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By Adam Diamond, NODPA Contributing Writer
The Holmes Family
Katia and Brendan Holmes took over long-time NODPA member Henry Perkin’s farm in 2013 after farming on a patchwork quilt of rented land in Central Massachusetts for eight years before that. Henry Perkins sold the farm to the Maine Farmland Trust, which in turn sold the property to Katia and Brendan with an easement restriction supported by state and federal farmland preservation funds. The property cannot be subdivided into smaller lots in perpetuity, although additional buildings can be built around the original farm house. The easements on the property lowered the purchase price for the Holmes considerably.
Katia and Brendan have 600 acres of land in Albion and Unity, ME, of which about 330 are pasture, hay, and crops with the rest wooded. About 60 are cropped in small grains and dry beans each year. They have a diversified organic livestock farm, with 30-35 milking Jersey cows, 40 Friesian ewes, 1,000 laying hens, 50 Tamworth pigs, and 70 lambs. Their farm business sells raw organic grass-fed cow’s milk, raw cream, raw half & half, raw sheep’s milk, beef, veal, lamb, pork, and eggs throughout the state of Maine, all marketed under the Misty Brook Farm label. Rather than compete with other farms, the Holmes do custom deliveries and distribute raw organic milk and yogurt for The Milkhouse, based in Monmouth, ME.
Misty Brook Farm may be the only farm in the country selling raw sheep’s milk; Katia said she gets 1-2 calls a month from consumers looking for raw sheep’s milk from all over the country; it is a highly specialized market that Katia and Brendan have been able to capitalize on. A good milking sheep only gives a quart of milk a day, and its lactation is only 6 months, making it much more expensive to produce than cow’s milk. Katia has developed a good customer network of stores that buy the raw organic sheep’s milk for $5/quart wholesale. Katia enjoys mixing up her days, with a typical morning spent milking sheep and cows, moving to office work-- working on sales, marketing, and distribution tasks, and moving fence for the pastures in the afternoon. Brendan is responsible for managing crops, forage and the pastures, and also does the lion’s share of human resource management; they have about 12 employees, including delivery drivers, a mechanic, a bottler, farm laborers, and a social media specialist.
Katia and Brendan have some help from Brendan’s mother, who lives near the farm, and their two oldest children-- John--10 and Alistair-12, with William, age 3½, getting ready to make a contribution to the farm in a couple of years. The two oldest children are in a homeschooling group for three days a week, spending the other days working on the farm. Brendan and Katia met while working on Seven Stars Farm in Kimberton, PA, which is a biodynamic farm that produces yogurt. When they met, Katia was thinking about going to school to become a veterinarian, but Brendan told her that he had wanted to be a farmer since he was five years old, and if they were going to be an item it was farming or bust. Katia said she was happy to follow his lead, and has since taken it up with gusto. The both went to Emerson College in Sussex, England to learn biodynamic farming techniques for three years, visiting several farmers in other European countries to see first-hand different ways people can employ biodynamic principles.
After their stint in England, they started farming on rented land in Massachusetts. They are not raw milk dogmatists, but they were organic from the start, with considerable incorporation of biodynamic principles into their farming practices. In Massachusetts there was no organic milk truck so they decided to sell raw milk, which in Massachusetts has to be sold directly to customers on the farm. After farming 200 acres owned by 14 different landlords spread across four towns in Massachusetts for eight years, they jumped at the chance to take over the Perkins farm, which not only meant less time spent traveling between farm plots, but also more inviting raw milk regulations. In Maine they could now sell their raw milk wholesale to stores.
Having different kinds animals serves as a bulwark against price drops, but perhaps more importantly there are symbiotic relationships between the animals on the farm that contribute to farm efficiency and soil health. The sheep and cows all graze together in the same paddocks. Katia indicated that this is done in part for labor saving; she doesn’t want to move electric net fencing because it takes up too much time; instead she uses 1 strand polywire for the cows and sheep that is set knee high for the cows, which also keeps in the sheep. Sheep often move in a clump, and periodically will make “campsites” when it’s hot and take a group nap all bunched on top of each other, flattening the grass and pooping on the grass, which helps build soil organic matter, leading to future regrowth. The Holmes follow Ian Mitchell Innis’s grazing methodology, which calls for grazing one third and trampling two thirds. The milkers are moved at least twice a day and up to four times per day. Depending on the point in the growing season, the grass can be over three feet tall (late July). The problem, of course with tall grass is that sheep will not go into it on their own, as it towers over their bodies. However, in this mixed species regimen the cows go in first and the sheep are able to follow their paths.
