How did Doug and Linda Hartkopf – two kids from New York City suburbs in Connecticut and New York – meet, marry and end up raising a family on a farm in Maine?
It’s a long and interesting story.
Doug grew up in Fairfield County, Connecticut. His parents were teachers, but his dad’s family had farmed in upstate New York for six generations. Doug happily spent his summers at the farm. “I always enjoyed the smell of manure and corn silage,” he says. “I just knew I wanted to grow up to be a farmer.”
So, he went to a small agricultural college in Pennsylvania and majored in dairy husbandry. Then he got a master’s degree in ruminant nutrition from the University of Maine, and worked a teaching assistant in cow nutrition and reproduction classes. After graduation, he taught horticulture for a year. From time to time, he still considers going back to teaching, and for a while, he thought seriously about becoming an agricultural extension agent. But not that seriously. “After living in the country and being my own boss, I can’t imagine to going back to living in ‘just’ a house,” he notes.
Linda’s also a natural farmer, and teacher. She was the tomboy of a family of four sisters, delightedly exploring the natural world near her home in Westchester County, New York. Like Doug, she spent as much time as possible at her grandparents’ home located in the heart of dairy country in upstate New York. Every chance she had she would venture off to the local farms during milking time to help out. And, like Doug, she knew she wanted to farm. But for many years, the closest she could get to that dream was riding horses and then raising chickens, starting in fifth grade (yes, fifth grade), and continuing throughout high school. She was also active in sports, 4-H and Girl Scouts.
Eventually, she earned a degree in animal science from the University of Maine. Energetic and innovative, she advocated for the inclusion of hands-on activities in the program’s curricula. She published a report on calf nutrition in the magazine Hoard’s Dairyman. She co-founded livestock and dairy judging teams, judged livestock competitions, and served as president of the college’s Animal Club.
Linda discovered her true calling while working one summer at an educational farm in New York. “I saw the desire of people to know about agriculture and sustainability,” she says. “I tucked that information away, and knew that I wanted to help bridge the gap between urban, suburban and rural life.”
After college, she earned on-the-ground experience by interning at several farms. She and Doug met at a dairy conference in Vermont. They clicked immediately – especially because they shared that got-to-do-dairy passion. They married after he finished his master’s degree.
Together, they worked on several conventional dairy farms in Maine. “It was great experience for us,” Linda says. “We were able to deal with a wide variety of animal health issues, and it gave us a track record. We raised the herds’ output dramatically while maintaining healthy animals.”
They bought the 280-acre Hart to Hart Farm in 1990. It’s near Albion, in an agricultural oasis located between Belfast and Waterville, in central Maine. The area is the home of the largest concentration of dairies, including organic operations, in the state.
The farm includes hardwood ridges and rolling open fields with good soil – and a dramatically short (120-day) frost-free growing season. With 75 milking Holsteins and Jerseys, it’s an average-size operation for the area.
They sell most of their milk through Organic Valley, but they do bottle a little for local customers. They also sell eggs and broiler chickens, and raise hogs, steers, and sheep.
Six years ago, Linda started making cheese. Her first experience in the process was on a farm she interned on one summer. Her much-sought-after gouda, “Wild Myrilla,” which she named after their daughter and a character in a film based on the book Anne of Green Gables. The role was played by the actress Colleen Dewhurst, who lived in Linda’s hometown and coached her own softball team when she was young. Ms. Dewhurst’s warmth, gumption and candor inspired Linda. Today Linda still finds time to make gouda, feta, and several soft cheeses which are sold at area farmers markets.
The Hartkopfs embraced organic management practices early on, and were one of the first dairy farms in Maine to make the switch to organic, for personal and financial reasons. “I was actually getting bored with the conventional dairy routine,” Doug explains. “Organic was much more exciting. It was also challenging, because at that time, the infrastructure (for organic dairy farming) was nonexistent. Getting organic feed was especially difficult. But now, we have formed support groups and are putting together a local grain processing mill. It also helps so much that we have a stable price for our product.”
