About 45 minutes southeast of Maine’s famous Sugarloaf ski area, sister and brother Mary and Pete Castonguay manage their family farm. Originally consisting of approximately 50 acres back in 1986, the farm has grown to encompass 450 acres in the eastern foothills of the Appalachians. But there came a time in the early 2000s that the farm was in jeopardy.
“The price of conventional milk looked like it was going to drop out yet again, and we were afraid we were going to give up the dairy business,” says Mary. “So for us, going organic started off as an economic decision”. In an interesting flip-flop of the usual family decision to transition the farm to organic in which the younger generation pushes for a change, Mary says that it was her Dad, Ed, who made the suggestion.
“Part of the reason Pete and I were so leery of going organic was because we had both been educated in the conventional mind-set,” Mary says. Pete graduated in ’96 from Vermont Tech with a degree in Dairy Farm Management, and Mary graduated in 2000 from the University of Maine with an undergraduate degree in Agribusiness Management and a Masters in Business Administration.
“And I’ll admit it, I hate change,” Mary says. “I didn’t know about this organic thing. The rumor mill said that terrible things will happen. It was all about what you can’t do when you’re organic. I thought oh my God, what are we getting into? But my dad said, ‘We’ve got to try something or we’re going to have to let the cows go.’”
And as hard and as long as Ed and Ruth Castonguay had worked to get their family farm, started from nothing, selling the cows because of falling milk prices was not an option.
Ed Castonguay was one of seven siblings growing up on a dairy farm when his father died as a result of a mill accident. Ed’s Mom loved the farm, but to make ends meet and to be able to support her seven children, she had to sell the dairy herd. Though he worked on Ruth’s uncle’s dairy nearby while he grew up, Ed was not able to start his own farm with 4 Ayrshires until 1986. He and Ruth worked the farm until Pete and Mary took over. (Serious allergies prevented their oldest son Chris from farming, so he became an engineer after graduating from Dartmouth.)
The Castonguays began the transition process in May of 2002. “We’d been on a grass program for eight years at that point,” Mary says, “So our pastures could be certified right away.” Mary can not stress enough how much help they got from their local certifying organization, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA). “MOFGA was great,” Mary says. “They had all kinds of workshops from animal health to using homeopathic remedies. We were really skeptical about the remedies at first, but when we tried them, they really worked. Even if we went back to dairying conventionally tomorrow, one thing I would definitely take with me is the alternative remedies.”
One of the big differences Mary has noticed since transitioning to organic is in the calves. “In conventional production, we raised calves on the most expensive milk replacer we could get. But when we switched to organic we had to raise them on real milk. I was really worried that they’d be unhealthy and undernourished. But now I raise a better, healthier calf.”
Pete and Mary work well together, each with complimentary skill sets. Pete manages the crops and the feed program, while Mary does the milking and takes care of the cows and the calves, with Peter’s help. Pete has a natural ability for fixing equipment, and Mary’s business background positions her perfectly to handle that aspect of the farm.
The Ayrshire cows Ed’s dad had favored made their mark on Ed, too when he was a kid. So when he was finally able to start his own farm, the first thing he did was start a herd of Ayrshires. A breed that originated in Scotland, the white and red-brown mottled cows are easy keepers, have high butterfat and protein levels in their milk, tolerate a wide range of climates, and do very well on pasture. Today the Castonguays milk around 72 Ayrshires.
One of the things they find refreshing about organic agriculture is the strong sense of community. “People network and help you out with problems. [Organic Valley producers] Greg and Gloria Varney are in the next town south of us and we can call them and ask for advice. We had a decent experience with our co-op when we were conventional, but when we came on the truck with OV, we thought, ‘This is an amazing co-op!’”
Now, eight years into organic, the Castonguays could not be happier with their decision. “If we hadn’t gone organic, we wouldn’t be dairy farming now.”