Family Farm: George and Agnes Spaulding Continue 100-Year Tradition in Royalton
George Spaulding wipes grease from his hands with a handful of grass after working on a piece of machinery on Aug. 20, 2013. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Agnes Spaulding takes a call from a family member planning a visit to celebrate her 25 year wedding anniversary with George on Aug. 20, 2013. George and Agnes grew up on dairy farms about four miles apart and George was the best man at Agnes's first wedding in 1955. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
George Spaulding opens the electric fence as the cows return to the barn yard on Aug. 20, 2013. A dam with a power plant supplied electricity to the valley starting around 1910. George worked stringing new power lines by horse up a portion of the valley one summer in the 1950s. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
George Spaudling follows his wife Agnes down from a field above the house after unhitching a hay wagon on Aug. 20, 2013. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
George Spaulding talks with brothers Riley Post-Kinney, middle, and Nevin Post-Kinney between chores in the barn on Aug. 20, 2013. The Spauldings rely on the Post-Kinneys and several other local youths to carry out some of the daily farm responsibilities like milking and barn chores. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
After an intense week of cutting hay, George and Agnes Spaulding pull the last few bales from from the chute of their hay basket on Aug. 20, 2013. This summer's wet weather complicated the already tricky process of harvesting and drying a good hay crop. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Royalton — A single oak tree once stood in front of the Spaulding farm house, giving the dairy farm the name Lone Oak. The tree was planted in the early 1800s, but it has since died.
George Spaulding, 84, and his wife Agnes, 76, now milk a small herd of Ayershires and Jerseys there, selling organic milk to the Agri-Mark and Organic Valley cooperatives. They have about 300 acres of hay fields, pasture and woodland to sustain them in the East Valley that follows the Second Branch of the White River north through Royalton, Bethel and Randolph.
George’s grandparents, Frank Elmer Spaulding and Susan Smith Spaulding, bought the farm with their son, Frank George Spaulding, in March 1913. This marks the 100th year the dairy has been operated by the Spaulding family.
George was born in the living room of the house and has never lived off the farm — except, he said, for a 16-day stay at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in 2006 when he had a cow’s heart valve surgically implanted to repair his own failing heart.
Ownership passed to his father in the early 1930s, when his grandparents died. In the 1950s, the farm was passed to George and his first wife, Molly.
Attending school in South Royalton failed to convince George that there was a better way of life than farming. He and Agnes, who grew up on a small farm about four miles away in Randolph Center and attended school in Randolph, recall some animosity between town children and farm children.
Agnes said the boys sometimes came to class smelling a bit “barny,” but it was unjustified that those from the farms were looked down upon.
George still speaks the “South” in South Royalton with an edge, making sure visitors understand the distinction between the current population center, where the Vermont Law School is, and the outlying township.
George refused to take a foreign language in high school, feeling it unnecessary. He did study math and he cooked the school’s lunches with two friends who joined up to take a home economics class to avoid two monotonous, back-to-back study halls. They peeled potatoes and onions while the girls in class sewed dresses.
The family farm remained his priority. By his count, he missed over a year of high school in days off taken to help with the work.
Horses were used for the heavy labor on the Spaulding farm until 1947, the year George graduated from high school. He remembers starting to bale hay for the first time in 1951 with a Ford Ferguson tractor, and before that, storing it loose in the barn’s haymow. Over the years they have stored hay for year-round cow feed in square bales, round bales and long plastic bags called ag-bags.
Agnes lived in Montpelier for a year after graduating from high school in 1954, working as a typist for National Life Insurance, but returned to Randolph and farming in 1955 when she married her first husband, Howard Wight, who operated a Jersey dairy. George Spaulding, who knew both through their involvement in the Middle Branch Grange, was Wight’s best man at the wedding.
George lost Molly to cancer in 1984 and Agnes lost Howard to heart failure in 1986.
They were both dairy farmers who raised their families on farms. Their families were close, working and socializing together through the Grange, an organization which George describes as a second home. They both wanted to continue farming.
“Somebody asked how long I’ve known Agnes. I can remember when she was a baby,” said George.
In 1988 they married and Agnes brought some of her Jersey cows to Lone Oak Farm.
Together, they have seen the farm continue into a new era with George doing most of the milking and barn chores, Agnes the bookkeeping and gardening. They share in the work of mowing and baling three cuts of hay each summer and maintaining fences. One acts as boss and one acts as helper depending on the job.
“If it wasn’t for her we wouldn’t be here,” said George.
In 2007, faced with low prices for conventional milk, they became a certified organic dairy.
“It’s a completely different way of farming,” said Agnes. “It’s more of an older way of farming.” They were already using their cows’ manure, rather than commercial fertilizer, to nourish their fields, but certification would require more adjustments to their methods.
“It was quite a little decision,” said Agnes.
They stopped using their own corn for feed because of the difficulty of raising corn organically, then waited three years before using those fields again. After replacing their corn feed with organic feed for six months, they were able to sell their organic milk at a premium.
Now, after 25 years of marriage, the Spauldings are trying to secure the future of the farm.
The farm and its infrastructure are in a difficult location. The barn and its yard sit on a small island of land surrounded by the road to the west, a crumbling bridge to the north, the river to the east and another bridge in need of replacement to the south.
Since the days that the lone oak stood, the road has grown into a heavily trafficked secondary route connecting the White River Valley with Barre, Vt.
The only route to the pastureland on the west side of the road for the Spauldings’ cows is on a path that crosses under the southern bridge.
There has been talk of replacing the two bridges for many years, but finally the job is planned to go to bid this fall. The Spauldings have lobbied hard to get a new standalone underpass added to the project for access between pasture and barn to preserve the future potential of the farm. Without this access, they say, an organic dairy farm could not survive because there is not enough land for grazing on the east side of the road.
Even with the improvements, there must be farmers to run the operation and the Spauldings can’t do all the work they once did.
Agnes’s four daughters are all involved in running their own farms, three in surrounding towns and one in Ohio. Her two sons have established lives away from agriculture. None of George’s three children have interest in farming.
Milking is more difficult for George as his knees stiffen with age. Agnes never has milked much because of her poor balance. “If I was to kneel down now I’d be under the cow,” she said.
A rotating cast of local youths are hired to milk and throw hay, juggling schedules with school, vacation and other jobs.
“Our plan is to be sure it’s staying a farm,” said Agnes, who will live out her years with George in the family home.
They hope someday a family with interest in carrying on the tradition of the small family farm will take over, though they know it will not likely be under the Spaulding name for another 100 years.
James M. Patterson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.