Know Your Farmer

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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Wind Gate Farm – Headstrong and Steadfast

Wind Gate Farm – Headstrong and Steadfast

Wind Gate Farm did not get its names for gentle breezes that rustle the maple leaves and set the pasture grasses to swaying. It’s named for the ferocious gusts that will rattle the roof tin until you wonder if it will still be there by morning and cut through you like a blade of ice in winter. Thirty years ago this October, the dairy farm on Knox Ridge was just the place a young couple named Jeff and Penny Stevens was looking to purchase and farm with their children – at the time two daughters, ages 3 years and 9 months. “That first winter, I thought ‘What have we done?'” said Penny, adding that the old farm house was not well insulated. In January and February, the wind howls non-stop, she said. But they made it work even when others said it wouldn’t. “Nobody could believe that a free stall barn would stand on Knox Ridge,” said Jeff, referring to the large, open format barn they built for their cows. It’s been there several years now, unmoved. When they purchased the farm and its 26 milking cows, there was only one small milking barn. Over the years, the family grew, the cows multiplied and the farm was added on to. They now have four grown daughters, three granddaughters with another grandchild due imminently, and they are milking nearly 100 cows. Until recently they milked their cows in tie stalls, but last summer, they added raised milking stanchions or walk up stalls. Their daughter Jennifer calls it “retirement milking”. Rather than having to bend over to milk cows, the cows’ udders are now at a standing level. This summer they will continue to convert more of the old milking barn into this style of parlor, adding more stations for the cows. Of their four daughters, only one remains on the farm – the youngest, 22-year-old Fran. And while she’s interested in the farm, she’s not yet sure if she wants to make it her life’s work. She also works at a daycare. Their eldest daughter Kim, 33, is a physical education teacher, coach and yoga instructor. Jennifer, 30, is a civil engineer, and Cheryl, 28, is a special education teacher. “We’re pretty proud of our girls,” Penny said. “They got a good base here. We raised creative, practical problem solvers.” On a farm, you always have to think on your feet. “You learn that there’s not only one way to solve a problem. You have to look at things differently and figure out how to fix them without calling in someone else to fix it.” “I wanted a vacation,” Jennifer said of her decision not to farm. “There’s no freedom, no vacations. If you do leave the farm, you have to have someone whom you trust implicitly.” She added that whenever her parents did go away and she and her sisters were left to run the farm (when they were old enough), “something major always happened, and that was before cell phones.” Luckily, Jeff’s father, who had been a dairy farmer in New Hampshire, was next door. “But I’m glad I was raised this way, and it was great to grow up here [Knox]. There are so many farms around here, all my friends were farm kids. Now when I talk to friends, farming is a foreign concept.” She said it was an adjustment to go from a farming life to a career with a desk job. “I went to work Monday through Friday and then I had the weekend off. It was like, ‘What’s this?’ I had to start cutting my fingernails. I had never had to do...

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UMaine students ensure Orono Royal tradition continues

UMaine students ensure Orono Royal tradition continues

The Orono Royal is a long-standing tradition at the J. Franklin Witter Teaching & Research Center, otherwise known as the Witter Farm at the University of Maine, but it almost didn’t happen this year. In the past, the show was a requirement of animal science and pre-veterinary students in the Animal Science Techniques class. Students would end the semester exhibiting what they had learned about fitting, clipping, training and handling heifers from UMaine’s working and teaching dairy farm. When the professor who lead the class retired though, the class was cancelled. Enter Patricia Donovan – a fourth-year student from Mars Hill who grew up showing her family’s beef cattle and a few dairy cattle. As an animal science major, she took the class last year and thought it was a valuable experience that needed to continue, not just for the students who learn how to handle large animals, but for the cattle. “It’s fun for the students, but it’s so important for the heifers because they are so well-handled by the end of the class, they are like dogs by the time they reach the milking barn.” Her hard work, along with that of the students, was evident Saturday, May 7, when the well-behaved (for the most part) heifers were led into the show ring. Like Patricia, some of the students have shown through 4-H, but most of them have never been in the show ring nor have they clipped a topline before.         Patricia thought it was her duty to see that the Royal and the training leading up to the event continued because “somebody had do it.” It was no longer mandatory for animal science and pre-vet majors, but several students participated. Patricia met with everyone on weekends and other free times to teach them the skills leading up to show day. They worked with their heifers, teaching them to lead and stand as often as they could. “I think they’ve done really well for not having weekly meetings and just showing up when they can,” said Patricia, adding that a few students did drop out just before the show, so some students were showing animals that had been trained by someone else and they had never worked with before.                 An animal science major, Kevin Arkin doesn’t intend to work directly with large animals in his future career. He hopes to be a laboratory technologist, researching diseases and cures for cancer as well as doing behavioral studies on the side, which is perhaps why working with often stubborn dairy cattle appeals to him. A junior, he has taken advantage of the opportunities the Witter Farm offers him, working on the dairy farm for two summers and participating in a similar program showing horses in the past. “I wanted to try something new,” he said. “I wanted to help with the heifers behavior-wise. If they are going to be milked, this will help to teach them not to kick and make them easier to move and work around.”   Story and photos by Jami Badershall, Communications Manager for the Maine Dairy Promotion Board/Maine Dairy and Nutrition...