The animals may only graze 30% of the vegetation and flatten the rest. The flattened grass provides a protective cover that keeps the soil moist when it’s dry, and it feeds soil life. Letting the grass grow tall also means the roots are longer, which aerates the soil and maintains a good soil structure for soil organisms. There are also nutritional benefits to tall grass grazing. The protein energy balance of tall grass is preferable to short grass. Katia pointed out that in the spring when the cows first start grazing they are very excited and want to graze low, but this means they actually will get too much protein. The milk from cows consuming too much protein can give their calves scours.
Having a flerd (flock of sheep plus herd of cows) graze a paddock also helps optimize pasture health because cows and sheep like different kinds of plants. Having the two species graze together leads to a more even consumption of the pasture, and likewise helps maintain a biodiverse pasture with an appropriate mixture of legumes and grasses. Pigs and chickens sometimes play a role in pasture management as well. Katia explained— “If we have a field that’s doing poorly we will run chickens and pigs across the field to give it an extra shot of fertility. What works best for us is minimizing labor and improving pasture.”
While the cows and sheep get a 100% grass-fed diet, they have to feed grain to the chickens and pigs. Misty Brook Farm grows wheat, rye, and oats (and has grown corn in the past), and also grows 4 acres of dry beans for human consumption. The wheat and rye are used to mill flour for human consumption as well as cover crops. Oats are used for cover crops as well as feeding the breeding pigs. The pigs can be used as living seed planters, plowers, and harvesters. Sometimes they have run pigs through fields with stumps to work the soil in preparation for planting a crop, or use the pigs to work in seeds after they have grazed a patch of pasture. When this was done with corn, the pigs were then brought in to harvest it, saving a lot of time, equipment usage, and fuel.
Katia and Brendan used AI some when they started farming, but now use their own bull exclusively. Katia explained that she “likes to look at the bull—see, not just by numbers.” The Holmes have a lot of New Zealand Jerseys; they are fairly small and stout, which works well for their system, both because it’s a grass-based dairy and because she raises cows for beef. With the sheep, she commented that she has a fairly high cull rate as she tries to develop an ideal flock for her farm. When starting out she bought sheep from several different farms, but now is breeding for sheep that are more resistant to parasites, have good legs and udders. She mentioned that a couple of lambs that didn’t respect the fence got culled. Misty Brook Farm’s strong market for lamb and mutton allows for a high culling rate. Cows with staphylococcus aureus mastitis also get culled. And here again, the farm’s beef market allows for a high culling rate.
Katia and Brendan fell into the raw market due to geographic circumstance, but realize it has made a major difference in their farm economics. Katia relayed how it’s a lot more work doing raw, bottled milk on the farm as she has to plan feeding and calving to balance their own tank, “but the upside is I set the price. Instead of being a price taker I am a price setter. That’s kept us in business over the ups and downs of the years. A few times when milk prices were high we looked at each other and said ‘why are we doing all this?’ But when it takes a downward turn it’s like ‘oh, that’s why.” The Holmes don’t have one customer (buyer), instead selling to 50 wholesale accounts.
Katia ended our conversation with some reflections on what keeps her going, in this difficult business called farming, and some ideas for how farmers can best meet the challenges they face. “It’s tough right now. I don’t know how many more farmers we’re going to lose before something changes. I feel for a lot of those farmers out there that are maybe not making it. What’s kept us growing is our passion for farming, for the soil, for the livestock. But we’ve found that you’ve got to be constantly changing and recreating what you do. The weather is getting more changeable. The economic situation is constantly changing. It’s kind of generally tough to be a small business, and farming’s no different. I guess the biggest thing I would say as a piece of advice—constantly be reassessing what you’re doing, in order to be flexible and be able to change and create a continuing farm business. The one thing that’s guaranteed is change. Nothing ever stays the same.”