Rainbow Valley Farm has undergone a couple of major transitions in the past decade. Six years ago, Jeff and Kathy Bragg completed their transition to organic and began shipping the milk from their herd of 140 Holstein, Jersey and Normandy cows to Organic Valley.
Like many farmers, the initial motivation was financial. They were sick of the roller coaster milk prices on the conventional market. It wasn’t as if they were going into it cold. Jeff’s dad had been working on alternative soil buildings practices for years. Still, Jeff says, there was a steep learning curve ahead.
“I went to a meeting on homeopathy (alternative medical treatments) during the transition period and my brain just exploded. It was way too much information at the time. When we were conventional, I was used to being able to use one or two drugs to fix everything. As we go along and I understand more, I’m a lot less freaked out. We’re learning more every day, working on nutrition and changing how we do things.”
Just one of the many changes has been putting up a couple of new facilities for calves. We used to keep the calves in the old stanchion barn, but we decided the air wasn’t healthy enough in there. We built a greenhouse style facility where the calves get more light and better air circulation. We were a confinement dairy before. Now we pasture. The transition has taught us to be better managers and to be proactive with our animal care. Their immune systems were compromised when they were confined and receiving antibiotics, but the cows recover quickly now and there’s less chronic illness in the herd.”
The Braggs have been working on improving their pastures, too, which consist mostly of perennial rye, clover, fescue and good old orchard grass. They have spent a good deal of time and money establishing proper fencing so the cows can be moved to fresh grass on a regular basis, all of which can be tricky depending on how your land is configured, Jeff says.
“We have land on both sides of the road, and our best pastures are across the road from the barn and milking facility. The road is a fairly major artery, so we’ve set up solar powered flashing lights like you’d see at a school crossing. When we move the cows back and forth, we activate the flashing lights and put out PVC sawhorses with flashing strobes and full-size stop signs on them. On late summer and fall mornings when the light’s low, we have spotlights on the crossing area itself.”
While their reasons for transitioning to organic initially were purely financial, Jeff says their motivation has deepened over time. “We’re eating better. Just by transitioning to organic we’ve already changed our meat and milk consumption to organic. We raise our own pork and keep a big garden, plus Dad keeps laying hens. If I were to lose my organic market, I would probably continue to do most of what I’m doing now. I enjoy not being responsible for the chemical contamination of groundwater for my neighbors. I enjoy not having to keep spray logs. I think the cows not being dosed repeatedly with antibiotics is a good thing, and I enjoy not worrying about antibiotics in our milk. I’m proud of our product.”
The other transition that is still underway at Rainbow Valley Farm is that of the traditional transfer of a farm from one generation to the next, from Jeff’s dad to Jeff and Kathy. That changeover will be completed this year.
“Dad and I often have different opinions on how to do things, but we have always been able to work together. Dad has been an excellent role model with the transitioning of the farm. It is extremely hard for the older generation to let go and not have control. By the time I was 26, we had formed a partnership. In '98 we dissolved the partnership, and I retained ownership of the animals and equipment, while he retained ownership of the land, which consists of 700 acres, and buildings. This year we plan to complete the transfer with a purchase of the land and buildings.
Kathy stays busy with her end of the bargain. She has raised their four children and supported Jeff every step of the way. Their children are grown now. Their oldest daughter, Kara, is 27 and teaches school in Pennsylvania. The second oldest, Jacob, 25, is in the Air Force and currently stationed in Pensacola, Florida. The third oldest, Mike, 23, has graduated college with a business degree and is currently working on the farm, and their youngest, Caleb, 21 is a lineman working on a high voltage power line upgrade in northern Maine. Another generation was started this past August with the arrival of a grand daughter, Cadence.
Jeff says, “Nobody’s interested in taking over the farm yet. We’re plowing ahead, though. I always wanted to be a dairy farmer. That was my calling. I’m fulfilling that call.”