by Stephen Leslie with technical assistance and generally sound advice from Kerry Gawalt — both of Cedar Mountain Farm at Cobb Hill co-housing in Hartland, Vermont
BY OUR MISTAKES DO WE LEARN
“Political stability, the quality of the environment, hunger and poverty, all of these have the same roots. In the long run, the solutions to each one of these challenges we face lies in the restoration of our most basic of resources — the soil.” – Rattan Lal, agronomist at Ohio State University
My paternal grandfather, Harry Leslie, was a city boy, and a tough little scrapper. He went to work in the woolen mills of Lawrence, Massachusetts when he was 12 yrs old. When the workers went on strike, he and the other boys were sent out with sticks to rap on the fingers of the scabs who were trying to climb out of the freezing canals where the striking workers had tossed them. My grandfather was a man of few words. When relating the story of those strikes to us, he summed it up this way; “Those cops really put the wood to your head.” For working class people like Harry the one thing they most valued, the one thing that really mattered; was having a job. When he was seventeen Harry joined the army to go fight the Germans. Although he had never been on the back of a horse, he was assigned to a cavalry division.
The Great War was the last one in which the Army fielded horses. As soon as they shipped the men and horses across the big water it became clear that modern warfare held no place for the horse. The men dug down in trenches with the cold and the rats and there they sat, gas masks at the ready, never knowing when the shells might come slamming in. When they weren’t exchanging fire, they played cards and smoked a lot of cigarettes. The men in the cavalry were more fortunate than most in that they did get to ride up and down the front lines as messengers until the telegraph wire was laid out. Then they had the job of spooling the cable out off the back of the horse. Harry liked that job alright. He was getting shot at but at least he was out of the lice and the rats and the stench. He had a good horse, name of Lucky. The horse got shot out from under him. Harry would always finish this story by saying; “Too bad for the horse — lucky for me”.
I didn’t take well to going to school. In fact before I even got to grade school, I got thrown out of a kindergarten that was run by some nuns. It seems my behavior was too disruptive. I remember that on the first day of the first grade I stood in the dusty old school yard with no trees in it and stark metal play structures and the whole of it surrounded by chain link fence and I got this sinking feeling that the good times were over — I’d been hoodwinked, trapped by the system — and I was none too happy about any of it. I have a distinct memory of sitting at my desk and staring out the classroom window at a big hayfield that lay out beyond the fence. I was supposed to be memorizing numbers but instead I was ignoring the drone of the teacher’s voice and watching the progress of a farmer in the distance mowing down the hay on his bright red tractor. There was something sensible and serene about that sight that mesmerized me. I wished that I could be out there with that man on the tractor instead of stuck in that stultifying classroom.
A KNOCK-OUT PUNCH
As a two-year old our mare, Mari, was such a good natured horse that, after we had been ground driving her for awhile, I decided to try and ride her. One sunny morning she was standing in the paddock grazing and I approached her side and scratched her on the withers and then gently as I could I took a fistful of mane and jumped and swung a leg over and the mellow yearling mare turned around and looked at me with mild eyes as if to say, “Oh, now the monkey is sitting on my back”. And then she turned around and resumed grazing.
When our gelding Tristan was three and was already working regularly in harness I tried to casually climb on his back in the same manner I had done with Mari. But where Mari was a dreamy mare, Tristan was a good natured but nervous boy with a very busy little walnut of a brain. I should have known better than to think he would react as nonchalantly as the young mare once had. He was hanging out by a cement feed bunk and I tried mounting onto his back from the lip of the bunk. As soon as my hind-end made contact he shot off like a firecracker and ran the ten or so paces to an abutment wall and then threw on the brakes. I went flying over his head, just barely missed bashing my face on the three foot high cement wall, and then tumbled and rolled across the gravel drive until I skidded to a stop. I picked myself up and surveyed the damage. Road rash on the forearms and palms of the hands, torn pants and scraped knees, a bruised and humbled ego — could have been a lot worse.
