It’s a common understanding among demographers and the people who study the movement of people across land that most Americans can trace a farm to within two to three generations of their family. I’m fortunate enough to be able to do this on both sides of my own family, from a vast, mostly wheat farm in Eastern Indiana on one side, and if not a farm, then a series of robust kitchen gardens in a tiny community outside of Rome on the other.
It’s important to our heritage and our sense of place, to remember our connection to the land, and our connection to a time when the food we ate was produced in the communities in which we lived, by our own hands or by the hands of someone we knew.
But this is all changing and changing rapidly.
Transitioning to Organic
Last month, I sat down to talk with Jen Churchill, a generational farmer in Vermont and whose farm is now part of our Direct Milk Supply Program. Jen grew up on a conventional dairy farm and wanted to raise her own children in the same way. But farming small wasn’t working the way it once did, where if you worked hard and did what the generation before you did, you could enjoy the fruits of your labor as you got older. Jen watched her grandparents – who worked their farm everyday into their 80’s, go through a difficult period of having to sell off many of the assets they’d worked their lives to accumulate, just to be able to afford the basics of retirement. Finances were always a struggle.
But Jen and her husband found a different way. For her, transitioning to organic means that she is paid a premium for the milk she produces. This premium has allowed her to invest in the farm and make changes that make operations more efficient and sustainable in the long run.
The Future of Organic
Two years ago they introduced a robotic system to their farm. The system is compatible with organic and is very much centered on the cows welfare. Once the cow steps into the stall, there is a mechanical arm that uses a laser to find the udder and milk the cows for the precise time needed. The cow gets fed a small amount of organic grain during this time, so it’s a nice treat to come in for from the pasture. Farmer Jen receives a text if anything malfunctions in the process.
This robotic milking system is all about the cows. Cows can choose when and how often they want to be milked – and often choose to be milked more than 2x a day. The system also tracks these cows to make sure they aren’t going in more than they should and will kick them out of the stall if they’ve gone through too recently, sending them back out to pasture. And cows love pasture!
“We were milking 90 cows in a tie stall barn in the summer time, taking three employees 5 hours in the morning and at night over two shifts every day,” Jen explains. “Now it’s taking one person, 2 three-hour shifts.”
You don’t need to be a farmer – or even an economics major, to understand what this means in terms of efficiency. “The financial part is not our struggle right now,” Jen continues. Instead, they can focus on making great, organic milk and more importantly, the other things a household should be concerned with.
“Your time is priceless, especially when you have a young family. We can go to baseball games, and school functions.” The things that matter to any family.
When I ask Jen what she thinks about the future of organic farming in New England, her response is considered. “I don’t know that robotic farming is necessarily the future for everybody. But organics is the future of farming in New England.”