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Nine Generations in the Making
Aaron and Carly Bell and family
By Sonja Heyck-Merlin, NODPA Contributing Writer
Added January 14, 2015.
Although his father and uncle sold the dairy herd in the 1970’s, eighth generation farmer Aaron Bell of Tide Mill Organics, knew that he wanted to be a dairyman. It was the stories from family members and the community that inspired Aaron to revive the dairy in the early 2000’s when HP Hood was aggressively seeking raw milk for its entrance into the organic milk sector, having purchased the right to bottle fluid milk under the Stonyfield Farm name. Compelled by his grandfather’s tales of trailering cows to the local state fair, pumping dark green pasture poo on to the city streets and sagas of tipped over silage trucks driven by inexperienced farmhands, Aaron was driven to create his own dairy story.
Situated in the far edge of eastern Maine in Washington County, Tide Mill Organics is a stone’s throw from the Canadian border and the ocean. The farm is recognized as a National Bicentennial Farm, a rare claim and especially so in this circumstance since not only is the land still in the Bell family but it is still commercially farmed. Originally a 10,000 acre piece, the land was granted to Scottish immigrant, Robert Bell, in 1765. Robert established a tidal powered grist mill in the 1800’s and began clearing land. In 2000, when Aaron returned to the farm post-college with his wife Carly Delsignore, the farm was 1600 acres- 50 acres of fields, 20-30 acres of marginal but improvable land and the rest wooded. In some capacity, commercial dairying has been part of Tide Mill for the last five generations.
Cows sprinting along the ocean shore.
Beginning with organically certified mixed vegetables and then the addition of organic poultry, pigs and beef cows, and eventually four children, Aaron and Carly, pulled as strongly as the 20 foot Cobscook Bay tides they witness each day, set about creating their life on the farm. To Aaron, dairy “signified perseverance and prevailing over incredible challenges, the epitome of farming and community.” With the impetus of a stable milk market, they began to build their herd which has grown to 50 milk cows of mixed breeds of the Holstein, Jersey, Brown Swiss and Lineback types. Aaron is particularly fond of his Holstein heifers bred by a Brown Swiss bull, commenting on their pleasant nature. Perhaps nostalgia for past times motivated Aaron as his grandfather was a Brown Swiss man.
Although Aaron grew up with a beef herd and helped his family put up hay during the growing season, the shadow of the former dairy was a reminder of his family’s past and fueled his ambition to have his own herd. Because of the existing infrastructure on the farm it was relatively easy to begin producing milk despite the vast barriers to entry that exist in the organic milk industry. Aaron milks in the single seven herringbone parlor built with an attached free stall barn by his grandfather, father and uncle in 1965. During the grazing season, he rotationally grazes his milk herd and offers a TMR during milking with about 6# of grain per cow. Paddocks are changed once a day. Heifers and small stock are raised off farm on leased land. A barn is also part of the lease so replacements are able to remain there through the winter. He feeds a bit more grain in the winter, 8-10 lbs. in the TMR. The herd has access to an outside paddock during the long dark Maine winter. There are few health problems—calf scours and weak calves are the primary challenge. His mother, Jane, whose presence is woven into all aspects of the farm, reaches to the Odairy listserv when cow health problems arise. The lack of large animals in this region diminishes the likelihood that a veterinarian will be able to solve such issues organically.
Putting up high quality forage and developing productive pastures is a challenge in the granitic shallow soils of the northeast. There are few large livestock enterprises in this region; importing fertility is neither economically or logistically feasible. Because of this, Tide Mill needs a larger land base than the home farm provides so they lease a combined 250 acres of pasture/hay ground. The fields are small and numerous. Aaron puts up mostly round bales of dry hay and baleage though he still does some square baling. Baleage is individually wrapped and left in the field. This offers the flexibility of hauling during the winter. By the early 1990’s Washington County had lost its last dairy farm and once productive farm land is quickly being lost to alders and birch. People frequently ask Aaron if he can utilize their fields, of which there are many 15-20 acre pieces nearby, but the challenges of clearing land are too much for an already diversified farm.
Aaron with Paige, Ruth and Henry witnessing a birth
Carly partly credits Aaron’s university studies of philosophy for helping him persevere through the freezing cold, the sick calves, the demands of four children, wrestling with catching cows in heat in the free stall barn and the myriad of other challenges a dairyman faces in a day. He has the ability to “see the cyclical nature of challenges of things; it helps him handle the stress.” Fortunately Aaron has this ability to handle adversity because in 2009 in the midst of the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression, HP Hood, Aaron and Carly’s processor, decided to give Tide Mill and nine other farms in the far flung regions of Maine their six month notice. No other processor was willing to pick up the route and through the help of Maine’s agricultural community, Maine’s Own Organic Milk (MOO Milk), as chronicled in the beautiful movie, Betting the Farm, was created.
The Bells believe that people’s health is directly tied to the food that they consume. Physical health is dependent on high quality produce, meat and milk, and emotional health relies on community relationships and bonds that in part are created through farms. MOO Milk’s intent was to nourish both types of health; by selling non-ultra pasteurized organic milk to a regional market and helping communities by strengthening Maine’s organic dairy sector. MOO Milk’s mission was a perfect fit for Aaron and Carly whose commitment to supplying the people of Maine organic food is exemplary. In addition to the dairy, they raise and process 12,000 broilers and 500 turkeys a year, have a robust local market for whole raw milk, raise pork and direct market their own cull cows. They sell seedlings and variety of balsam products during the holiday season. They sell their goods through a CSA, at local stores and at a farm stand. Aaron’s cousin, Rachel Bell and husband Nate, buy milk from Aaron for their business, Tide Mill Creamery. Another brood of three Bell kids, members of the ninth generation, live with Rachel and Nate.
