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.
Travis Forgues is a young Organic Valley farmer who spends a lot of his time talking to other Vermont farmers about the benefits of going organic. Brendan liked what he heard. He realized that this idea of working with the land and the animals, of securing a healthy future for the cows and his beloved valley, wasn't really that new, after all, but a confirmation of the old ways that had sustained the family farm in the years before agriculture's chemical makeover.
As he looked around his farm, Brendan realized that going organic wasn't going to mean huge changes. "We always had pastures anyway, so it wasn't a huge leap." He hadn't ever been heavily dependent on chemicals. Today, he milks 100 cows and raises about 70 calves, rotating his stock on pastures throughout his 400 acres. The first crop harvested each year is from the maple trees. His dad and family tap 1,500 trees and boil the sap using traditional wood-fired methods.
He also grows corn, as much for an object lesson for his neighbors as anything: "I grow it without their fertilizers and herbicides just to show them they're wasting their time and money," he says. "They only grow it that way because it's the only way they know how."
Brendan's healthy cows and his generous hay and corn yields point to a different way, one that works with nature. "When you interact with nature," he says, "you find you're part of the whole system, you're one of the spokes, and everything moves well together."
The switch to organic production has had an impact on Brendan's satisfaction in farming and on the natural environment of his land. It's also had an impact on his bottom line. Simply put, it's saved him. "To make that transition to organic growing was the only thing that kept us in the business, otherwise we would have sold the cows again," he explains.
Conventional milk prices fluctuate at the whims of the market, as investors and speculators gamble on the future of commodities. Organic Valley uses a different calculus to set milk prices. The nearly 900 family farmers who belong to the co-op set a price at the beginning of the year that is designed to provide a fair wage for the hard work that goes into bringing their milk to market. As a result, while conventional milk prices have stagnated, forcing farmers out of the business, or to consolidate with factory conditions, prices paid to Organic Valley farmers continue to provide a living wage for the members.
The economic pressures of dairy farming have prevented a lot of young farmers like Brendan from taking up the profession. "With the price of land and the price of equipment," he says of his generation, "they get laughed right out of the bank." He is the only one of his six brothers who makes a career out of farming.
To encourage young farmers like Brendan to carry on their family tradition—or to take up farming from scratch—Organic Valley has started "Generation Organic," a program of education, networking, internships, and hands-on support. Brendan's friend and neighbor, Travis Forgues has been a champion of the "Gen-O" program, visiting college campuses and attending youth events visits, to encourage young people to take up organic farming.
Like his father and his grandfather before him, Brendan only asks for the opportunity to work hard and come out ahead at the end of the year. "I should probably get married," he muses, "but I got a barn full of cows and that's been my life. It's been like the Alamo—I've been firing with everything I have. I'm just getting to the point where I can relax a little bit."
The market has changed pretty dramatically from the days in the 1929 when his lumberjack grandfather worked the land, practicing "sustainable" and "organic" farming before there was any other kind, just to feed his family. The farm grew, it changed, and now, it's changed again.
Today, as Brendan surveys the gorgeous valley, his healthy cows, and the life he's always wanted, he's happy that those "sustainable" and "organic" ways have found their way back home.