My Turn: Today’s dairy farmers are actually entrepreneurs
I’m a dairy farmer. I’ve never considered doing anything else but spend my days in the barn with my cows or out in the fields, doing what I love.
When people learn what I do for a living, they naturally assume I spend a lot of time milking cows. I do, but like many other dairy farmers, I do a whole lot more.
The fact is, New England’s dairy farmers (and our counterparts across the country) are inventors and innovators. We’re generating energy via methane digesters, working with land-grant universities on agricultural research, participating in food safety programs. You could say that dairy farmers are the original entrepreneurs: We do everything, from building barns to nursing sick animals to offering farm tours to selling product to making cheese to – well, you name it.
For example, Parnassus Farm, which has been in my family since the 1940s, is a hillside farm and we’re very conscientious about environmental issues. A few years ago, we wanted to make sure that the milk waste from our barns (the proverbial “spilled milk”) was not seeping into the local watershed, so we installed a milk house waste system. We constructed a grass filter strip designed by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service with two settling tanks and a pump that evenly discharges the liquid into a manifold (which is painted green and blends into the shrubbery). The waste now seeps inconspicuously into the sod along the edge of the farmstead.
Parnassus Farm is known for its high-quality milk, and that means we’ve been doing our own research on herd health. As a result, we’ve recently changed from growing corn silage to using intensive rotational grazing, making an effort to get cows to the field as often as possible. It’s been a challenge, but it’s a critical business strategy to ensure that we maintain our quality rankings.
I’m not unlike most dairy farmers – we all spend our days problem-solving. One Maine dairy farmer makes and sells compost that includes not only his farm’s waste, but seafood waste from Maine’s working waterfronts as well. A Vermont farm family recently installed a methane digester, which produces enough electricity for 300 average-sized homes, and continues to explore innovative and cost-effective ways to improve its operation, such as signing up for a pilot program on aerial seeding of cover crops by helicopter.
To my south is a Massachusetts farm that operates totally off the power grid, thanks to an anaerobic digester that also benefits the environment by preventing the release of methane into the atmosphere as well as reducing the amount of waste sent to landfills.
I’ve been working the farm since I was 6, and back then, cow milking was all I was interested in. I still love it. We’ve got 70 animals and 210 acres. An additional 160 acres are under long-term lease agreement, and accommodate a herd of 39 milking cows, Jersey and Holstein breeds.
There’s nothing like getting up in the morning and knowing you’re where you want to be, where you should be. I’m a dairy farmer, but don’t think I spend my days under a cow. I might be on the phone consulting with a Cooperative Extension field specialist about soil health, or hosting a group of college undergraduates majoring in animal science.
Today’s dairy farming is still about cows, but also about the entrepreneur who tends them.
(John and Robin Luther’s Parnassus Farm in Acworth was named 2013 New Hampshire Dairy Farm of the Year, receiving the New England Green Pastures Award.)