Newly organic, an old New England dairy thrives
Bucking convention and the conventional, one farming family in a remote corner of Massachusetts fine tunes its operation and sets its priorities to take tangible steps toward being fully self-sustaining.

By Eesha Williams

November 16, 2004: The recent history of small-scale dairy farming in New England is one of collapse. The number of farms here with dairy cows fell from almost 20,000 in 1965 to less than 3,000 in 2003. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that when you visit one of the surviving farms, the people in charge often seem weary or even depressed.

But there are exceptions. At the same time as the number of dairy farms has fallen precipitously, the growth in organic dairies has been just as sharp. In Vermont, the center of the region’s dairy industry, there were three certified organic dairy farms in 1994. By last year, there were 79. Almost all of this growth has come from conventional dairies switching to organic.

"I’m not into buying things, so I didn’t want to buy a bunch of antibiotics to keep the cows healthy. So I used cheap and free things like good husbandry practices. Some organic dairy farmers buy a lot of minerals and a lot of organic stuff. Not me. My cows will probably find whatever minerals they need in some plant out in the pasture."

One such New England farm is Mark and Jeannette Fellows’ Chase Hill Farm in Warwick, Massachusetts. Located on a dirt road in a remote, rural area near the intersection of Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire, the Fellows’ farm was opened for business 50 years ago by Mark’s parents, Oliver and Virginia. (Oliver and his 13 siblings were raised on the land Mark now farms by their mother, a homesteader. Mark said Oliver’s father was an alcoholic who didn’t work much.)

Oliver no longer has a management role on the farm, but he helps with tractor work and, Mark said, “He’s my sounding board. If I have an idea, I bounce it off him. He tells me if I’m crazy or not.”

Oliver ran the farm as a conventional 30-cow dairy from 1954 to 1984. He was able to provide for his family on the income from the farm. “He probably started out fairly organic but it turned into ‘Hi-tech and Holsteins’-- corn silage and a feed-lot,” says Mark, now 42.

Mark and Jeannette bought the business in 1984. They sold all their milk wholesale until 2000. “Our current arrangement is much more profitable,” Mark said. They became certified organic in 2001. They also sold the development rights to the state, so their 260 acres will never be built on and so that it will be affordable for future farmers. Of their land, 160 acres is wooded. Their neighbors let them use an additional 50 or so acres rent-free. The Fellows have about 60 acres of pasture for their 30 cows to graze. The rest of the open land is for hay.

“Selling our development rights to the state worked out well for us financially,” Jeannette said.

During the summer, the Fellows’ 30 cows eat only fresh grass and hay – no grain. Unlike on most dairy farms, all the cows calve at the same time of year, and the cows are not milked in wintertime. This gives the farmers three or four months’ break from work (except for feeding and manure removal) every winter. The rest of the year, as on most dairies, the work never stops.

Mark and Jeannette support themselves and their two daughters (age 13 and 15) entirely from sales of milk, cheese, veal, beef, and eggs from their 50 hens.

Most of their sales are direct to consumers at their self-service farm stand and at the Amherst, Mass. farmers’ market, but some is wholesale. The milk they sell wholesale is mixed in the truck with other farmers’ non-organic milk, and the Fellows receive the conventional price. There are not enough organic dairies nearby to make it profitable for an organic milk company to send a truck.

The Fellows use draft horses to spread manure, rake hay, and move fences, water, firewood and hay around the farm. They also have one tractor, mostly for mowing and making round hay bales. They don’t plant crops, plow, or make silage. Mark hopes one day not to have any tractors.

New Farm visited Chase Hill Farm on Sept 29, 2004, as the tree leaves were just beginning to turn red and gold. The Fellows’ house is small and could use a fresh coat of paint. The barn is well painted.

Mark was cleaning the milk room and Jeannette was making cheese. Both seemed energetic, bright eyed, and cheerful. They didn’t want to sit down to talk, so we talked as they worked, mostly separately.


