Know Your Farmer

#FarmLove on Bò Lait Farm

#FarmLove on Bò Lait Farm

The story of how Alexis and Conor MacDonald became dairy farmers is a pretty cool one, but they have really got to come up with something better for how they met. “We met in a bar,” Alexis says. “It was very romantic.” Despite a ho-hum start to this love story, it gets better. The two met in North Carolina, where Conor was stationed in the Army and Alexis was attending a girlfriend’s wedding. “We both thought it wouldn’t amount to anything,” Alexis says.  She was living in D.C. at the time, but the next weekend Conor went to the Walter Reed Medical Center to visit a buddy, and he and Alexis were able to meet up and go on a date. So began their long distance relationship, which got even longer when Conor moved to Florida and then was deployed to Afghanistan. Alexis completed her graduate school studies in social work in May 2014 and moved to Florida a couple of months later. For most of their relationship, Alexis and Conor were planning their future, deciding they wanted to farm. After 8 years in the Army, Conor would be leaving the military that winter. They had settled on dairy farming. “We knew we wanted to be doing something with animals,” Alexis says. “That drew both of us in more than vegetables.” “To get a loan, we need a market,” says Conor, adding that Organic Valley provided that market. “We didn’t want a hobby farm; we wanted a business.” Growing up in New Hampshire, Conor’s family had what he calls a “hobby farm,” which included a couple of milk cows over the years. “So, I at least knew how to move a cow, which is kind of a big thing,” he said. And dairy farming is in his blood. “My ancestors milked cows in Canada.”   “I rode horses,” Alexis chuckles of her previous livestock experience. “I always liked cows though. Now, I think they are hilarious.” They also knew they wanted to be in mid-coast Maine. “We had come up and visited a few times and loved it,” Conor says. “It reminded me of Nova Scotia, where my family lived.” They searched for nearly two years to find their current home in Washington. They moved here in February 2015. The barn itself was in excellent shape, but that was about it. Cows had been milked on the farm back in the 70s in tie stalls. The milk room, where milk is kept in a bulk tank, was falling in and the lines through which the milk would pass from the barn to the milk room had completely rusted. But the MacDonalds were able to purchase milking parlor equipment second hand, and they have made several improvements and added a new open air barn for the cows to come and go as they please and new housing for heifers and calves. They had a crash course in dairy farming, spending a week with Mike Moody on his farm in Whitefield. And by April 2o15, they were ready to bring in the first animals – nine first-calf heifers. “They were wild,” Alexis says of the young cows. “It would have been easier to have a moose,” Conor adds. Alexis works off the farm, using her social work degree in Augusta. While she works two days a week now, she started out full time. “I had just started my job and one calved right after they got here,” she remembers. “I was like, ‘Well, I guess I will milk the cow now. Then I will go to work and then come home...

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Taking a closer look at where milk comes from

Taking a closer look at where milk comes from

We only had UMaine dietetic student Zakkary Castonguay with us as intern at the Maine Dairy & Nutrition Council for a brief time this fall, but we wanted to be sure to introduce him to as many dairy farmers and dairy farms during that time as possible. The following is his take on what he saw, learned and experienced.  Dairy is not only one of the five components of the MyPlate guidelines but as I quickly learned, a way of life. During the completion of the combined Master’s and Dietetic Internship program on my way to becoming a Registered Dietitian, I was allotted the opportunity to spend time with the Maine Dairy Promotion Board / Maine Dairy & Nutrition Council. Stepping away from the incandescent lit hallways of a hospital, I found myself in several cow pastures across the beautiful state of Maine taken aback by the breathtaking views.     Interacting with the families who have, in some cases, dedicated generations to providing the state of Maine and those across our country with straightforward and nutritious milk, helped to produce one of the greatest life experiences for which I could ask. Each farm visit was unique, but exhibited the same basic principles: a genuine care for the animals, belief in the products being produced, and an overwhelming dedication to our state and it’s people. Far too often in the world of academia more specifically that of nutrition, there is the disconnect between everything that is learned and the foundation for which it stands – food. Touring farms and seeing firsthand the dedication and work involved in the production of food allows for a more wholesome understanding of agriculture and, in turn, the products we discuss with our clients.  Having been raised in a society where producers and consumers have little interaction, there is both a need and a newfound push to bring the two together. Fortunately, the forward progression of consumers’ desires to eat local and understand the origin of their foods directly coincides with the work these farmers have been doing for countless generations.       The dairy farmers and their families not only graciously take time from their tireless workdays to provide invaluable information on the inner workings of a functioning farm, but also provide insight on the regulations and proposed future direction of their agricultural sectors. Lives as dairy farmers do not begin and end each day with the punch of a time clock; their work is intertwined within their daily lives. The intermingling of work and everyday life is evident as these wonderful historians share their stories and visuals they so graciously shared during each visit.       The trips across what, in my biased opinion, is the best state in this nation were long in distance, but full of experienced.  Visualizing the anthocyanin-rich blueberry barrens while traveling down the historic Airline connecting Hancock and Washington counties helped to solidify my bias. Fiery red fields led to ocean front pastures and a prime example of the families that help supply the nation with nine key nutrients. As the last weeks of my internship come to a close, I will always remember the people behind the products being produced; their wit, dedication, and ingenuity all are qualities I hope to emulate as I begin my career as Registered Dietitian....

