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Added January 25, 2016.
by Sonja Heyck-Merlin
“This land had been hayed until it was moss and strawberries,” first-generation dairy farmers Geordie and Emery Lynd recounted of their early days on their hillside Vermont farm. “When we came here our 100 plus acres of grass was just enough to pasture 35 head and make 70 round bales and a few hundred square bales.”
In June of 2010, barely in their mid 20’s, this optimistic couple closed on the tuckered out 290 acre farm during the midst of the downward economic plunge that impelled organic dairy consumers back to the conventional cooler. The farm, located in Caledonia County, in the hamlet of Walden, is perched at 1700 feet on the north facing side of an open hill exposed to the wrath of the Northeast Kingdom’s notoriously long winters and fierce gales.
The region was dubbed the Northeast Kingdom (NEK) by the late Vermont Senator George Aiken in the 1940’s. The naming came at a period when this geographic enclave, backed up against the Quebec border to the north, cut off from the rest of New England by the Green Mountains to the West and the White Mountains to the east, was struggling to establish its identity in order to market itself to tourists and business development.
For generations, these hillside dairy farms have helped define this remote part of Vermont but the successful branding campaign has disadvantaged small farms as the burgeoning population of the eastern seaboard seeks the seclusion and beauty of the NEK. Development pressure is pushing the cost of farmland up and forcing farm families off the land. Purchasing farmland is a nearly insurmountable financial challenge for undercapitalized beginning farmers.
Prior to the purchase of the farm by the Lynds, the land had been under ownership by the same family since the 1930’s. These farm families have clung to their small pieces of paradise with determination and Yankee ingenuity. Although neither is from a dairy family, the Lynds embody this spirit and worked tirelessly to purchase the farm and acquire start-up capital.
Lenders were reluctant to finance inexperienced operators with high debt-per-cow figures in the dairy business climate of 2009-2010. A conventional savings bank financed the Lynds after the agricultural lenders said no. They also sold the development rights to the property to the Vermont Land Trust to bring their debt load to a manageable level.
Ownership completed, the Lynds faced a fury of endless work and difficult decisions. The only useable infrastructure available was a house and garage and a 30 by 132 foot 2-story Unadilla-style Jamesway tie-stall kit barn built in 1955. The buildings had been maintained but the functional part of the dairy infrastructure was long gone, the former family having sold their herd in the mid 1980’s. In October of 2010, the couple began shipping conventional milk and they remained in the old stable for a year and a half as they transitioned to organic their fifty head, at that point mostly Jerseys with a spattering of Holsteins.
“Our first winter was rough. That barn was difficult to manage well. It had no gutter cleaner and we were doing everything by hand. It would have been very difficult to mechanize anything in that barn,” Geordie explained. Located in the environmentally sensitive Lake Champlain watershed, the Lynds were fortunate to obtain NRCS cost sharing early in their farming career to begin a long-line of necessary improvements.
In 2011, they dug a 165,000 gallon concrete-lined, slope-walled manure pit next to the original barn. The earthwork produced about 13,000 yards of dirt which they used to create more level space in their heavily-sloped barnyard. Simultaneously, a 52 by 120 foot hoop building was being added to the farmstead area. During this rapid phase of infrastructure construction and improvement, the Lynds also built a milking parlor and milked in less than half of the old stanchions. A pole shed feeding area was added on to one edge of the concrete barnyard the next summer and the herd is free to move between this pole shed feeding site and the bedded pack hoop building.
The milking parlor is a swing six pit parlor located in half of the original dairy barn. It is designed after Iowa State University Extension dairy field specialist Larry Tranel’s TRANS Iowa low-cost milking parlors. Tranel has published designs for converting existing tie-stall milking barns into more efficient facilities. “It was home-made and inexpensive,” they noted, but “there are things we wish we’d done differently. We feel that we can keep making it more efficient with minor adjustments, though.”