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Being her own best man

Being her own best man

Sonja Ginn is the dairy farmer on Willow Drive Farm in Winterport, but the whole family pitches in when they can. Her son Ben will be the one to probably take over the farm when the day comes, but he also works with his father Dale as a logger Monday-Friday, rushing to the farm as soon as he is done to start cleaning out stalls and help with the milking. His wife Sonya and her son Kyle also come to the farm a few afternoons a week. Nephew Ethan Ginn comes on the weekends. Dale also helps when he’s home, and daughter Brittney, who is a medical assistant at Eastern Maine Medical Center, does her share in the evenings and on her days off, helping take care of calves and the horses. During times like hay season though, it’s all hands on deck.   Brittney is a member of our Moo Squad – a group of athletes we’ve sponsored to spread the good word about dairy at their races this year. I asked her why she decided to go to work in the medical field rather than working on the farm. “I love it here, I don’t know what I would do without it, but my mom works really hard every single day,” Brittney said with emphasis on the “really”. “I like helping people, and I love talking – talking to people.” Dairy cows aren’t always the greatest conversationalists. Sonja admits that dairy farming isn’t an easy life, especially on those days the check she received for her milk is less than the check she wrote to pay for her cows’ grain. In addition to 60 milk cows, the farm has 80 head of beef cattle, which were added at Ben’s request when he was 17 because he didn’t want to milk cows. Fortunately profits from the beef cattle can cover what the milk cows don’t. So why not get rid of the milk cows and only raise beef? “I love milking cows,” she said. “It keeps me healthy and keeps me going.” “Honestly, I do it because I want to teach another generation and another generation after that,” she said. “I don’t want us to lose this way of life – farming life. I want to hand this down the way it was handed down to me.” She is the fourth generation on Willow Drive Farm. The knowledge, life skills and values gained working on a farm cannot be taught from a book, Sonja added. “I’ve probably had 15 kids work for me on this farm over the years; a lot of them were family friends or relatives. They all turned out really well, and they all went on to be at the top of whatever job they do – they’re managers and foremen. It’s because of their work ethic.”   Sonja didn’t necessarily choose the farming life. It chose her. “I’ve been here for 56 years,” she said, adding that she was 3 years old when she was climbing the ladder to the hayloft behind her grandfather. While there was a great deal to be learned following in her grandfather and father’s footsteps, she says she’s also self-taught. “Farming has changed a lot from when they did it,” she said. She said making the move to registered Holsteins was one big change. Another has been the equipment. The hay bales used to be all square; 20 years ago, the farm got its first round baler, and she had to teach herself how to use it. “We’ve gotten new balers since then, and every one is different, so you...

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The makings of a dairy farmer