When we first brought Tristan home we gave him two weeks to get acquainted with our other two horses across the fence before turning them all out together. When we did turn them out we took them to a 5 acre field so that they would have plenty of room to keep out of each other’s way. The poor little boy was pretty nervous but the mare and the older gelding were far more interested in grazing than in bothering the new comer. Kerry and I were in the field to observe and intervene if necessary. I had dropped to my haunches to wait and watch. Tristan came to graze nearby for reassurance. I reached over to touch him on the shoulder to comfort him but he startled and bolted and let loose a sidekick that caught me on the bridge of the nose. Quicker than I had time to think about what was happening I found myself flat on my back and seeing stars dance before the clouds.
I imagined that what I experienced is about what it feels like to be hit by a professional heavyweight boxer. Even so, it was a glancing blow. If he had caught me full on he could’ve done me in. I like to think that maybe he checked himself in the last instant. As it was, the blood flowing out my nostrils was profuse enough that my EMT- trained spouse insisted on a visit to the emergency room. The physician’s assistant informed me that there are varying degrees of what constitutes a broken nose and that mine was of the milder sort of cartilage rearrangement. He then went on to tell us that just the week before a farrier had been brought in dead on a stretcher. He’d been shoeing heavy horses at the county agricultural fair when a young draft horse kicked him and severed the femoral artery in his thigh. He bled out in the ambulance.
Meet anybody who has worked around horses for any length of time and sooner or later they will pull out some war stories. I guess all these kinds of morbid accounts are there to comfort us with the thought that no matter how bad our present situation; somebody somewhere once had it much worse. I still bear a small scar on the bridge of my nose to remind me of the importance of giving young frightened horses all the space that they need.
Horses are tough animals. When they interact with each other even horses that are friends will on occasion bite and kick. For the most part, they hold these behaviors in check — the implied threat from a dominant horse; laying her ears back flat and lowering her head — is usually all it takes to drive a subordinate away from a pile of hay. When the biting and kicking do occur, the horses in a herd seem to hold themselves in check, the same way a dogfight, or a fistfight between two neighborhood kids, seldom turns lethally violent. Every horse owner has to be aware that the young horse will try to treat the owner as if they were just another horse. As the young horse contests to find its place in the herd it may aim bites and kicks at the human.
One afternoon during the first winter that we had Tristan, I entered the horse paddock to retrieve the grain dishes. Tristan was in a rowdy and playful mood and excited about the prospect of being fed. He galloped around and nipped at the other horses and kicked up his heels. I tried to remain calm as I went about my task and not let myself be flustered by his display. But then, just as I was straightening up from collecting a dish, he veered towards me and fired off twin cannon shots with his back feet and landed his hooves onto my chest. I saw the feet coming but had no time to react. In the next instant I was flat on my back. I was wearing a winter coat and insulated overalls, but the impact still felt like the hardest punch I’d ever taken. I popped up to my feet irate as a disturbed hornet. I noticed that our friend, Don, who was helping out with milking chores, was watching the whole scene from the door of the calf barn. He had a look of horror on his face. Don had taken a big leap up from caring for his flock of sheep to becoming a relief milker for our herd. He had no previous experience working around large animals. At first he had been intimidated by the size of the cows but he stuck with it and got good at the job. However, the horse seemed to him to be an unmanageable beast and now his worst fears were being confirmed.
But even with Don as a witness, I was so flush with rage at my little horse that I peeled a rail off the fence and started to chase him around the paddock. I screamed a string of obscenities and tried to bust that plank across his butt. By this time, the other two horses were worked up into a panic as well — everybody running in circles. I couldn’t catch up with Tristan so I hurled the board at him and threatened him with certain death if he ever kicked me again. Fortunately, my aim was poor and by that time my ire was spent. I wasn’t seriously hurt and luckily I hadn’t hurt the horse. I felt dreadful, I’d lost my cool and was certain that all the patient positive- reinforcement work I’d been doing with the young horse would now be shot to pieces. But by the next day, all seemed to be forgiven. Despite my having broken the golden rule of never losing my temper and trying to do the horse bodily harm, Tristan didn’t act shy or leery of me and behaved like his usual goofball self. Ten years down the road he has never kicked me again. And for my part, I have never tried to break another plank across a horse’s hind quarters. Our friend Don, on the other hand, is still afraid of horses.
