When planning the construction of his new milking barn, Ross Thurber, 33, made sure to include a light in the windowed cupola. He imagined himself in the barn on sunless winter mornings, up before everyone else, milking the farm's 50 Holsteins and Brown Swiss. "When I switch on the light on those cold, dark winter mornings," says Ross, "I like to think that my parents up on the hill, or my sisters across the street, or my kids and Amanda getting up for school, will see the light when they look out at the new day."
Ross, a third-generation dairy farmer, sees himself as steward and innovator, father and son, teacher and student. He and his wife Amanda (35) and their three children are inheritors and custodians of a family tradition of farming, as well as the change makers who have ushered in a new organic era.
Ross can trace his New England ancestry back to the time of the Revolutionary War. His great-grandparents worked land in the region, and in 1937, they helped his grandfather Stuart, purchase 600 acres of lush Southern Vermont farmland. He named the parcel Lilac Ridge Farm after the fragrant flowering bushes that bloomed there in the springtime.
Stuart had become smitten with a New Jersey girl he met at a social gathering in Massachusetts. With some artful persuasion, he convinced her to pull up her urban roots, put down rural ones and marry him. The newlyweds went to work right away, caring for a small herd of dairy cows, tending to raspberries bushes and strawberries, and raising a family. "The place was overgrown;" says Ross. "There were even dishes in the sink from the previous owners when my grandparents first arrived at the farm." He relays the story just as it was told to him by his grandmother, Marjorie, who stayed on the family farm until she passed away four years ago.
When Ross's father (also Stuart) took over the farm, it flourished under his care. Ross and his two sisters spent their childhoods roaming the property—listening to crickets on summer evenings, contemplating the blazing colors of the New England fall foliage and watching the dairy herd graze on verdant pastures every spring.
Ross felt no pressure to take up farming, and entered college feeling that his career options were wide open. While studying at the University of Vermont, however, he gravitated towards sustainable agriculture, and created his own degree in the area. After he met Amanda, who was majoring in plant and soil science, the two traveled to Great Britain to expand their understanding of sustainable practices. When Amanda graduated, she began helping Ross' parents at the Lilac Ridge Farm.
Ross graduated in 1996, and he and Amanda married that same year. At the reception, the newlyweds served food and displayed flowers grown on the 3/4-acre area that Amanda had cultivated using organic methods. The guests responded enthusiastically, and soon Amanda was selling her greens and vegetables to a local caterer. At about the same time, more and more people were asking for locally grown vegetables and fruits. Amanda expanded her production and began selling directly, at the nearby farmers' market in downtown Brattleboro.
By 2005, Amanda was a mother of two, and her customer base for organic produce was large enough for her to open a farm stand on the property. "Selling at the farm stand brings you closer to your customers," says Amanda, whose sunny and engaging personality adds to the reasons people come to buy her beautiful cut flowers and delicious vegetables. Devoted to the lifestyle, Amanda shares her knowledge about organic growing methods through local school programs, and mentors high school students who work on the farm. "We're fortunate to be surrounded by a supportive, conscious community that's very pro-farmer," she says.
While Amanda was expanding her produce operation, Ross—who was co-managing the farm with his father—began exploring the idea of transitioning the dairy operation to organic. He felt the property was well suited for it and knew he would be able to compete better in the marketplace. "The more I learned about it, the more I believed that organic could do better than any other production model," he said.
There were obstacles. His father, Stuart, was initially skeptical, but as he and Ross discussed the option, Stuart grew interested. "My Dad had always managed the pastures," recalls Ross. "So that part was already in place." Stuart suggested that he and Ross create an economic model. Together, they worked through ideas, making sure there was a marriage of sound business practices, sustainable agriculture, and organic methods.
The transition took three years, and in the spring of 2007, Lilac Ridge Farm was certified organic. By summer, the Organic Valley truck was stopping at the Lilac Ridge Farm to collect milk, which is processed locally and sold under the Organic Valley New England Pastures label. Ross, who has named all 50 cows and knows each one's temperaments, tastes, and productivity levels, feels that organic has been a positive move. "Not only are my cows healthier, so are the calves— and we're producing good milk."
Ross is optimistic about his future as a farmer and the prospects that lie ahead for his family. "Everyone has a common goal on a farm," says Ross, as he watches his one-year-old race back and forth across the front porch to play with the Riff, the family dog, then stoop down to peek under the stairs at the new litter of kittens. "Family farm kids understand things; they have a sense of the benefits and the drawbacks, whether it's the hay getting wet in a freak rain storm or an extra warm fall that produces peppers by the bushel full." He also thinks the freedom and spontaneous sense of discovery is a great way for children to learn.
Ultimately, however, it is the farm and its possibilities that have captured Ross's imagination. "I like how all the systems of the farm fit together, and I think it's reflected in how I go about my work," he explains, sharing the sense of achievement he feels when plans for the property, such as a new milking barn with its windowed cupola, become a reality. "I love the contribution I'm making to the landscape," says Ross, who looks out over the rolling pastures to his parents' house on the top of the hill, and then down to his white clapboard home by the new barn. "I see projects that I want to do, and what my father has done, and what his father did. I'm adding to a family tapestry. To be able to contribute to it is rewarding. It's my life's work."