Jim Kenyon: Sold on Farming

It’s hard not to get bummed out when you drive past a dairy farm and see a for-sale sign. Particularly, when the farm belongs to Jim and Ellen Putnam.

The Putnams have been model farmers who put everything they had — seven days a week — into their livestock and crops.

I met the Putnams in 2002, after hearing about their Winsome Farm on Route 10 in Piermont from now retired-New Hampshire Agriculture Commissioner Steve Taylor, of Meriden. The Putnams had just been named a New Hampshire Dairy of Distinction, an honor bestowed on only a handful of farms each year. The award recognized the Putnams for producing “super quality milk and taking excellent care of their cows,” Taylor told me.

Times were tough for many small dairy farmers back then. Not much has changed in a decade. The price that farmers can fetch for their milk seems to go down, while what they pay for grain, fuel and machinery goes in the opposite direction.

Still, after seeing the Redpath and Co. Realtors’ sign on the Putnams’ front lawn last week, I held out hope that it wasn’t a bad sign. Maybe the Putnams had won the lottery, and were about to head off into early retirement.

No such luck.

After I called them, the Putnams were good enough to sit down at their kitchen table and talk with me about what was going on.

“Farming is physically and emotionally draining. The only reason you do it is because you love it,” said Ellen.

“Our whole life is tied up in this farm,” added Jim.

Jim Putnam’s father and grandfather were Piermont dairy farmers. So it was only natural that when Jim and Ellen were married 34 years ago that they carry on the family tradition. In 1999, they left the family farm down by the river and moved to a smaller farm “on the hill,” which they bought a few years later.

The weathered 18th-century farmhouse sits high above the Connecticut, offering unblemished views across the river valley to freshly-plowed fields and the Vermont hills. The Putnams’ herd of 25 or so milking cows dot the 50-acre farm’s sloping pastures.

From such a bucolic setting, it’s easy to romanticize the farming life.

But years of getting up and down from tractors and lugging five-gallon buckets of milk down icy paths to and from the barn have taken a physical toll on Jim. At 57, he walks with a limp on two cranky, surgically-repaired knees.

Ellen (she wouldn’t divulge her age, only joking that she was considerably younger than her husband) is dealing with degenerative arthritis in her ankle. It’s reached the point that pushing a lawn mower is a challenge, say nothing of tossing hay bales. Major surgery, possibly replacement of her ankle joint, is not far off.

As she’s done for many years, in addition to farming, Ellen works as an EMT-I for an ambulance service. Jim has taken a full-time job at as a vocational instructor at an alternative learning school.

Although they still help out, the Putnams have turned over the daily milking chores and other duties to their oldest son, Glen.

“He’s running the farm and doing a really good job,” Ellen said.

Like his father and mother, Glen, 29, has farming in his blood. He was 14, two years before he was old enough to get behind the wheel of a car, when he passed the safety class that enabled him to drive a tractor on public roads. On the day he got his tractor license, he celebrated.

“I drove to the store and bought a soda.”

When I met him on Saturday, the skin on his arms was flaking from sunburn, testimony to the time he spent putting up fencing last week. He no longer lives on the farm, but on nights when a cow is about to deliver, he sleeps on his parents’ couch.

“I was raised on a farm,” he said. “It’s what I know.”

Glen was in college, earning a degree in urban tree management, when his parents went organic. For 10 years, they have operated a state certified organic farm. Along with producing organic raw milk, the Putnams sell certified organic beef, lamb and pork out of their “farm store.”

Last year, Glen began leasing the barns and farmland from his parents. Like them, he believes the farm’s future depends on staying organic. The Putnams don’t use conventional pesticides or herbicides. They don’t treat livestock with hormones or antibiotics. When a cow gets sick, they turn to organic remedies, including garlic.

“The barn smells like an Italian kitchen,’ Ellen joked.

It comes at a price, though. A ton of organic pig grain costs more than $800, $300 or so more than regular grain.

“Organic farming isn’t for everyone,” Ellen said. “You have to embrace it.”

Martin Murphy, owner-chef of Ariana’s restaurant on Route 10 in Orford, buys pork and veal from the Putnams.

“They’re good people, and they have great products,” he told me.

But they struggle with the marketing end of the business, Murphy said. He’s urged them to quit milking and concentrate on their niche — raising organic Berkshire pigs, which are known for high-quality and flavorful meat.

The Putnams are asking $390,00 for the farmhouse and barns. (In 2003, they sold the development rights to the Upper Valley Land Trust to guarantee the open pastures would be preserved.)

After the farm is sold, Jim and Ellen want to build a house on land they own in another part of Piermont that his family used as a summer pasture.

As for Winsome Farm, they hope to attract a buyer who sees the value in what Glen is doing and lets him continue running it as an organic farm.

“I want to continue what they started, and try to improve on it,” Glen said.

A lofty goal worth pursuing. Now only if his parents could win the lottery.