The cows

Before 1999, the Fellows had a mix of breeds: Jersey, Holstein, and Normande. In the past five years, they have switched to breeding only with Normande bulls. Now, about 80 percent of their herd is Normande. Without grain in summer, the Holsteins and Jerseys got too skinny. Their cows spend seven or eight months a year on pasture.

“When we transitioned to organic, it wasn’t terribly hard because I’d been working towards it for a long time,” Mark says. “There are a couple of companies in Vermont that will deliver organic grain this far down. We pay a little more for trucking. But we don’t use much grain. When we went organic, we went grass-fed. We just buy a little bit of grain in the early spring before the grass turns green.”

Farm at a glance
Chase Hill Farm
Warwick, Mass.

Location: Near Vermont and New Hampshire, about 80 miles west of Boston

Operation: Certified organic 30-cow dairy

Marketing: Mostly direct, some wholesale

Members of: Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA), American Cheese Society, Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance (NODPA)

The Fellows harvest 125 tons of hay every year and turn it into small (500-600 pound) round bales. Their soil is sandy loam, with a lot of rocks. “Around here, down 2 feet you hit a clay hardpan that’s 100-feet deep,” Mark says. So there is poor drainage. The Fellows use permanent pasture, no tillage. Their soil works fine for grazing.

Mark and Jeannette do rotational grazing. They rarely mow—like some people do—after the cows have been on a pasture. “Many people say you should do a 14-day rotation (cows back on the same pasture every two weeks),” Mark says. “But I am on a 30-day rotation.”

The horses follow the cows and eat everything the cows have left in the pasture. Chickens (layers) get moved onto fresh pasture once a week. They have their own field and don’t follow the cows. The Fellows tried raising chickens for meat but found that it was too much work.

All their fencing is electric.

“I have miles of black-plastic water pipe spider-webbed all over the farm,” Mark says. They have a 120-foot-deep drilled well. “I have trouble getting enough water out of it in winter. It created a lot of stress for me.” So Mark reconnected an old well. “The milk inspector only wants us to use that (old) well for watering the cows, not for washing. If I’m desperate, I can pump out of a stream or pond.”

Mark trucks water to some remote fields. He is working on developing more water sources.

In summer, Mark cleans out the barn manure gutter once a week; in winter, every other day. “In spring and fall, I spread manure on hay fields. I don’t ever put any on pasture. I used to shovel it, but that got old. Now I flick a lever,” he says.

“It’s easy for me to make hay for my cows because when they are eating it, in the winter, they are dry (not being milked),” says Mark. “They don’t need real high-quality feed. They need roughage.”

“We are very good at reproduction,” he says. The Fellows have used a seasonal milk production system for the past 12 years. Seasonal production means Mark has only one month each year to get the cows pregnant. “I have to be very good at breeding to be seasonal,” Mark says. “A lot of farmers have tried it, but they can’t get the cows bred properly.”

“I like being seasonal, because it allows me to be like a big farmer. For a month or two, I have 30 fresh cows (who recently gave birth). I can be an expert at fresh cow management for a month or two. Then I have 30 calves that I can be an expert at raising for a few months. Then, during the breeding season, I can be an expert at breeding.”

"If you’re having problems now, being organic is not the solution. I suggest people start doing organic practices [even if they aren’t going to market their milk as organic]. Because a lot of these things made me money before we became organic: grazing, being seasonal. "

- Mark Fellows

“When it comes time to breed the cows, I put in time watching for heats. I do all artificial insemination. To do that, you have to see the cow in heat. So it pays for me to stand in the field for 45 minutes a day watching them and writing in my notebook who’s in heat that day.”

Most dairy farmers use artificial insemination. Mark is considering switching to using a bull. “Bulls are dangerous. People used to be killed and maimed,” he says. “But as far as genetics, it may make sense for me to raise one of my bulls to breed my cows.”