The makings of a dairy farmer

They come from near (born in the farmhouse on the property) and far (a Montana ranch kid) and everywhere in between. Members of the crew at Wolfe’s Neck Farm’s dairy operation in Freeport come from varied backgrounds, but they have a similar goal in mind – to make the Organic Dairy Farmer Research and Training Program a success. Casey Smith uses the words “great, awesome, challenging” to describe his time as a Dairy Grazing Apprentice thus far at Wolfe’s Neck Farm. A former steelworker from Kentucky, Casey started drifting towards farm life when he began paying more attention to what he ate thanks to the influence of his sister who studied nutritional healing. He lived near dairy farms and started getting his milk from them. “I fell in love with Jersey milk. It’s like drinking ice cream!” He volunteered at one of the farms, and about a year and a half ago, he created a profile on the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship  (an organization based in Wisconsin) web site. Wolfe’s Neck gave him a call last June to see if he would be interested in joining their program. During his time off from Wolfe’s Neck, Casey also works at Winter Hill Farm – milking, helping with hogs and doing field work. “It’s a way to take back responsibility for where our food comes from,” Casey says of farming, adding that his goals are to “treat animals right, take care of the land and produce good quality food for the local community.” Megan Bauer doesn’t intend to become a dairy farmer. Originally from Pennsylvania, she decided she wanted to move to Maine while she was a student at college in Boston. She now lives in Portland and works at Wolfe’s Neck during their vacation camps and other educational programs throughout the year. She thought the dairy program would deepen her understanding of dairy farming and the cows to help her better teach others who visit Wolfe’s Neck. Ben Jensen is the livestock manager at Wolfe’s Neck, though his previous experience was on Montana ranches, whether caring for his father’s red Angus or on other operations, not a Maine farm. Is there a difference? “There’s so much green grass here. It’s insane!” he said. In the West, irrigation is required for such lush grass. Out there grazing cattle is “range management,” but in Maine it’s “pasture management.” Ben came east because his wife is from Massachusetts. They had twin daughters (now 3 years old) and wanted to be closer to her family.  His wife then got a job in Freeport, so they moved there. The position for livestock manager at Wolfe’s Neck opened up two days later, and Ben just happened to have a degree in livestock management. In his excitement over the possible job, he didn’t pay attention while running a wood splitter and cut his hand. He had to go to Boston for surgery but managed to fill out the application one-handed. “That’s how badly I wanted the job,” he said. While Ben oversees all the livestock on the farm, including turkeys and sheep, he has added more responsibilities on the dairy side, acting as herdsperson, doing daily chores, milking and even artificially inseminating cows along with program Director Sarah Littlefield. Matt DeGrandpre has been on the farm longer than any of the other dairy crew members. He was born in the farmhouse that now houses the administrative offices and meeting rooms for Wolfe’s Neck Farm. He’s actually the third generation of his family to work on the farm. Wolfe’s Neck Farm was started by a family from Pennsylvania that came into money in...

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“Sheer determination” makes dream a reality for farmer

“Sheer determination” makes dream a reality for farmer

Before working with the Jerseys at Siberia Farms in Hermon, Sierra Perry was a Holstein girl. Before that though, she was a horse person, or so she thought. Originally from Manchester, Maine, Sierra had always been an animal lover. Her mother was raised on a dairy farm, and her grandfather had race horses. When she started school at University of Maine, Sierra thought she would be a veterinarian, but many, many years of school loomed ahead, and “I had no passion to continue going to school for that long.” She became involved with the horse program at UMO’s Witter Farm. “But I didn’t really like those horses,” she said. It wasn’t until she started her milking internship at Witter dairy farm (as all animal science majors do) that she found her true calling. “I became obsessed with cows,” she said. “I was nervous around them at first, but then I realized these are just the best animals.” Sierra had found her spirit animal. The bovines’ calm, peaceful temperament and slow movements are the perfect balance to her own restlessness. (Spend a little time with Sierra, and you realize she’s not someone who likes to stand still for long – a good quality for a dairy farmer. ) She majored in Animal Science and Resource and Agribusiness  Management and planned to make dairy cows her life’s work, either as a farmer or breeder. That may have happened sooner than she anticipated. The 21-year-old recently purchased her own dairy farm, and she hasn’t even graduated from college yet. In January 2015, Sierra went to work at Siberia Farms, a small Jersey dairy that produces its own cheeses, yogurt, smoothies, and plain and flavored milk for direct sales to customers. In September, the owners told their employees they were going to shut down the farm. The farm had a quality product, a solid customer base, and loyal employees, and Sierra didn’t want to see that wasted. Within three days, she was the new owner of Siberia Farms. At the time, she had actually been thinking she wanted to start a similar operation in Alaska some day. “Crazy, I know,” she said. Ironically, she found her home in Siberia. If you’re like me, you are probably thinking at this point, “How does a college student afford to buy a dairy farm?” “Sheer determination. It was a struggle to get where I needed to be,” she said. “FSA was a huge help.” FSA is the United States Department of Agriculture’s Farm Services Agency, which has several farm loan programs. While she was set to graduate in the spring, Sierra has deferred college for a year as she focuses on her new business. From her previous experience working at Witter and Siberia, Sierra figured she had a good base of knowledge about dairy cows, milking and animal care. “I didn’t know much on the production side though,” she said. Luckily, employee Tiffany Ireland stuck around. “Tiffany’s my right hand,” Sierra said. Tiffany didn’t do much with the cows, but she had been involved on the production side since the farm started two years prior. She’s also the “people person” on staff, Sierra said. “She asked me to stay,” Tiffany said of Sierra. “And I didn’t hesitate.” Tiffany had seen the business triple in size three times in those first two years. “We have the best customers,” she said. Siberia Farms makes home deliveries to about 300 people, and others come to the store to pick up their orders. The farm has 17 partner farms, so that it can also offer chicken, pork, bread, maple syrup, coffee and...

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