Jim Kenyon: Royalton dairy farm put out to pasture

Valley News Columnist
Published: 7/24/2022 3:00:11 AM
Modified: 7/24/2022 3:00:10 AM

The hilltop barn where Jimmy and Tina Spaulding milked up to 49 cows for the last 28 years sits empty this summer. The Royalton couple sold off their herd of registered Jerseys and Ayrshires last month.

After another farmer told me the Spauldings were no longer shipping milk, I expected to hear an all-too-common story of a multigenerational Vermont dairy farm family reaching its breaking point.

For decades, “Vermont dairy farms have struggled to remain profitable, and many have closed or consolidated,” stated a report issued last year by State Auditor Doug Hoffer’s office.

Hardly breaking news, but the figures in the report were distressing nevertheless. Over the course of roughly 50 years, Vermont has lost more than 80% of its dairy farms. The state went from 4,017 dairy farms in 1969 to 636 in 2020, the auditor’s report found.

Last week, the Spauldings were good enough to share their story with me. As I mentioned, it wasn’t what I expected.

“It’s not a hard-luck story,” Tina said, sitting beside her husband at a picnic table that doubled as a workbench outside the barn.

“We could have kept going another 10 or 20 years,” Jimmy added.

So why didn’t they?

The Spauldings’ transition to organic dairy farming in 2008 had been a smart move. Although organic grain was costing them $10,000 a month and they couldn’t use antibiotics to treat sick calves, the Spauldings still saw the benefits.

By 2015, they were milking more cows than their barn had milking stalls. When word spread that they were considering downsizing, a northern Vermont farmer made an offer to buy 30 or so of their certified-organic cows that was too good to pass up.

The Spauldings sank the proceeds back into the farm. They bought a round baler and new tractor, for starters, while rebuilding their herd to more than three dozen milkers.

Last year, the Spauldings and 27 other Vermont organic dairy farmers learned Horizon, the organic label owned by the French dairy company Danone, planned to stop buying their milk for cost reasons.

In March, Organic Valley, a farmer-owned cooperative based in Wisconsin, visited the Spauldings’ farm. It was already buying milk from about 90 organic farms in Vermont and was looking to add more.

“Organic Valley would have taken our milk,” Jimmy said.

By this spring, however, the Spauldings had already made up their minds to get out of dairy farming, which wasn’t an easy decision. “Jimmy and I are both very much cow people,” Tina said.

They grew up in 4-H, showing livestock and winning ribbons at fairs. Jimmy’s parents stopped farming when he was 11, but as a teenager he worked for farmers, including Stephen and June Eddy, of Royalton.

Jimmy was too busy with chores and tossing hay bales to pay attention to the young girl bouncing around her grandparents’ farm high above the White River on Gilman Road.

Noticing Tina would come much later.

In 1994, Jimmy and Tina, with a 1-year-old son, James, bought her grandparents’ 160-acre farm. Her grandparents had already sold the farm’s development rights to Vermont Land Trust. “That was the only way we could afford it,” Tina said. “We had more energy than money.”

The couple started out milking nine cows. They gradually increased the herd and expanded the farm’s footprint by purchasing an adjacent 40 acres. “As long as the bills were paid, we were fine,” Jimmy said.

But as much as they loved farming, it had downsides. Their three kids played high school sports and as much as they wanted to be at every game, it wasn’t always possible. The cows took priority.

One night stood out in particular. Their daughter, Summer, was playing her final regular season basketball game for South Royalton School. In a pre-game ceremony, parents were invited to join their daughters on the court.

“We started chores early just so we could be there,” Jimmy said, “but we still couldn’t finish in time. We got there 10 minutes too late.”

About a year ago, the Spauldings began thinking about life without farming. They talked with their children to see if any of them had interest in eventually taking over. (Arliss, their youngest, graduated from high school last month.)

The kids had always helped out on the farm, but didn’t see themselves following their parents’ path. On many mornings, Jimmy was up before sunrise and didn’t leave the barn until after dark. Tina juggled farm work with her job as a paralegal at a Woodstock law firm.

If they continued farming, the Spauldings recognized that it wouldn’t be long before they’d have to make some major investments. The manure pit and the barn’s gutter cleaner both needed upgrading. “If we were younger, I would just put my head down and go,” Jimmy told me.

He’s 55. Tina is 48.

They didn’t want to wait until economics “forced us out or our bodies gave out,” Tina said. What it came down to, she said, was “our hearts weren’t in it.”

Still Tina made sure she wasn’t around on the day last month the cows were loaded onto trucks bound for an organic farm in Enosburg Falls, Vt.

As corny as it sounds, the Spauldings agreed to sell only after they were convinced the cows — all born and raised on their farm — were going to a good home.

“We didn’t want an auction,” Jimmy said. “We wanted to keep them all together.”

The Spauldings aren’t quitting farming cold turkey. They kept three older cows, including Aspen, Jimmy’s “old show cow,” that are beyond milking age. Jimmy continues to bale hay to sell to other farms and they’ve planted 200 Christmas trees in a former pasture.

Their milking days might be behind them, but something tells me they’ll never stop being farmers.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.

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