“If you’re going to switch to organic, you should also switch to a grass-fed system,” he says. “In my mind, feed-lot is not organic. If you’re having problems now, being organic is not the solution. I suggest people start doing organic practices [even if they aren’t going to market their milk as organic]. Because a lot of these things made me money before we became organic: grazing, being seasonal. I’m not into buying things, so I didn’t want to buy a bunch of antibiotics to keep the cows healthy. So I used cheap and free things like good husbandry practices. Some organic dairy farmers buy a lot of minerals and a lot of organic stuff. Not me. My cows will probably find whatever minerals they need in some plant out in the pasture.”

“To prevent mastitis, I keep the milking system tuned up. Every day, I’m thinking about milk quality, cow health, udder health, refining my technique. Before we went organic, I had discovered that if a cow did develop mastitis, it was just as effective to strip her out (milk her several times a day), as to use antibiotics. Quite often the cow will take care of herself. I have a lot of faith in nature. We don’t have any major health problems. I think most dairy farms have a lot more than we do.”

The Fellows’ cows are vaccinated.

When the Fellows were feeding their cows conventionally (grain and grazing) their herd average was 12,000-14,000 pounds of milk per cow per year – low by conventional standards. “When we went to grass-fed and organic, it dropped to 7,000-8,000 pounds,” Mark says. “We make very little milk per cow, but the cows aren’t stressed.” And the cost of inputs is much lower.

The lifestyle

Jeannette estimates they work 10 hours a week in the winter. “In the busiest times, like March, April, May and June, it’s 15-, even 20-hour workdays,” she says.

Mark says, “My work schedule is better than most conventional dairy farmers’. I’m getting to the point where I don’t get up in the middle of the night like I used to. I calve in March and April. I milk twice a day from the end of calving season until August 1—I milk at 7 or 8 a.m., and between 5 and 7 p.m. Milking once a day [after August] is very liberating!”

“Before we went seasonal and started milking once a day, I was starting to burn out. Two years ago, I broke my leg so I didn’t do anything all summer. After that is when we started milking once a day. I milk in the morning and, if I want to go away for the rest of the day, I can.”

Most dairy farmers milk at 5 a.m. and 5 p.m. every day of the year.

Breeding season lasts for the month of June. “That’s the hardest time of year for me,” Mark says. “There’s so much work to do. After that, it starts easing up fast. At the end of November, I dry the cows off. I have mostly off until March. I just have to feed the cows and keep the barn clean.”

“We’ve only taken a vacation a few times. We went down to see Jeannette’s parents in Pennsylvania. We haven’t lately. The kids have school. It’s awful hard to go away. It’s nice just to stay here and not do anything. I go away and I don’t know what to do with myself. I can’t sleep.”

Dollars and cents

“Jeannette and I were profitable before we went organic and started selling direct. Because of being seasonal and grass-fed we were very efficient,” Mark says.

Half their milk is sold as cheese. Twenty-five percent is sold direct as raw milk (legal in Massachusetts if sold on-farm.) The final quarter goes wholesale to AgriMark.

Chase Hill cheese is mostly a delicious, mild, creamy Colby. Jeannette also makes some cheddar. Parmesan is in the works.

“We started making cheese a year or two before we went organic. When we created our own market, that’s when we went organic,” Jeannette says.

Asked if the Fellows’ marketing system is working for them financially, Jeannette replies: “Yes. We want to get to the point where we don’t have to work quite so hard. Selling direct helps us do that. We work really hard for six months of the year. We get the other six months sort of off.”

Meat sales are growing fast, Mark said. “We used to slaughter one cow a year and it would take us all year to get rid of it. Now, with the raw milk, we have customers coming here. They come and get milk and they pick up beef and cheese and eggs at the same time.”