Calves on Pasture at Lynd Family Farm
Their herd hit a stable size in 2012 and they are currently milking around 55 cows which they attempt to freshen seasonally in spring and fall. It’s roughly half Holstein and half Jersey genetics with a quarter of the animals cross breeds. In retrospect, the Lynds think it would’ve been cheaper to buy an organic herd rather than transition their heifers but Emery chimed in that “we can’t complain because conventional milk prices were pretty good during our transition.”
The malnourished 130 acres of pasture mimicked the conditions of the old milking barn, useable but inefficient. Geordie noted, “It had been hayed until it barely got a green color to it. You’d drive out of the manure pile with manure on your tires and leave a green streak in the brown. It wasn’t worn down from tillage or letting the trees grow up. It was just a lot of years of cutting hay and no manure or fertilizer. The one good thing you can say is that it would have been much worse had this been the type of farm that you could wreck with row cropping. At least it was in grass all that time.”
He continued, “About the only thing we’ve been sure about as we’ve been trying to learn how to farm is that pasture is important and we were going to focus on it. We depended on purchased feed for the winter, so we knew that pasture was what was going to fund any progress we made here.”
There was no grazing infrastructure in place and their first spring they turned the cows out into a complete poly-wire system. Since they planned to purchase all of their stored feeds, they were able to focus their attention on setting up grazing infrastructure and rotational grazing. Laneways, water pipe and 2-strand high tensile perimeter fencing were also funded through NRCS cost-share.
In five years, the Lynds have seen the productivity of their pastures improve tremendously. The couple explained that, “the second part of the grazing season has gotten better and better. We always had some grass in May and June but as we’ve worked on fertility the pastures have produced better, longer. A little dry weather doesn’t stop the grass growing the way it did.”
On-Farm Forage Plots planted by University of Vermont Extension
In their early years there was a fairly typical mix of grasses and clovers; no pastures had been reseeded in recent history. The lighter soils contain an early heading orchard grass that is not very palatable but other soil types have Reed canary grass and Timothy. Bringing in some wood ash into the pasture program has also improved fertility. “The wood ash has a lot of potash and raises pH. When we started spreading wood ash it seemed like the clover came out of nowhere. We haven’t felt like seeding clovers much when manure, lime and some wood ash seem to support it getting stronger all the time,” Geordie said.
The pasture fertility program is bolstered by spreading as much manure pit liquids as they can with a 4” irrigation pump run by a 75 horse Deutz diesel. It is pumped through 5” aluminum pipe and fire hose to lightweight sprinkler guns on the pastures which can cover a 300-400 foot circle and can be manually moved. The pump sucks air when the manure is pumped down enough you can get a tractor in it and solids are removed once a year with a side slinger. “If we could invest time and money in making it better,” the couple elaborated, “we would bury 6” PVC mainlines with risers along a couple of our cow lanes out from the barn to spend less time on pipe moving and blowouts.”
In late August of 2014, University of Vermont Extension planted a number of on-farm forage plots on the farm. Very little rye grass is currently used in Vermont pastures and researchers hope to learn more from the Lynd’s 1/4 acre test plot. Six varieties of perennial rye grasses were selected in order to compare winter hardiness, maturity, yield and quality: Garibaldi, BG-24T, Tivoli, Mathilde, Remington NEA and BG-34. Some Italian ryegrasses were also trialed. Working with UVM Extension agent Dan Hudson, they seeded four acres of Italian ryegrass. “It grew well, made milk and the seed is inexpensive,” he said.
A Meadow fescue was also included because it is re-emerging in the marketplace as a high-quality winter-hardy species and little is known about how it may fit into dairy forage systems. Kura clover was also selected for the trials because it can be high-yielding and persistent once established. Kura is slow to establish but researchers are hoping to discover how much the plants need to be coddled during the establishment period.