ALL THINGS MUST PASS
In a sense, Vermont of the mid-twentieth century was simply an Appalachia North — albeit a shrewd and conservative Yankee version, yet with enough similitude of mountain-culture (in the music, the dance, the spirituality, and the isolated small farm existence) to make the comparison valid. The poverty here was certainly real. Old timers who grew up on farms here make the wry joke; “Great Depression? — we didn’t notice”. The landscape itself, rolling mountains punctuated by deep river bottoms, curtailed the size of the farming communities and kept things close-knit and rural and more approximate to that ideal of the Jeffersonian Democracy that had been all but abandoned in the rush to industrialize agriculture in other less rugged parts. The people who survived by farming in this region did so because this life engendered in them faith and conviction, generosity and fortitude — for them matters of victory and defeat were always a cyclical affair.
And the mountains here are the same Appalachian chain that extends from Maine to Georgia. The same mountains that some 300 million years ago were heaved up from the floor of an ancient sea bed and piled up to heights that once dwarfed the Rockies—only to be mollified by the giant animate carving tool of glacial ice, mountains whose forest-built soils draw from those same sea bed strata of calcium rock to grow sweet grass and fine cattle and yields of arcane sea fossils and even the occasional whale bone to the turning of the yeoman’s plow.
The place that we now farm was once two farms. When Cobb Hill co-housing purchased this land, two adjoining properties were acquired simultaneously. The entire piece comprises 270 acres. Our co-housing village and farm headquarters are situated on what was the Hunt Farm. The Hunt’s had their cows housed in a Gambrel-style barn that was built circa 1900. Typical of many stanchion flat barns of that era, John Hunt had 60 Holsteins crammed into a barn built for 40 Jerseys.
On the other side of our property stands the Curtis House. This little white clapboarded cape tucked into the north end of the valley was built in the 1770’s and is reputed to have been a way-station on the Underground Railroad transporting black slaves to freedom in Canada. Will and Jane Curtis were “flatlanders” who moved up to Vermont from Connecticut sometime in the early 1950’s in order to live the “good life”.
Their immediate antecedents on the property were a couple of woman “spinster” farmers who lived in that house and worked on that land and had a relationship which, though unusual was, in a Vermont already tolerant relevant to the times, accepted by their neighbors, probably because they were honest hard workers who were ably farming the place. The spinster farmers had a couple of hired men working on the place and they built what we know of today as the “Curtis barn” to house their dairy herd. This barn had a simple yet ingenious system in place for bringing water to the facility. They laid in piping from a spring uphill in the pasture that fed down to the barn with fresh water year round. This water system fed the cow water bowls beside each tie-up and delivered water to the milk house for wash-up and for keeping the milk-cans cooled in a cement reservoir. The cold spring water flowed continuously through the reservoir and kept the milk cool without the need for refrigeration.
As John Hunt is want to tell it, he first met Will Curtis by way of helping to tow his stuck tractor out of the muck in the place that would soon after be excavated and christened forever after as “the Curtis pond.” The Curtis barn was built to house twenty milkers. Will Curtis would load the full milk cans from his Jersey cows onto his truck and haul it to the creamery in nearby Windsor. The creamery was adjacent to the railroad tracks. Bottled milk and fresh butter were loaded daily onto rail cars ready for market.
Will and Jane sold off their cattle sometime around 1965 when the federal government required all dairy farms to switch from storing milk in cans to having a refrigerated bulk tank installed. The bulk tanks represented a considerable expense and only the farmers who were already on the road to mechanization could afford them — so a lot of old-timers called it quits with that regulation. Being authors and academics, the Curtis’s fared the transition out of farming better than most Vermont farmers at the time. They taught and wrote books and Will gained a good bit of notoriety for his regular naturalist commentary on Vermont Public Radio entitled; “The Nature of Things”. Once they had sold off their cows they soon after worked out an arrangement that allowed the Hunts to steward their land, so even though a legal boundary line still separated the two farms, in practice our land was already being farmed as a single entity from that time on.
OUT OF THE WRECKAGE
The small farmer tends to be an all-around useful kind of person that the new world order doesn’t have much use for anymore. The order of the day is to become a specialist. One-hundred years ago our current herd size of 18 cows would have constituted a large farm in Vermont. Of course, at that time the farmers would have been raising all their own grain and forage crops with a team of draft horses, as well as feed for pigs and chickens, and quite probably managed a substantial kitchen garden, apple orchard and maple sugar bush to boot. The average herd size in the state today is 100 cows. Sometimes when people hear that we only milk 18 cows they don’t quite take us seriously as real dairy farmers. But we are receiving payment for our milk that actually approaches cost of production, we are earning an equivalent to the payments received by a farmer with 60 cows who belongs to a coop. This doesn’t mean we are raking in the chips (cow, buffalo, or otherwise), it just means that our business is operating in the black — which given the current state of the dairy industry — has to be accounted as a measure of success.