“This year, we raised three or four bull calves for veal. We sold the rest to another guy who is raising organic beef. In the past, we would sell them to 4-H kids for oxen. We would sell cows [when they weren’t producing enough milk] to auction for a couple hundred dollars.”

The Fellows’ beef could be certified organic, but they don’t see the need to go that route because it’s sold direct. Their milk and cheese are certified.

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Prices at the farm stand:

• Organic raw milk - $5 a gallon

• Eggs from hens on pasture, fed organic grain - $4.50 a dozen

• Ground veal - $5 a pound.


“We could sell all our eggs here at the stand, but I take some to the market because people want them,” Jeannette says. Organic chicken feed is about $14 for a-50 pound bag. They buy their chickens as (non-organic) pullets, almost ready to start laying. Raising their own chicks was too time consuming, they say.

“We made a lot of mistakes at first,” Jeannette says. “We changed herds a couple of times. We thought we’d have all registered Jerseys. That didn’t work. We lost a lot of calves. We were paying too much money for the calves. Every time you replace a cow with a new one, you lose money. We were buying corn silage. Money was just going out, out, out. We weren’t getting enough return on it.”

“Being organic is profitable for us because we produce almost all our own feed. You have to have a lot of land to do that. If we had to buy organic hay we would not be making a living.”

Mark agreed. “When we started, we lost a lot of money by buying cows and changing equipment too much. But I didn’t know any better. It’s a growth process. Everyone makes those mistakes. We were able to survive them. We had two mortgages for a long time. One for farm credit for the business, and one to my parents for the real estate. We should have the farm credit one paid off by the end of this year. So all of our mistakes are finally being paid off.”

Jeannette said that while they haven’t had any problems with the USDA organic standard, “It does seem too geared toward the commercial interests.” If she had her way, she says, the USDA would stay out of organic certification.

"We felt like we were the outsiders still because we don’t ship to Horizon or Organic Valley. Most of them just ship organic milk the same way they did when they were conventional."

-Jeannette Fellows

Mark adds, “I don’t know that I trust all the bureaucrats to make sure it’s maintained and doesn’t get watered down.”

The Fellows recently went to a meeting of organic dairy farmers in Vermont. “We felt like we were the outsiders still because we don’t ship to Horizon or Organic Valley,” Jeannette says. “Most of them just ship organic milk the same way they did when they were conventional. Some of them think organically too, but not all of them. Some dairy farmers I have met who have transitioned to organic, it feels like they’re in it for the money. It should be a whole approach to the farm.”

Mark and Jeannette met at college. When they moved to the farm in 1984, Jeannette wasn’t interested in farming. She worked at a childcare center. Mark has a degree in Agricultural Business from Cornell University. “Now we do the opposite of what he was taught,” Jeannette says.

Jeannette says she has spoken with Organic Valley, a leading organic milk company. “They want you to be a crank-it-out milk producer,” she said. “Even AgriMark (a non-organic milk company) wants to pay us less because we ship intermittently. They want to be able to know they can come here every day and pick up the same amount of milk.”

The Fellows get health insurance from Jeannette’s 8-hour-a-week job as town clerk.

Goals

“We’d like to have an intern and pass some of our knowledge along,” Mark says.

“I’m really concerned about energy and sustainability. I still have a diesel tractor. I still flip the switch to turn my vacuum pump on. Our refrigeration runs on electricity. I spend a lot of time thinking: Maybe we could use horse power to run the vacuum pump. Or a windmill or solar panels.”

He wants to try keeping the cows outdoors year round.

Jeannette says, “Mark’s hope is that our two girls will take over the farm one day. I have a feeling they’re not going to do that, but you never know.”

Mark adds, “We’ve made a lot of progress. Now we’re really starting to cruise. In the future, I’d like to milk fewer cows, maybe 25. We’ve been working too hard.”

Eesha Williams is a reporter for NPR-affiliate WAMC and author of Grassroots Journalism (Apex Press, 2000). He lives in Vermont.