives and everything they have to know. That made me feel proud to be a Montanan and to consider myself a farmer.
That is one of the best things about agriculture – you don’t have to know everything to work hard and get stuff done. If you truly want to learn, people are more than happy to offer you an opportunity, even if it means a day getting covered in poop working calves. But you don’t have to be an expert, you just have to be willing to put in the hours to get there. I figure I’ve got at least 6,000 hours left, and there’s enough cows in Montana to make sure I get there.
Until next time, the girls of The Golden Yoke.
Thanks to Stonyfield, Profits for the Planet, for funding the 2013 Bootstrap blog series.
I’m writing after our recent (and very productive) dry and hot spell from the comfort of cool weather. The cows are loving it. This post is about the training that I have received, am currently receiving and what I still need to know… I have been looking forward to this post because I feel like I did this farming thing a little backwards.
Growing up on a farm gave me so much experience and insight but I often had the freedom to pick and choose my jobs growing up and I habitually stuck to the cows and the calves and avoided (or was forced to avoid) tractor and repair work. Much later, when I started thinking that I wanted to be a dairy farmer I was already a cheese maker and the jump from making cheese to making milk on the same land didn’t feel so drastic in many ways, but I was long out of practice in our dairy since my father had sold his cows years ago.
To learn more I went to conferences, read books, asked questions, found mentors, visited farms and got a farming job on a grass based dairy nearby. Reading was great because it was where inspiration came from and where questions were formulated plus it was accessible and I was devouring it.
Important as it was as a basis for my new thoughts, reading really didn’t hold a candle to what I learned from other farmers while working with them. I felt like working with other people who were actively trying to improve upon a grass based dairying system was my favorite part of that year and I learned the most while there. But maybe as a cautionary tale—I was only working weekends at that farm because I still needed my cheese making job on my home farm, plus I only worked there for one year!
It is my advice to anybody interested in starting a dairy farm to work on them first, for many years, and try to get the hang of each different part—especially the parts you are least familiar with. Having good machine skills and a head for repair work would save me so much time and so much money…but I am learning that stuff as I go so my only options are to treat each vet visit and tractor tune up as a tiny class whose bill is really more like my tuition. I wish that I had more training in budgeting and record keeping. I know cows and I am still learning them with a lot of energy but that is the part that comes easiest to me.
Of course, there is an argument for jumping in head first and grabbing opportunities as they come. Since that is what I did, foolish as it may have been, I can at least say that I am learning more than ever as I set out to make this dairy business work. I am still a newbie and I have so much work to do but I can also look back and see leaps and bounds of personal and farm progress. I work hard and I work all the time but I am excited about what I am doing. My advice is to spend lots of time planning and to do even more.
Thanks to Stonyfield, Profits for the Planet, for funding the 2013 Bootstrap blog series.
This past month has been a big decision-making month for The Golden Yoke. Unlike the other Bootstrap farmers, we are not currently milking any cows, do not have any facilities, and do not have any real equipment to speak of. And having just finished grad school, we do not have much cash on hand to put into these things. The next issue we have been tackling is that I (Laura) received a Fulbright and will be gone for most of 2014, the year we are planning on truly starting our dairy operation. So what does all of this mean for us?
We have a lot of awesome things working in our favor, which has factored into the decisions we are making. First, people are truly excited about what we are doing and want to offer their assistance. Sometimes this is an offer of going in on a heifer (Twister is half owned by one of our good friends) or guiding us through the business planning and financial forecasting process. Our neighbor has been instrumental in helping us understand our irrigation system and has recently cut and baled our hay. He and many others have offered to be part of the ice cream tasting team.
Next, we live in an area where there used to be a lot of smaller dairies, so the possibility of finding a place with a parlor that we could rent is very real. When we moved onto the land we lease now, we were thinking we would build a barn and a parlor but now that just seems financially overwhelming and unwise. Third, we live in a beautiful location in a small, rural town that supports agriculture and local food. Saint Ignatius is very close to a huge summer tourist town and is on the way to Glacier National Park. Because we want to make ice cream and operate seasonally, this would be perfect, since everybody likes an ice cream cone during the hot days of summer.
So equipment and capital… as far as money goes, we apply for free money at every chance we get. Connie just received a grant from the Red Ants Pants Foundation to attend ice cream school at Penn State this winter, which just happens to be the same school where Ben & Jerry got their start. We are saving every dollar we can to build up a farm account and we both hold full-time jobs. As people like to remind us, dairy is one of the most capital-intensive kinds of farming to get in to. Keeping in mind we will need to outfit a parlor with new equipment, we might need to build a barn, we want to process our own milk, and we are going to do the marketing, we fully expect to go into (possibly significant) debt to start our operation.
For equipment, right now what we have is quite basic: pick-up truck, fencing materials, and an ice cream making attachment for the Kitchen Aid mixer. Since we don’t have any shelter for the cows we just put up what we are calling the “cow-bana,” a sunshade with the water tank, mineral block, and fly repellent that the cows can use during the heat of the day. We have ideas about what our ideal set-up would include once we get going. I would really like to use a hoop style barn with a bedded pack, a system that allows the cows to walk around freely and lets in a lot of natural light.
We want to eventually milk in a New Zealand style swing parlor, which is a herringbone set-up with only one set of milking machines that swing to either side. This kind of parlor has no walls, so it is very open, airy, and is cheaper to build. And for actual milking equipment, we would both like to use Nu-Pulse milkers that do not require a separate airline. I milked with these in Vermont, and the entire system is quieter, seems to be pretty easy on the cows, and requires less equipment. We are just starting to think about ice cream equipment and packaging, and are open to exploring alternative packaging models depending on customer demand.
Getting ready to write this post has forced us to really examine our financial and equipment needs. We end this post feeling much clearer about our goals for the next year and ready to take on the work it will entail.
Until next time, the girls of The Golden Yoke.