On one Vermont dairy farm, the farmers churn, but the devotion endures
|Published: 07-24-2022 3:05 AM
Sophie Roe’s custom-made creamery arrived on an icy February morning. The retrofitted red shipping container came equipped with a separator, a pasteurizer, a churn — everything she needed to make butter. Most importantly, it met all state and federal regulations. A crane lifted it 30 feet into the air and then rested it gently between a weathered red barn and a ramshackle sawdust shed at Green Acres Farm. It shone as bright as a child’s new toy.
“It’s so clean,” Roe said. “So clean and so beautiful.”
Roe, 22, showed her excitement physically. She jumped, she laughed, she oohed and aahed. Strands of her reddish-blonde hair fell out from under her Carhartt hat as she smiled at the creamery. It had been on its way for over nine months. She daydreamed out loud, imagining how she would churn butter in front of the small window that framed a perfect square of pasture and mountains.
Sophie and her brother, Evan, have worked with animals since they were children, but they only had the idea of starting their own farm in May 2020. The creamery gave solidity to their dream. This summer, their butter will finally be ready for sale.
Evan, 27, tall and lean, keeps his emotions muted and his words few. But he allowed himself a smile as he fastened a key to the new creamery onto his heavy keychain. John, their father, took pictures and videos with the enthusiasm of any parent watching his children take on a big project. But he also fretted over the details, like how well the creamery’s floor would drain and how it sat on the foundation he had helped prepare. Watching two of your children take on the risks of the dairy industry can be nerve-wracking.
Evan and Sophie’s plan began with a happy accident. In 2020, Evan asked Joan and Craig Wortman, who own the 90-acre farm in Randolph, for help when he needed to move some of the cows that he and his sister had collected over the years. He discovered that Green Acres was for sale. Although the rolling, rocky land would not grow much feed, it had all the fixings, both practical and aesthetic, of a small Vermont dairy farm: upper and lower pastures for grazing; a new manure pit; a brook rambling down from a hillside spring; a well-maintained red milking barn; and a big white farmhouse.
Sophie and Evan know the risks of dairy farming. Evan, a graduate and employee of Vermont Technical College, saw the school’s dairy department shrink to two students. In May, VTC sold its dairy herd and paused admissions to its agriculture programs. Evan still helps manage the remaining heifers.
He already tried building a farm with a professor at VTC, but their effort failed. Still, he is determined to have his own farm. Neither Sophie nor Evan expects to give up their other jobs soon. But they also hope that butter — a niche, value-added product — will make Green Acres a sign of hope amid the decadeslong decline of traditional dairy in Vermont.
Sick animals, labyrinthine loan applications, delayed equipment and state inspections have slowed Green Acres Farm’s transition from the Wortmans to the Roes. Finally, though, Sophie and Evan are ready to sell their butter at local markets, and Joan and Craig Wortman have been willing to wait.
“We’ll do whatever we can do to have this still wind up a little farm,” Joan said. “That’s what Vermont is — small family farms. How many are left?”
In 1969, there were 4,017 dairy farms in the state. In 2020, only 636 remained, though the state produces more milk than in decades past, according to a Vermont State Auditor’s report from 2021. Some dairy farmers have adapted by consolidating into large 500-cow farms or specializing in value-added products like artisanal cheese. Even in its reduced state, dairy represents more than 60% of total agricultural sales statewide, according to the 2017 Agricultural Census.
While agriculture makes up only 2% of the state’s gross domestic product, the small, family-run farm remains an integral part of the Vermont identity. It benefits the economy indirectly by attracting tourists and visitors, according the state auditor’s report. On average, dairy farms across the country fail to cover the cost of production with their sales. In Vermont, their deficit is even more exaggerated. The state auditor reported that Vermont spent $285 million between 2010 and 2019 on dairy subsidies as well as programs to address the industry’s environmental harm, such as manure that contaminated surface water.
The local food movement has brought an influx of new farms into Vermont, but the number of dairy farms continued to decline, as the Valley News reported in 2016. Farmers can start a vegetable operation without much land or equipment. But to get a dairy off the ground, they need a monumental up-front investment in land, cows and machinery. Even with all the capital in place, the market for milk proves elusive, especially when a small farm has to compete with 500-cow operations.