In spite of their grazing enthusiasm, the Northeast Kingdom is known for its long challenging winters. Although climate change is moderating the climate and lengthening the growing season, the weather has also become more unpredictable. “On one hand, we love grazing. The low-overhead New Zealand-style grass farm model appeals to us,” they explained. “We like that mindset, that it’s all about cows, milking systems, grass, and grazing infrastructure. On the other hand, winter happens here and you are running a confinement operation for a good part of the year whether you want to or not.”
The Lynds would like to become forage independent during the non-grazing part of the year and they recently signed a lease on one hundred acres of adjacent hay ground. Up to this point they have only been producing about one quarter of their own stored feed which is supplemented by a ten to fifteen pound ration of grain per cow per day, a mash of barley and corn. They said, “Buying feed, we have no control over the quality. It costs too much when it’s available. The trucking has been hard to arrange. We are taking on more work and headaches leasing ground, but we hope we can keep up, on top of everything we are already doing.”
While they acknowledged the future need for a more serious mowing machine and efficient wrapper, for now the Lynds must rely on their humble line of equipment which includes a beat-up eight foot 3-point hitch mower, a borrowed tedder, a new Kuhn V-shaped pinwheel rake and a cumbersome old bale wrapper. They will continue to rely on custom round baling. The added workload of putting up summer forage makes the couple nervous but Geordie laughed and commented that, “one way to help is to not build a barn every summer.”
Winter is in the air and the snowball that this beginning farm represents continues to gain downhill momentum. In 2014, Geordie and Emery were awarded a competitive grant through the Vermont Farm and Forest Viability fund to build a 40 by 60 foot hoop structure with an attached concrete barnyard for their heifers and young stock. They Lynds also added baby Crosby to the mix in mid-November of 2015; their hillside dairy is now truly a family endeavor. If the flurry of activity hasn’t made you dizzy yet, throw 30 breeding sows into the pot, a few thousand maple taps whose sap goes to a neighbor’s sugaring operation and the sale of fifty to seventy cord of tree length firewood from their 150 acre woodlot.
The Lynds conjure up one of those idyllic farm family images that can be found on the side of a half-gallon carton of organic milk – vivacious, committed, trying their best to care for their cattle, pastures and forests. Hesitantly, Geordie spoke, “We’re not the most efficient place they (Horizon) are going to buy milk from. If they want farms like us to make it, we would like a little more money. But you don’t get into an old hill farm and get it going if you are used to thinking somebody owes you.”
He added, “I’d like to believe that the pay price is good enough to support not just established farms but also start-ups that have mortgages and operating debt. We can’t use what we’re getting as a standard for whether the pay price is good enough but we do see established farms on our milk route with a lot of equity that still skimp on the basics such as liming fields and building maintenance. At the size most of these farms are, even the good ones that are ‘making,’ it seem like their belts are pretty tight.”
University of Vermont Extension checking forage plots at the Lynd’s farm
Bob Parsons, a farm economist for the University of Vermont, has been conducting research on the economic viability of organic Vermont dairy farms for several years. He says that organics have been a life savor for many of Vermont’s small dairies but according to his research, profitability has been declining and the question he asks is whether these small organic farms can last another ten years. Another question that needs to be asked is how young families like the Lynds can gain a foothold in an industry where even veteran organic producers often struggle.
“We’re first generation dairy people and we spend most of our time just feeling grateful for the luck we’ve had to try it. We don’t spend much time wishing we were doing anything else; it never occurred to us to do anything else,” closed Emery and Geordie.
“We wake up every morning and do what we can. The projects are slowing down enough that it’s starting to feel more like farming. We’ve been on the run all the time for a few years.” This is the spirit and attitude that has defined these rugged hills of Northern Vermont for generations; we must work together to find ways to maintain the viability of small-scale dairy in the Northeast Kingdom.
Posted: to Featured Farms on Mon, Jan 25, 2016
Updated: Mon, Jan 25, 2016