At this time, in addition to ourselves, our farm business has three employees — one who works year-round primarily at milking and barn chores, and two who are engaged seasonally in the full spectrum of cattle and garden. We offer our workers a starting pay of $8.00/per hour plus milk and meat and veggies. We also pay FICA, farm insurance, and workman’s compensation. We wish we could offer more, but as it is, we are often paying our employees more than we pay ourselves. When we started up our operation our initial goal had been to have a herd size tailored to the carrying capacity of our land. We began with seven heifers purchased as calves in 1998 and grew the herd out of that original stock. Very soon our herd size had to take into account the needs of the fledgling cheese business that purchases our milk as they came to terms with how much volume they would require to make that business viable.
There is a popular saying that if you want to make a small fortune in farming you’d best start out with a large one. Last year (2010) we had a rolling herd average of 17,000 lbs. The herd had a butterfat average of 5.0 and protein was at 3.7. We sold 20,000 lbs. of milk to our retail customers and 190,000 lbs went for cheese and frozen yogurt processing. The remaining 13,000 lbs. of milk went to feed calves, the farm crew (and a small quantity of waste milk that was disposed of or fed to pigs). Cobb Hill cheese sells for $10.00/lb wholesale and from $14.00 to as much as $18.00/lb retail depending on the venue. In order for Cobb Hill cheese to make a product that is consistent and commands a good price and is in continued high demand, they must start with a basic ingredient of the highest quality clean milk. We provide them with a milk that tests clean and maintains a somatic cell count (SCC) under 100,000 ppm (the state requires the SCC be under 500,000 and the raw milk sales protocol requires it to be under 250,000). The SCC is recognized as a basic indicator of herd health. We participate in the Dairy Herd Improvement program (DHI) and undergo a regular monthly testing of our milk. Last year we had a total of $91,000 in dairy sales. This figure is coupled with a total of $36,000 in produce sales through the CSA, wholesale, farmer’s market and farm stand, and an additional $30,000 in catering, beef, and resale of retail items at our farm stand. As good as these numbers are for a small operation like ours, we still only managed to pay ourselves a combined income of $20,000. Of course, income estimates for the farmers don’t include a tally of all the food we produced for our own household.
We developed a cost of production estimate for our dairy after applying to go through the Farm Viability Enhancement Program. This program is administered through the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board in collaboration with the University of Vermont (UVM) extension service. Over the course of a year we met monthly with a farm business consultant to develop an in-depth business plan specific to our farm operation.
The next step we took after Farm Viability was to participate in forming a Dairy Management Team (DMT). The DMT is composed of a team of consultants of our choosing and a facilitator. For our team we chose our veterinarian, a dairy nutritionist, our financial consultant, and a pasture management specialist. We meet regularly to discuss and problem-solve ongoing management issues.
Kerry has been looking at ways of keeping our CSA going year-round. She opened a sales account with a local natural foods distribution company so that products that we don’t produce, such as pastured poultry, stone fruits, apples and strawberries, could be included in an expanded share or simply available in our humble farm stand. She has also been buying in some storage vegetables to augment what we are producing. From there it was an easy step to also make available some fresh organic produce in the winter coming from afar. Because we have a low volume of sales and lower overhead than a store we can keep the prices a little more affordable. However, this new facet does represent a contradiction to our ethic of attempting to eat local and with the seasons. It is always fascinating and at times a little disconcerting to watch how seamlessly the macro-economics of trying to make a living as a farmer in such an out-of-balance society can morph us into shapes we never would have dreamed of when we were getting started. This year we will be putting in a refrigerated walk-in cooler (we received a grant through our participation in the Farm Viability program) which will allow us to put up more storage-share vegetables. It will also give us more flexibility to harvest, say green beans, when they are at peak ripeness and hold them for a couple of days, rather than waiting until CSA harvest day.