Doug and Linda also were one of the original members of the CROPP co-op family and have helped build the organization since they joined it in 1998. Doug is an alternate representative to CROPP’s Dairy Executive Committee for Maine. He also is vice president of the Maine Organic Milk Producers, and is involved with the National Organic Dairy Producers Association. Linda is active in CROPP/Organic Valley’s Farmers in Marketing program, the “Ag in the Classroom” program in Maine, Maine Farm Bureau and Maine 4-H Foundation. Both enjoy sharing information with CROPP staff and farmer members. “We like having a personal relationship with the people who run the company we work with, which we do with Organic Valley,” Doug says.
The couple has three children: Olin, 15; Dylan, 12; and Myrilla, 9-1/2. Olin helps with the milking and haying, and sells eggs and broilers. All three care for the heifers and calves, and help wrap bales and silage. “We want the kids to understand that they can make money at farming,” Doug says. “But a lot of the kids in their school don’t understand farming. I’m not discouraging Olin from going into farming, but he does see the stress of it.” The three children pursue outside activities, too, from 4-H and scouting to saxophone and magic cards. In their limited spare time, Doug enjoys reading, and Linda plays on a women’s ice hockey team during the winter.
In addition to helping with the twice-daily milkings, Linda has found her true calling: communicating her excitement about the natural world and farm life. She just earned her master’s in environmental education from Antioch New England Graduate School, and will begin teaching the subject part-time in a local junior high school. Already, she’s been an active intern there, installing a “pizza garden” that is the basis of a student economics curriculum about running a small business.
But her real passion is the Hart to Hart Day Camp she started six years ago at the farm. Just six campers attended that first year. Now, more than 80 campers from the local area and several other states stay at the farm for one-week sessions. Linda says her purpose is to sow seeds so future generations will value the interconnection between the wildness, rural living, farming and their own lives. “They may not become farmers, but they will (may) become lawmakers,” she explains. “They observe farm life and nature, get involved and have a sense of ownership.” In fact, many of her first campers have returned as counselors.
And who wouldn’t want to attend Linda’s day camp? The kids make their own pizzas – from the wheat they harvest and grind into flour for the crust, to the vegetable-and-herb toppings they harvest from the garden – and they bake them in a clay oven made by previous campers. They also see calves being born. They dissect eggs. They play-act how a cow’s digestive system works, and how manure breaks down into soil. They write farm-themed poetry. They do projects with resident artists. They write and illustrate nature journals.
As a special treat, each child “adopts” a farm animal for the session. For some, it’s the first “pet” they’ve ever had. All of them learn to understand, appreciate and care for their animal. Linda says that by the end of the week, “the kids’ growth and confidence are phenomenal.”
And there are pluses for the Hartkopf kids, too: They get to help out with the camp and hang out with the campers – who handle most of the usual farm chores!
During the school year, Linda also takes a traveling petting zoo to various events. Her essays, written from a cow’s perspective, enliven the Stonyfield Farms’ website. And then there’s her cheese business…
It’s a lot.
In fact, even these two dynamos admit that it’s probably too much. So, their goal is to streamline their facilities and operations, so Doug can manage the place, perhaps with the help of a college intern or employee, and Linda can extend her on-farm education program into the school year. And maybe they’ll even take a family vacation.
In addition, Doug plans to raise at least 10% of their organic feed, 100% of their forage, and 50% of their protein feed because, as he says, “The true organic farm is truly self-sustaining.” He says that, with a stable product price and Linda’s teaching salary, they can borrow money to improve the barns, and add an all-season cheese kitchen and environmental classroom. “We couldn’t have done this without organics,” he says. “In fact, if it weren’t for organics, we probably would have packed it in.
Maybe and maybe not. For these two truly love what they do. “I always feel that being a farmer is a really special occupation; that not everybody can do it, day after day,” Doug says. “I really enjoy mowing a field of hay, and putting it into bales. When I look up from raking the hay, I see Mt. Katahdin, at the end of the Appalachian Trail. And I love the hands-on interaction with the animals. And that I’m my own competition; I only do as well as I can do. How well you do depends on how much you put into it.”
Judging from their smiles, and their loyal customers and happy campers, they’re doing great!