Tyler Webb likes to joke that he’s not sure whether “I’m a farmer who likes to ski or a ski bum who likes to farm.” While he has always been a ski bum, he was not always a farmer.
In fact, both Tyler and Melanie came from suburban upbringings in Rochester, New York, and Wilton, Connecticut. Neither had connections to farming in general or sustainable agriculture specifically. Neither Melanie nor Tyler had ever milked a cow.
Tyler’s path to farming began at the University of Vermont-Burlington, where he started out majoring in anthropology. Seven years later, he had a masters in agronomy and sustainable agriculture, with a strong focus on grazing management.
Tyler got a job with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) as a soil conservationist and grazing specialist. “I attended a lot of meetings for NODPA (Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance) and NOFA (Northeast Organic Farming Association). The crowd always included a couple of grass farmers along with other farmers and a couple of agency guys like me. It always felt wrong to be one of the agency guys. There was this camaraderie amongst the farmers and I really wanted to be a part of that.”
To get started, Tyler bought an abandoned, thirty-two acre dairy farm where he grazed British White beef steers and American Milking Devon Cattle to be sold as grass fed, grass finished, certified organic beef, an enterprise that is still a part of the Webb’s farm plan today. Tyler set up a burger stand at the farmer’s market in Burlington where they grill up organic cheeseburgers for grateful customers.
When he decided to quit his job at NRCS and go into farming full time, his Mom tried to remind him of benefits and retirement packages, none of which are available to farmers. Tyler thought of that, too, but realized that if there was any chance of starting a farm, doing it at 25 was going be a lot easier than at 65. “When my Mom comes to the farm now, she often comes to our burger stand on farmer’s market day. I’ll tease her and say, ‘Look Mom. Seven years of college and here I am flipping burgers!’”
Melanie studied business at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, PA. She began working in the mortgage broking field and quickly realized that it did nothing for her. She chose instead to follow her passion, photography, and worked professionally in New York for eight years until she met Tyler at the farmer’s market in Burlington when she was visiting a friend there. Within a year Melanie had moved to the farm, and within two years they were married.
“Melanie came to the farm with a whole other creative lens,” Tyler says. “We complement each other really well. She has this level of organization and attention to detail that I can’t begin to approach. She notices everything long before I do. She’ll see right away if a cow’s a little off, walking funny, or waggling an ear in a way she doesn’t normally do.”
Adding the dairy operation was a natural progression, Tyler says. “With beef cattle it’s difficult to tell what effect your management has on the final product. You have to wait twenty-seven months to see the results. With dairy cows, the feedback loop is short. Your cows tell you every day via milk production and milk quality whether or not you’re doing your job right.”
To begin the dairy herd, Tyler went to every farmer in the Northeast he could find who would sell him a Jersey cow bred to calve that coming spring. They decided on Jerseys because their old tie stall barn couldn’t accommodate bigger breeds. And so it was he started out with sixteen Jerseys and a handful of obliging Devons. At that point, Tyler had never milked a cow. “I had made renovations to the barn. The vacuum pump worked, and I had a bucket milker but I didn’t know how to use it. I had to get a neighbor to come over and show me how to do it.”
In spite of it all, he knew he was apparently “doing his job right,” since the Webbs got a milk quality award in their first year of operation, and have received many quality awards since, including an honorable mention from the National Mastitis Council.
Why are their cows doing so well right out of the gate? “The foundation of our herd health is low-stress handling and high-forage diet,” Tyler says. “We never herd our cows anywhere. They know that when we whistle they’re going to fresh grass or they’re going to the barn, and when they go to the barn, they’ll get a little bit of grain and they’re in and out in 45 minutes. We move our cows every 12 hours during the grazing season, May through November. Our barn is impeccably clean and we bed with lime. If a cow gets sick, it’s usually because of a series of bad decisions that let the stress build up. So I learned to be a better manager.”
As part of the low-stress program, the Webbs operate the dairy seasonally, meaning that the cows are “dried off” (they cease lactating) from January until they calve in March or April. “The break between end of lactation and the start of the next one is 75 days, as opposed to the industry standard which is 45 days. Our system mimics nature.”
Not to mention it’s a perfect work schedule for a farmer who likes to ski.