Though brothers Taylor and Nick Meyer, 33 and 30, manage their hillside dairy farm for the most part, they refuse to take much credit. “We operate as a family,” Taylor says. Brother Andrew, 36, and parents Steve and Patty, help out constantly. Andrew, Taylor and Nick took over the family farm from their parents in 2001. After talking to another young dairyman in Vermont who was an Organic Valley member/producer, they decided to transition the farm to organic.
“Conventional dairymen told us we wouldn’t be able to make good quality milk,” Nick says. They transitioned anyway. In their very first year of production, the State of Vermont awarded them the Highest Quality Dairy Award. “That’s not just top quality among organic producers, that’s top quality in the entire state,” Andrew says. They’ve won it many years since, and it’s no wonder. The Meyers’ 65 Holsteins graze well-tended Vermont pasture under the watchful eyes of a family who insist on good stewardship of the land.
And on the classic hillside family farms that used to be the standard in Vermont’s Green Mountains, sound land management is critical. In rocky New England, soil is precious. “Of our 350 acres, only 150 acres are tillable.” So the Meyers learned about rotational grazing, a practice that maximizes the cows nutritional input from grass, and maximizes soil retention and health. They switch the cows to fresh pasture every 12 hours after milking. “They love it,” Taylor says. “The cows tell you what works and what doesn’t.”
“We’re constantly trying to improve our pastures for nutritional content,” Nick says. “The cows are healthier and their milk is high in omega 3 and conjugated linoleic acid” (CLA). Not to mention, Taylor points out, they cut costs when they don’t have to buy grain elsewhere. With the cost of organic grains sky high these days, that means a lot to small family farms. Along with the hay they cut from their fields, they grow other feed crops—triticale, forage peas, oats, and sorghum—to use as small grain bale-age.
When they took over the farm in 2001, they knew they’d need a new milking facility that was more centrally located to the paddocks where the cows grazed. But how to do that on the little income they had, income that varied wildly from year to year in the conventional milk market? As dedicated as they are to family, and since they feel that their community is their extended family, it made sense to start there. They asked “family and friends” for donations that would support them during their transition to organic and enable them to build the new barn and milking parlor.
“The response was awesome,” Nick says. “We even named milk stalls after the most generous folks.”
Since they’ve been exposed to alternative energy for years, their goal is to make their operation as self-sustaining as possible. Another farmer they know put up a wind turbine, and in 2008, so did the Meyers. “We are producing power from WIND! Pretty sweet,” Nick says.
The Meyers have accomplished a great deal on their hillside farm. “We were born on the farm, grew up on it,” Nick says. After college, he went out to Jackson Hole and worked as a snowmobile tour guide in Yellowstone. But, he says, “My heart and soul never left the farm. I always knew I would farm and work the land when the time was right, when the folks decided they didn't want to carry on full bore. My brothers and I took the torch and made the flame a little higher. We have lots more to achieve in preparing this place for the future, and we hope the next in line will do the same. When we look over the land and the cows we can say what a lot of people can't: We're organic dairy farmers and pretty darn proud of it.”
“It’s all about the land,” Taylor says. “Farming makes us part of a long chain. We want to make sure we’re a strong link.” Taylor took his time away from the farm, too, working for MTV in New York City. He was “living the life.” But, he realized, “After the first glow burned off, the work didn’t seem very rewarding.” He thought there had to be more, and he’s got it: “The land, our farm in the hills of Vermont, my family, and this movement that is called ‘Organic.’”
“We needed something we could stand tall for,” Taylor says. “I think what we were seeking, and found, was pride in our work. It’s not easy, but as [Organic Valley CEO] George Siemon once told me, ‘It’s not easy being a pioneer.’”