When Brendan Henry recites the history of his 400-acre family farm, it's with equal parts humor and pride. He's the third generation of hard-working Vermont farmers to work this patch of paradise, situated between the Adirondacks and the Green Mountains not far from Lake Champlain. All three generations have seen their share of struggles and triumphs.
"My grandfather, he was a lumberjack in Maine with a bucksaw and an axe before he came here in 1929," Brendan says. "He was so poor he ran his team with one horse and one ox because he couldn't afford to buy two horses." In spite of starting from nothing, and with 13 children to feed, Brendan's grandfather made a go of it. Eventually his son Leo—Brendan's dad—took over the farm.
Then came the "green revolution," and with it a dramatic shift in American agriculture. Time honored, traditional methods that had served family farmers since the American Revolution were replaced with intensive petro-chemical inputs that depleted both the soil, and farmer's pocketbooks.
By the time Brendan was out of high school and joined the service, the economics of farming had forced thousands of American families off their farmsteads, and the Henry family farm was suffering, too. "I got back from Germany, and found out my dad had sold the cattle while I was away," he recalls. "I started college, and he was starting to sell off the property, so I said, 'That's it, I'm coming back home!' We bought some cows, and we fired it all up again."
Brendan took on the farm in the late 1990s—a tough period in the milk business, when the state of Vermont was losing some 4 percent of its farmers each year. Faced with fluctuating milk prices, dairy farmers began increasing their herd size and using hormones to boost production, hoping the added volume would cover their costs. Cows in larger, confined herds get sick more often than those raised on pasture, eating fresh grass, so getting bigger also forced farmers to rely on antibiotics in the attempt to stave off disease.
These practices left Brendan with a bad taste in his mouth. "We were making it, but it just wasn't worth my time," he said. "We could pay the bills but it wasn't enjoyable. It wasn't how we liked to do it. It was more a business of milk production than farming."
And that's when Brendan started thinking about a new way to farm, and listening to his kindergarten pal Travis Forgues.