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Dreams really do come moo

Dreams really do come moo

Some people live their entire lives without their dreams ever coming to fruition, never daring to take the leap to see them realized. At 17 years old, Maine dairy kids Kaicey Conant and Megan Caruso made a big check mark on their bucket list by showing at the North American International Livestock Exhibition (NAILE) in Louisville, Ky., this month. “We were really lucky to be able to go,” Megan said at the recent All-Star Dairy 4-H Club annual awards night in Gorham. “Thanks to my dad and to the Conants for convincing my dad to let me go.” Megan and her father Travis of Martin Place Farm in Gorham, Kaicey and her parents Dennis and Heidi of Conant Acres in Canton, along with fellow young dairy farmer and 4-Her Emily Fisher of Topline Farm in New Hampshire and her father and all three ladies’ cattle (Kaicey’s Holstein, Megan’s Ayrshires, and Emily’s Guernseys) traveled to NAILE, which is the largest all-breed, purebred livestock event in the world. Although Kaicey and Megan have been to the Big E in Springfield, MA., they still weren’t prepared for the immensity of the Kentucky show. “It was definitely the experience of a lifetime,” Kaicey said. “I had no idea it was going to be that big.” Both ladies said it was thrilling to just see the enormous show ring and NAILE’s trademark dyed green shavings. While its been a long-time dream for Megan and Kaicey, since they both started showing their family’s dairy cattle a decade ago, the trip became a reality this year because both felt they had quality show animals that could do well on the national stage. “They were winning everywhere,” Kaicey said, “including Eastern States.” “That’s when we started talking about it,” Megan added. Kaicey took her Holstein Tango, and Megan took her Ayrshires Gem, a 3-year-old cow, and Martha, a winter calf. Emily’s family raises Guernseys. “Every day was a different breed show, so we helped each other out,” Megan said. “One day there were eight people working on one cow.” “It was not ‘I have to beat you in showmanship, so I’m not going to be your friend today,'” Kaicey added. “It was ‘I will help you get your heifer ready. Then we’ll get my cow ready.’ We were there to cheer each other on.” The competition was stiff, the best of the best from around the country with 10-15 cows in each class. “The quality of the animals was more than I had ever seen,” Kaicey said. “It was the biggest number of Ayrshires I had ever seen,” Megan said. In the end, Megan earned second in the junior show and fourth in the open with Gem and fifth in the junior and fourth in the open show with Martha. Tango and Kaicey earned fourth in the junior and open as well as Best bred and owned in the open show.   Hopefully, this won’t be a once in a lifetime opportunity for Kaicey and Megan. It will depend on the quality of their animals, but they see more trips to Louisville in their future and are already taking about taking on another big show in Syracuse in April.   Megan and Kaicey were certainly thankful to have the opportunity to go to Louisville and to their parents who helped make it happen for them. As this is the Thanksgiving season, I thought I would offer a couple of recipes for the Thanksgiving table. I have two recipes – one for before dinner and one for after. Golden Raisin Pecan Scones (for breakfast Thanksgiving morning.) 2 cups...