“I became a nurse to get away from farming,” Joan Wortman said as she stood in the barn dressed for chores. Despite herself, she is a farmer like her mother, Ruth Shumway, before her. It’s in her blood — her mother’s family has owned dairy farms in Vermont since the 1920s.
Wortman, a brusque, thin woman with steel gray hair tucked under a bandana, is more willing to talk about the grinding attrition of running a small farm than any sentimental attachment she may feel to the land and animals she and her husband, Craig, have nurtured for years.
Joan watched her mother work herself to death for her farm. She saw Shumway’s farm bloat with too many cows and too many state-of-the-art tractors. In 1994, Shumway moved Green Acres from Hartland to Randolph. Toward the end, Joan and Craig, a retired chimney sweep, kept the farm afloat by throwing it life savers of more than $20,000 each year.
“She just wanted to have her Shorthorns and a small farm,” Joan said.
The constant labor ate away at her mother’s body. She shattered her shoulder rotator. She had both her knees replaced. Still, she would push her walker to the barn and milk her Shorthorns each morning. When she went into the hospital for surgery in 2008, she aspirated on her soup and died of pneumonia. “She worked herself to death,” Joan said, clipping through the facts too quickly to linger in the emotion.
Wortman didn’t have time to grieve. Her mother’s farm, her family’s legacy, needed labor. She woke up at 3:30 every morning to make it to the barn by 4:30. Craig took over at 6:30 so that she could make it to the hospital, where she still worked full-time.
They ran a lean operation but still had to pour thousands into Green Acres. Along with the farm, they inherited the mortgage that Shumway had taken out to cover the farm’s expenses. She had to spend thousands to pay the landowner’s share of a government grant to build a 300,000-gallon manure pit to protect the Second Branch of the White River, which runs through the property. She spent thousands more to renovate the farmhouse. The new apartments she added housed VTC students in exchange for labor.
The Vermont Land Trust paid the Wortmans $100,000 for the development rights on the property, but farms eat money.
“It goes fast. It goes really fast. It’s gone,” Joan said.
Wortman is ready to retire. She’s tired, and her body aches. She and Craig have four children scattered across the country. They dream of buying a tractor-trailer and seeing more of the country, taking their grandchildren along for the ride when they can.
They have been looking for someone to keep Green Acres a farm for six years. In 2016, they thought that another young farmer would take over. He had the talent and the dreams, but their relationship frayed and the transition failed. After he left in 2018, the Wortmans had to take a mortgage out on their house down the road to keep up the farm and finish renovations they had started under the assumption that the farm would soon be taken off their hands.
As it turns out, though, there is no dearth of people crazy enough to want to start a farm, Joan said. He was the first in a parade of dreamers who came and left before the Roes arrived.
Joan may never have wanted to be a farmer, but she caught her mother’s love for cows. She and Craig dispersed their herd to many new owners at an auction in 2016, back when they first thought they had the chance to pass the farm on to the next generation. But they kept some of their Shorthorns at a friend’s farm in New York. Their daughter is interested in breeding cows and wants her children to have cows for 4-H. Descendants of those same cows came back to Green Acres after the 2016 sale to fell through. For Joan, they were lost relatives returning home.
As she stood in the barn at Green Acres last winter, she recited the lineage of her remaining cows. In the barn, the Wortmans have about eight milking cows and five young stock; the rest of their cows are scattered all over because some are used as 4-H animals. Joan likes to tell the stories of their parents and their namings. She described how Diamond and Macy, eating side by side in peace, pestered each other to find out who would be dominant. Diamond won. Now Macy grooms Diamond, nuzzling her gently. “She loves her,” Joan said.
For her, the difference between a small farm and a 500-cow dairy is one of kind, not size. Some of the VTC students who helped on the farm had only ever worked on large industrial dairies.
“They didn’t have a clue how to be up close and personal with cows. They were a number,” Joan said.
