When Annie and Catlin met at a contra dance over 20 years ago, they discovered they had something in common – both always knew they wanted to be farmers. In fact, Annie had already begun her dairy herd by working for another dairyman who allowed her to build her own herd of Jersey cows. But as her herd grew and the dairyman’s barn didn’t, she and Catlin started looking for a farm of their own and found it west of the Vermont’s Green Mountains and east of Lake Champlain. Their soils tell them their cows graze what used to be the edge of the lake, water that has receded twelve miles over the millennia.
Another strategy that reduced management headaches and cow stress was the decision to milk seasonally. The cows are “dried off” in January, so that most of the milk is produced during the grazing season, keeping expenses down and giving the family a break every year from the milking routine. Milking resumes after calving in the spring.
Annie and Catlin’s management style suits them perfectly, which is to say they keep the management headaches to a bare minimum by taking on only what they can handle themselves. That’s one of the things they love about being farmer/owners of the Organic Valley cooperative. “Small” and “family” really do matter. Their 30 honey-coated Jerseys are rotationally grazed through 90 acres of white clover and orchard grass pasture. They just roam, and eat, and produce their rich, buttery milk for Organic Valley New England Pastures.
Annie reports intensive grazing has been very important to their way of life for the entire 20 years they have been farming. “It’s not just about the economics – it’s lots of fun! To see the cows in the pasture where they are happiest gives us the feeling that all is right with the world!”
Annie and Catlin’s son, Lewis Fox, is 16 and a huge help on the farm, and while he seems inclined to carry the farm forward into the next generation, they aren’t pushing. “If the desire’s there,” Annie says, “we can only encourage it. But if it’s not, we have the farm in a land trust so that somebody will farm it in some capacity, no matter what. Farming’s hard enough even when you love it. We don’t want to saddle him with it unless he’s sure he loves it.” As a home schooled student, Lewis is already involved in the day-to-day work of the farm. In the past few years his interest has deepened, Annie says, and he’s signed up for an agricultural science course at the local high school.
Annie grew up in a small town in Massachusetts, and she always knew she would work with animals in some capacity when she grew up. Her uncle was a dairy farmer, and she loved being on his farm. In her senior year of high school, she took advantage of a program that sent her for a year to northern Vermont. Part of the school was an operating farm that used draft horses. Annie was smitten. Catlin grew up in a small Connecticut town -- limiting for a self-professed naturalist -- but there was a patch of woods nearby, and enough yard for him to garden and keep bees, passions he indulges still on their farm.
While their acreage was certified organic in 1987, the cows themselves were not certified for ten more years. Once the herd was certified, Annie and Catlin started selling their milk to a regional organic milk company, then switched over to a corporate dairy producer. They were not happy with the fit. They had heard of an organic dairy cooperative that was owned by its farmer/members and that paid fair and stable prices to their producers, rates that were set by the farmers themselves. When Organic Valley cooperative members Travis Forgues and Regina Beidler encouraged them to come to a meeting to learn more, they did.
“There was such a huge difference in the structure and the way things worked, we just knew it was the right fit,” Annie says. In 2002, they began selling milk to Organic Valley. “We are entirely grateful and fortunate to do the work we do and produce quality organic milk for people. Being part of Organic Valley and part of the mission to preserve family farming is very important to us.”
Annie, Catlin and Lewis are working, too, to make their operation ever-more sustainable. “It's clear to us that the faster we can all find other effective power sources than fossil fuels, the better,” Annie says. Taking advantage of financial incentives from Vermont Public Service, they put up a 10 kilowatt wind turbine in 2005. Their next step is to hybridize their system by adding solar panels.