Randall and Jill Bates are in the enviable position of having their twenty-something daughter, Allison, working on the farm with them and happy to be there. In October 2010, Allison participated in the Generation Organic Tour, which included stops at colleges, universities and institutions across the country. At each stop, a bus load of Gen-O farmers served food and talked about what they do and the future of farming.
“Since she was a little girl, Allison always came to the barn with me,” Randall says. “She loves the farm and the animals.”
Like father, like daughter, apparently. From the age of ten, Randall came to his grandparents’ farm (which is now his) for school vacations and summers. “During the school year I was with my parents in Herman, a small town near Bangor. I loved being on the farm so much I wanted to be out here all the time.” His grandparents milked a mixed herd of thirty-five Holsteins and Milking Shorthorns. Today Randall’s herd of forty cows is similarly composed but with Jerseys thrown in as well.
“My grandparents grew a small acreage of potatoes and strawberries to sell at the farm stand, and lumbered in the winter. They were classic diversified farmers. They used to spray the little bit of silage corn they grew, so they were conventional farmers, no question. But they always pastured. I was never exposed to full tilt conventional farming.”
And when Randall started farming, he did it pretty much the way they did. “I started out with three animals and worked full-time for 23 years in a wood turning mill while I built up my herd. In 2003 I finished my job and started farming full time.”
The approximately 584 acres of Springside Farms is actually two farms, a mile apart. In 1978 Randall bought the original home farm owned by his great-grandparents, which is where the family lives now, then added on his grandparents’ farm down the road, which is where the cows live and where the milking gets done. Only about 200 acres are arable and the rest is woodland. The working land is in pasture and hayground. The farms are set on a hillside. From the milking parlor, they see the countryside roll away up to 40 plus miles distant.
There are two organic farmers in the family, Randall and his brother-in-law who farms nearby. When Randall transitioned to organic in 2005, he did it for financial reasons, as many do, initially. Since his conventional practices were never hard-core to begin with, the transition was not as difficult as it can be for some farms. “I always pastured my cows just like my grandparents did, and never used much in the way of chemicals on the farm. We never had to use a lot of antibiotics or vaccines, either, since the cows were healthier being on pasture.”
Still, Randall noticed improvement in his herd health once he transitioned to organic. “Overall my herd health has never been better. My vet says that organic farming makes you pay attention more to what’s going on. I haven’t had an emergency vet visit in five years.”
As they considered the transition, Randall says, “We asked all the usual questions because we had all the usual apprehensions: what do you do when there’s a problem? How do you treat a sick cow? But the more we did it the more we could see that it really isn’t that difficult. It’s just a matter of learning a different way to handle things.”
Except for a couple of local teenagers who help out on the farm from time to time, Randall, Jill and Allison work the farm themselves. Jill is an active partner in the farm and does chores with Randall and Allison in the morning and field work as needed. She also keeps the books.
Transitioning to organic has slowly changed the way the way they feed themselves, as well. “We don’t eat one hundred per cent organic, but the longer we go in this direction, the more we move that way. We drink our own milk. We raise a small garden and can food for the winter, keep chickens for eggs and meat, and raise a steer or two for beef.
“I get teased a bit about going organic, but I take it with a grain of salt,” Randall says. “Why not try something different? Our switch from conventional to organic was the best financial, personal and farming decision we ever made. Organic farming works for us.”