After putting so much money into the farm, the Wortmans need the $230,000 from the sale. Still, they won’t sell to just anyone. They have been willing to wait years, donate their time and keep paying taxes to ensure Green Acres Farm remains a family farm.
Succession, or the process of handing a farm from one generation to the next, is a difficult dance. Few young farmers can clear the financial hurdle of starting a dairy farm. They need land, but they also need cows, pasteurizers, tractors, manure management systems, milking equipment, piping and storage tanks.
“How can they get started? How the hell can someone go and buy a farm, an empty farm?” Joan asked.
The Wortmans never had to buy their farm, and turning a profit, or even breaking even, remained an impossible goal. Trying to buy your own farm is an even taller order.
During the height of the pandemic, Joan and Craig sat down with Evan, Sophie and their father, John. They set up chairs in the cold barn, surrounded by the lowing of the cows, keeping their distance to limit the chance of spreading COVID-19. They were looking for a way to make the succession possible.
Sophie and Evan signed a two-year lease with the option for a one-year renewal. The model gives them time to get their business running before they need to find a way to finance a loan to afford the $230,000 farm. They have already used the majority of a $75,000 loan to buy the creamery.
Joan usually works in the barn several days a week. She is an abrupt, efficient woman who has kept the small farm as neat and well-ordered as a hospital ward. Joan is a mentor for Sophie. Yet Sophie also knows that she’s better-suited to owning a farm, rather than working on one, because she has a “specific way” she likes things done. The two women respect each other’s spine. That doesn’t mean that they see always eye-to-eye on all the details of farm management, such as how regularly cobwebs should be cleared from the rafters; how to rotate the cows among the pastures; or the importance of putting buckets back where they belong.
But Joan has had the chance to get to know Sophie. The Roes have a work ethic to back up their dreams, she said.
“My mother would be very happy that it’s a young couple of kids. That’s what she would have liked to happen,” Joan said. “It will stand, and that’s good.”
John Roe thought that his work at the Vermont Land Trust would be the extent of his role in farms. Then he raised two farmers. He knows how to navigate loans and legal agreements, and also has a knack for construction and mechanics. He will follow his children where they put down their money.
Still, he sees the risks.
“That level of mortgage and debt is terrifying,” he said. After decades of conserving land, the conservation easements on the land add to his stress. They shrink the resale market of the land should the farm fail. The other major risk is that Sophie and Evan will have to buy feed for the cows. John, though, is no pessimist. He believes that Vermont can sustain a farm that produces artisanal, value-added projects, and he knows that his children are hard workers.
He saw early on that Evan wanted to be a farmer. Always quiet, Evan connected with the family’s goats more easily than he did with people. At age 9, he sat on the hillside of their home in West Brookfield observing the farmer in the valley tend to his pastures and his crops. He approached the farmer, asking him why he used a particular tractor on a particular day. His observation impressed the farmer, who gave Evan his first job when he was only in the fourth grade. Evan never stopped working on farms.
He knew he wanted his own farm. He tried to build a 150-cow herd with a professor at VTC, only to watch their plans fall to pieces under financial pressure.
Sophie learned to care for large animals when she started working at a horse barn in the fifth grade. All through elementary school, she also showed Jerseys and Holsteins at state fairs. Then one Christmas when she was in high school, she asked for a cow of her own.
“I got the bug,” she said. Evan, older and working on farms, answered her wish. He gave her Gladys, a light-colored Jersey, who at just 6 months showed she was extremely food-motivated, even for a cow, Sophie said. Unknowingly, Evan and Sophie had just started the haphazard herd of scrounged heifers and calves that would become the lifeblood of their farm. Now, they have 24 cows of their own. Sophie also milks about eight of the Wortmans’ remaining Shorthorns.
Sophie didn’t know what she wanted to do when she graduated from The Sharon Academy. All she knew was that she wanted to work with animals.
“I enjoy taking care of them, and I’m good at it, and it just makes me happy,” she said.
Growing up in a white-collar, Ivy League-educated family, she felt pressure to go to college. She thought she might be a veterinarian, but she had a nagging fear that she couldn’t handle the constant death, sickness and injury. “I’d be so unprofessional,” she said. “… I might start crying, and that would not be helpful.”