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How Now Brown Cow

How Now Brown Cow

Although she’s second in milk production only to the Holstein and is well-known for her docile personality, the Brown Swiss has never caught on with the popularity of some of the other milking breeds. For the Smith family of East Dixfield though, there’s no other breed they would rather have in their barn. The first Brown Swiss cow dairy farmer Les Smith’s father owned wasn’t much of a milker. “She didn’t give milk, but everyone loved her disposition,” Les said. That was 1961. The Smith family of More Acres Farm originally bought dairy cows as nurse cows to supplement their Beef Shorthorn calves and promote their growth. Hollis Smith had started with beef cows in 1938 on a couple acres in-town Dixfield. “He started accumulating more cattle, and people told him, ‘If you’re going to buy more cattle, you’re going to need more acres,” said Les’ wife Judy. Hence the farm name – More Acres. At the farm’s height, it covered 800 acres. The farm Hollis bought, and Les and Judy still farm with their son Matt and his family in East Dixfield, came equipped with a Sears Roebuck milking machine and four milk coolers in the barn, so he decided to start milking cows. “We had some grade [not registered] Holsteins, Jerseys, and we tried Ayrshires – that was back when they had big, long horns,” Les said. It was the Brown Swiss though, her personality, calm nature and gentleness that was really the start of More Acres becoming a dairy farm. “They’re pretty hard to beat as far as disposition,” Les said. There was just that tiny issue of her not giving much milk … “We looked for better ones,” Les said. “My father told people, ‘It’s a breed I think we could help.’” Brown Swiss is not a popular breed like the Holstein or Jersey.  “At that time there were some small herds in Vermont, New York and Ohio,” Les said. His father started buying up some of the best he could find until More Acres became the largest Brown Swiss breeder in the state of Maine. Today, they milk about 30 Brown Swiss cows and ship their milk to Horizon Organic. It’s another gentle soul in the barn that is the Smith family’s prize possession – an 11-year-old Brown Swiss named Revlon. Calves born on the farm are named with the same first letter as their mother – in this case “R”. When Revlon was born, she had dark lines around her eyes like eyeliner and was named for the famous makeup line. She descended from Matt’s line of 4-H show cattle, and she was a winner in her own right as well.  “Oh, yes!” Judy said. “She won her share of championships.” “If she were in school, she’d get straight A’s,” added Matt’s son Matthew Jr. (M.J.) Along with the Brown Swiss, the family also shows their Beef Shorthorns and sheep. But Revlon’s been a favorite of everyone in the Smith family. “It’s just the way she is,” Les said. Unlike the family’s first Brown Swiss, Revlon is a milker. Even at her advanced age, she is still producing 70-80 pounds of milk (nine or more gallons) each day. Her latest calf, Ripley, will be M.J.’s show animal this year.   The Brown Swiss cow is a North American breed derived from the Alpine Braunvieh (German for “brown cow”). Since July is National Ice Cream month, I decided to make a super simple brown (coffee) ice cream recipe in honor of this brown cow. This is also a great way to use up left...

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Lucy finds a second calling

Lucy finds a second calling

  The reality is that when a milk cow reaches a certain age and is no longer pulling her weight in the milking herd, she will usually be loaded onto the beef truck. It’s not a happy part of farming, but it’s practical. It’s hard enough paying for feed for the cows who are still producing milk, along with calves and heifers who are too young to have started milking yet. Then there’s the space factor – retirement housing for dairy cows? And added medical expenses of an aging cow. And where would you put all those cows who simply died of natural causes? By sending a healthy but older dairy cow to the butcher, she fills another need – hamburger. But every once in a while, there’s that one cow that the dairy farmer just can’t bear to see leave. Lucy is that cow for farmer Randall Bates. “My wife thinks I’ve lost it,” he said. I could practically hear Jill Bates’ eyes roll when I talked to her on the phone before going to Springside Farms in New Vineyard to meet Lucy for myself, but she just chuckled as she told me about the cow that her husband had literally “put out to pasture.” “Lucy is the cow every farmer dreams of,” Randall said of his affection for  the 12-year-old Holstein (she’ll be 13 in September). “She never ever caused me any issues — disposition-wise or health-wise; she had six heifers and only one bull [a dairy farmer always hopes for heifers]; and she always did just what she was supposed to. She was the Steady Eddie cow that you never noticed. She never caused me any issues, not even as a heifer [an awkward, goofy stage of a cow’s life when she tends to get into trouble – you know, those teenage years.] If I could have a barn full of Lucys …” I just couldn’t put her on the beef truck.” Randall and Jill’s daughter Allison was the one to actually suggest giving Lucy a new job – that of what the Bates’ call “den mother” to the farm’s young heifers. The heifers are too old to stay in the barn and have every need attended to by the farmers, but they are young enough that it’s nice to have an older cow like Lucy looking out for them, showing them the way. While Lucy is tops, the Bates have and have had some other very nice cows. Organic Valley, their co-op, even featured Randall and Jill and a couple of their gals on their milk cartons six years ago. Mayflower was 10 years old when she graced the cover of the Lactose Free milk carton. Another dependable cow, “she is no longer with us,” Randall said. Raspberry was just a bred heifer (she was 2 years old and had yet to have any calves) when her photo was taken for the milk carton. “She hammed it up unbelievably!” Randall said of the photo shoot. “She hasn’t been problem-free, but she hasn’t been a problem cow,” he added.   More photos from around the farm:           Story and photos by Jami Badershall, communications manager for the Maine Dairy Promotion Board, unless otherwise...