The scope of the nourishing, tangible products produced by the Bells is vast, but so are their intangible contributions to their local community. “I love to see people excited to learn where their food comes from,” Aaron says, “We (society) got away from that for a couple generations. Everyone used to have farms. Then with the introduction of mass production, we didn’t have to, and people moved away from it.” Tide Mill offers guided farm tours throughout the growing season, and special visits may be arranged for home schooled families or school groups. The farm hosts apprentices and has a number of seasonal paid farming positions. It is rich with opportunity for anyone who wants to know the truth behind the food they’re eating. Running between and through all these educational opportunities are Hailey, Paige, Henry and Ruth, the Bell’s four children. “We incorporate our children into practically everything we do and value their participation, even though that participation takes more time, care and negotiations; as they get older they become more capable but it’s harder to get them to perform,” commented Aaron.
Cows resting on grass at Tide Mill Farm
Community outreach and family values do not, however, generate the cash flow necessary for producing the scope and volume of food produced at Tide Mill. Despite the large growing demand for MOO Milk, the company folded in 2014, once again putting Tide Mill Farm in a tenuous position. Despite their various enterprises, the dairy plays a critical cash flow role in the farm. According to Carly, “It’s kind of a dichotomy because the money is not enough to cover the costs of running a dairy operation, but it is regular and substantial. The dairy also supports the overhead that is used for the other farm enterprises. Scale is a tricky thing, mostly because of overhead. So our other operations are able to use the equipment that the scale of the dairy supports. This is a huge benefit to raising vegetables, pigs, beef and poultry. The dairy also offers us the opportunity to offer full time employment to individuals in our community. With these employees and help from the extended family, we have had the opportunity to leave the farm as a family.”
The dairy has a symbiotic relationship with Tide Mill’s other enterprises. The feeder pigs, quartered in portable A-frame huts, help to clear land which will eventually become pasture for dairy cows. “The pigs do a lot of foraging. They are always chomping in the dirt, eating shrubs and bushes.” The pigs also enjoy eating silage and hay; feed that wouldn’t be available without the dairy. The waste milk generated by the cows is another important feed source for the roughly 100 pigs grown at Tide Mill each year. These supplemental sources of pig food are especially important given the high cost of organic grain. The pastured poultry improve fertility as the birds are moved rotationally adding nutrients to hay and pasture ground. The manure from the dairy, all solid, is vital to the productivity of the farm’s vegetable ground, home pastures and hayfields. Located in an environmentally sensitive area, Tide Mill’s manure requires a covered stacking pad. The dairy manure is mixed with chicken and pig bedding, mulch bales and poultry manure to create compost. “The dairy does really support the other enterprises because it allows them to be smaller scale and still have access to the overhead and afford it by sharing with the dairy- like the tractors we use to fill up the pig feeder from a bulk bag of grain. The supplies that we need are often on hand from the dairy, such as electric fencing supplies, manure storage, tools and equipment,” says Carly.
Pastured Poultry mobile unit
Despite the diversity of the farm a wholesale milk market is critical to Tide Mill. As MOO Milk faltered, Tide Mill, along with about 13 other farms were scrambling to find a new processor. The perishable nature of milk and the abrupt ending of MOO Milk left the farmers little time to re-group as a unit. With organic milk in tight supply, some processors were willing to take the entire route but others were reluctant to incorporate the trucking for Tide Mill’s eastern spur.
Tide Mill was given three options by each of the three major processors in Maine: truck your own milk to a more centralized location and we’ll pick it up it, a 6-month contract offer, and a two year contract offer. Ultimately, the Bell’s chose Horizon Organics 2-yr. commitment to purchase their milk. Their third processor in 10 years, Aaron is pleased to be working with Horizon and their Northeast representative. “Horizon went the extra mile. They were the only processor willing to offer us a 2-year market for our milk.”
Hampshire pigs at feeding time.
Even with their 2-yr. contract, Aaron is concerned about the organic dairy industry in Maine; “it seems fragile.” The momentum, fervor and excitement surrounding the growth of organic dairy during the1990’s and early 2000’s have given way to uncertainty and doubt. The cost of production is rising faster than the pay price. This prevents farmers from improving and growing their production capabilities. The growth of the organic dairy industry in eastern Maine and beyond is stagnant. Aaron, who among his other endeavors serves as a Maine state representative to NODPA, believes in NODPA’s advocacy to establish a fair pay price to organic farmers. When asked what needed to be done to increase the number of organic dairy farms in Maine the answer was simple: “we need a higher pay price.” It is not enough to wax poetic about the sacrifice of farm families nor create bucolic images of the rewards of life on the farm. In order for farms such as Tide Mill to succeed and convince the next generation that dairy
farming is a viable and worthwhile path, farmers need to be fairly compensated.
Surrounded by the raw beauty of the rugged Maine coastline, the Bell’s move through their days creating their own stories that doubtlessly will become their own legends. To Aaron there is a direct correlation between the diminishing strength of our rural communities and the lack of dairy farms. “Dairy farming involves big important life; you’re caring for life 24/7 and it’s always an emergency. Its life that births, breathes and bleeds. It’s steaming placentas and the smells and sounds of the barn. It’s getting your broke-down tractor going in the freezing cold because you need headlights to take care of a cow after you just broke your flashlight. There will always be a place for that mission.”
Young turkeys at Tide Mill Organic