Her year at the University of Vermont left her even warier of college than she had been when she graduated from Sharon. She left for a six-month internship at Kiss the Cow farm in Barnard, then moved to Seattle on a whim with a friend. But a series of mishaps, from a car accident to a shooting a block away from her apartment, left her homesick. Then the pandemic brought her back to Vermont.
When Evan asked if she would be interested in building a dairy farm together at Green Acres, she said yes. She saw that few other farmers were making butter. They decided it could be their niche among other small dairy farms specializing in value-added products. He would handle more of the business side, while she’d do more of the day-to-day labor.
By spring 2021, Sophie was living in an apartment in the farmhouse at Green Acres and tending to both their growing herd and the Wortmans’ remaining animals. To make the payments on the loan for the creamery, and cover their own expenses, Evan kept his job at Vermont Technical College while Sophie worked jobs at neighboring farms between her chores at Green Acres.
Sophie’s weekdays start at 3:15 a.m. She does her chores on the farm before leaving to milk goats at Calderwood Goat Dairy from 6 to 9 a.m. Then she rides her horse before returning to Randolph for more chores at the farm. By 4 p.m., she’s back at Green Acres to feed the calves and milk the cows before she leaves to feed calves at Pinello Farm at 7.
On weekends, Sophie takes what she calls a rest. She sleeps in until 5 before she tends to the animals in the barn. Then she spends the day in the creamery, tinkering with the machinery and perfecting her butter.
She knew that the smarter, more efficient choice would be to find a second job at a shop or a restaurant where she could make more per hour. “But I like the farms,” she said.
At the farm, Sophie is with her animals at every stage of their lives as they grow, give birth, get sick and die. Sophie is no more calloused to animals’ suffering than she was when she shrank away from being a veterinarian. She scrolls through horror stories online that describe all of the things that could go wrong.
She’s seen her share of suffering, too. Sophie raised goats for meat to help pay for feed, a weighty expense on a farm with little cropland. But when two got sick to their stomach, they refused to eat and drink. They died. She nursed sick calves, watching every day as some inched toward death and others rallied. Now, she and Evan have small, airy hutches, and the calves are healthier.
“It’s just so many different lives reliant on the care that we give them,” Sophie said.
On a warm spring morning, Sophie tinkered in the creamery as she worked on a batch of butter. Spring had finally brought a day warm enough to put the cows out to pasture.
She was perfecting the butter, trying to find out why each batch had a texture all its own through the slow process of trial and error. She assembled and reassembled the small, stainless steel separator. “It’s wicked finicky,” she said.
She plans to start the business with just 20 pounds of butter per week available in honey thyme, cinnamon sugar and sage. She and Evan will sell the butter to local farm stores and co-ops at a wholesale price of $15 a pound. The product is expensive, but the profits will still be slim, she said. She has no illusions that she and Evan will be supporting themselves through the farm in the near future, but over time they will edge up production.
She wore a plastic apron and clogs, carried her milk in cumbersome stainless steel buckets and kept a careful eye on the temperatures in the pasteurizer. All of these precautions were to keep the creamery up to code. Until she passed the inspection, she could not sell an ounce of butter. Butter still landed in the compost pile despite her many batches of croissants and shortbread. John Roe was converting the old woodshed into a bathroom, the last project they needed to complete before inspection.
“It’s taking forever,” Sophie said. “Forever.” Two years had passed since she and Evan first approached Joan about buying Green Acres Farm.
But the last step was in sight. On July 5, two dairy specialists with the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets visited Green Acres. They toured the farm, offering tips and guidance where they could. Now she knows that the butter will hold its form better if she lets the cream sit first. They handed Sophie her license on the spot. It’s rare that someone who makes an inquiry about starting a dairy business follows all the way through to get a license, they said.
In as little as a month, small plastic containers with cows smiling up from stickers on the lids will be up for sale at local farm markets and co-ops. If all goes well, Evan and Sophie will be one step closer to buying a farm of their own.