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Playing favorites? Maybe just a little.

Playing favorites? Maybe just a little.

Bella’s not a super friendly cow; her normal expression is something akin to a scowl, but she’s still Carrie Whitcomb’s favorite of her family’s herd of 300 Jersey and Guernsey dairy cows in Waldo, Maine. “She’s been around forever, and she just knows what to do,” Carrie said of the 12-year-old Jersey. “When we are putting them out to pasture, or putting them on a new pasture, she knows where she is going, and she tells everyone else where to go.” Carrie and her sister Holly have taken the reins at Springdale Farm, which was started when their grandparents bought the farm in 1951. The property was next door to their grandfather Colby’s parents’ farm and has since absorbed the older farm. “This land has been farmed by our family since 1917,” Carrie said. Their grandmother Lois was from a dairy family in Chesterville, where they milked Guernseys. The young couple started the herd with three milk cows – two Jerseys and a Holstein – and 10 registered Jersey heifers (too young to have had a calf yet or produce milk). “At some point they decided they liked Jerseys the best and stuck with them,” Carrie said. “The Guernseys came along from Chesterville a little later.” Holly has her own favorite on the farm – one aptly named Treasure. “She was the last calf out of one of our old favorites,” she said. As the cow was aged, the Whitcombs knew there was a good chance it would be her last calf. “When her mother was preg checked, the vet said it was a bull. When her mom calved out and I saw it was a girl, I started screaming, ‘It’s a heifer! It’s a heifer!’ Carrie wasn’t here, so I texted her at four o’clock in the morning. I named her Treasure right then and there.” And then there’s the herd favorite for everyone on the farm – Lydia, another 12-year-old. What makes her special? “Lydia? Oh, she’s just got attitude,” says Holly. “She’s the boss.” Holly and Carrie have an older brother and five cousins, but they are the only of their generation to have taken an interest in the farm. Their father is Walt Whitcomb, the commissioner of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. “Dad’s around as needed and helps out quite a bit,” Carrie said. “We have a number of aunts in the area, and they like to pop in and stay involved.” Their grandmother was also involved into her 90s. She fulfilled a longtime dream of her and her husband to ensure that their land would be protected as farmland for the future. In July 2015, Springdale became a Forever Farm with the Maine Farmland Trust. Lois Whitcomb passed away in January 2016 at the age of 91.     Both Carrie and Holly studied animal science at Cornell University (Carrie was a senior when Holly was a freshman). Carrie is the farm manager, and has expanded the farm’s products beyond milk. While they are an Oakhurst Dairy farm, some of their milk also goes to Appleton Creamery  and  State of Maine Cheese Company, where Carrie did a college internship. Carrie has also become a cheese maker, starting with flavored cream cheeses, including Cinnamon Swirl, Everything Bagel, and seasonal flavors like strawberry. She sells them at five farmer’s markets, along with the farm’s rose veal. Bull calves have access to the outside in spring, summer and fall, and eat hay and grass, so their meat is more pink than the pale veal of those only fed milk. They are six months old...

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