What Makes Organic Agriculture (& Life on a Farm) Beautiful
Regina Beidler calls herself an “accidental farmer,” but her commitment to organic agriculture, sustainability, rural communities, and caring for her animals is deeply intentional (and about as far from accidental as it gets.) Regina and her husband, Brent, own and operate a 40 cow organic dairy farm in Randolph Center, Vermont. They transitioned to organic production in 2000, and their cows graze on a “salad bar” of lush pasture—no grain for the Beidlers’ happy bovines. They do, however, grow a small quantity of grain that is milled for flour on-site and sold at local markets.
Regina and Brent are first generation farmers who bought their farm in 1998 to fulfill Brent’s lifelong dream of working the land and raising animals. And although Regina’s interest in farming stemmed from her husband’s passion, she quickly came to love it every bit as much as Brent. “It’s hard work being a farmer, but there’s times when you look up and you see something going on around you in nature, or you have chances to be with your children, or somebody stops by for a visit and you can sit and visit for 30 minutes—there’s a lot of pieces of the life that we lead that are quite lovely,” she says. She especially enjoys early morning barn chores when she and her husband can have some peaceful time together before the busyness of a the day sets in.
The learning curve for the Beidlers when they began farming was pretty steep. “I think the intensity of farming is something that takes a lot of people by surprise. No matter what type of farm you have, it usually requires your daily attention and takes a great deal of planning to make things work,” says Regina. Quickly, she learned to do things like drive a tractor, operate other farm machinery, and get hay in off the field. “Women have always had a very integral part on the farm,” she adds, noting that today more women like her are interested in farming as a career path for themselves, not just with their husbands.
Regina and Brent chose organic production because they wanted their daughter to grow up in a non-toxic environment, but found that organic agriculture made economic sense for them as well. “That’s one of the beautiful things about organic,” Regina says, “the idea that if we pay farmers what it costs to produce the milk and we acknowledge that cost of production, then it can be possible for farms—whether it’s our size milking 40 cows or slightly larger farms—that you can make a living at that size.”
Paying farmers what it actually costs to produce milk certainly is a beautiful (and logical, and fair, and humane) thing.
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and today’s a special day because whenever we get to have a farmer on the show, we know it’s a special day. And today is even more special because we have a woman farmer, Regina Beidler, who is an organic dairy farmer in the most beautiful little town of Randolph, Vermont. Welcome, Regina.
REGINA BEIDLER: Thank you, I’m glad to be here.
TM: It is, as I said, so special to have an organic dairy farmer who is also a woman. And I think that maybe our listeners don’t know because whenever you say the word “farmer,” let’s face it, the first thing that come into your mind is a guy and not a woman. And yet there’s always, almost always, on all farms, a woman there, farming right alongside her husband. We probably have not been fair to women when we only think of the men.
RB: Well, it’s understandable for a lot of people to identify men, who often play very central roles on farms, but I would definitely agree with you that women and family members hold a very important role as well. Since farming is very…it takes a lot of time during the day, it’s something that is very directed, so if somebody were doing it by themselves I think it would be a very difficult enterprise. So having other people there to share the workload as well as the emotional load, as well, of working together as a family makes a big difference for most people.
TM: I remember visiting you many, many years ago, probably 15—I’m not sure. How old is Erin now?
RB: She’s going to be 20 in January, if you can believe, so it may have been even more than 15 years ago that you visited here.
TM: Yep, it’s 18 years. She was two years old, and I remember she was in the barn with you and your husband, Brent, and she had a little cup and she was going and feeding the cows.
RB: She’s, as many children mimic their parents, and so she was somebody who very early got to see what her parents did for a living.
TM: I once asked a farmer when they allowed their children to be part of the farm, and the person, who was also a woman farmer, said, “Well I try and keep them out of the barn until they’re six, but it sure is hard!”
RB: Oh, I know. And to tell you the truth, we came to the farm when Erin was about three months old. And part of our decision making from the very beginning is, what can we do, knowing that we were the primary workforce, to make sure that she’s able to be along with us in a way that was safe to her, but she could be really involved in our daily routine. So that, in part, drove our decision making around being organic, and grazing in particular, because she, when she was very small, would be in the front pack or spend a lot of time in the backpack for her first three or four years, going along into the pasture and changing fence and helping us in the barn. So if you have an environment that doesn’t have a lot of things that would be toxic or dangerous to children, it was easy to have her with us.
TM: Well, I bet there’s a lot of listeners out there who are saying, “Wow, you’re a first-generation farmer.” Because, you know, oftentimes you hear people who are farming because their parents farmed and their grandparents farmed. What brought you into farming?
RB: Well, if I had to introduce myself, I would call myself an “accidental” farmer or farmwife. I’m married to the most lovely man in the world, Brent Beidler, who, from the time he was very small—three or four years old—decided he really wanted to dairy farm. His grandparents were dairy farmers and he was very much taken, both with working with the cows and the ability to work in the fields and all of what was entailed in that work. And [he] was an usual child, and that vision stuck with him all the way through college.
And so when we started dating, there was a lot of conversation about how I would feel coming in as somebody that would be his partner in a farming operation. I had actually been trained as a social worker and worked in that field. But we had decided that really to make things work well it would take both of our attention and our intention to be able to make the farm work well. And so I rapidly bought into it—and had a pretty steep learning curve, to be truthful, learning a lot of the skills that were necessary. But it’s worked out beautifully to be partners.
So, while my initial interest was not the person that was driving us, bringing us to the farm, it’s been something that’s been a really neat way to be able to work together and something that we feel strongly about and that’s been very meaningful.
TM: You know, Regina, what kinds of things in those early days did you find, “Oh my gosh, I don’t know anything about this! I have to learn about it”?
RB: (laughing) Well, I learned to drive a tractor, and learned a lot about equipment and what it takes to get hay in and what it takes to take care of cows. I think the intensity of farming is something that takes a lot of people by surprise. No matter what type of farm you have, it usually requires your daily attention and takes a great deal of planning to make things work. So I think those were the things that were most surprising to me when we got started.
TM: And then, and you also decided that you were going to be farming in Vermont. I’m going to have to guess that Brent’s grandfather farmed in Vermont.
RB: Actually they didn’t. Both of our parents moved to Vermont from Pennsylvania when they were young couples—had moved to this area, and so we were raised here. So we didn’t have a family farm, even at a grandparent level, that we were able to be a part of on a regular basis. Every summer we would spend our family vacation time visiting our mother’s parents’ farms, who were the two farms in our families. So that made a big impression on us but not something that was a regular part of our lives.
But Brent had a neighbor who had a small farm across the road, and he had a lot of extra energy as a child, so spent quite a lot of time “helping”—and I put that in finger quotes—since he was sent across the road to be kept busy. But that really made a deep impression on him as a mentor. And there have been a number of people, both family members and others along the way, who have been really significant mentors in our journey towards having our own farm.
TM: It really is special to have those mentors, and almost necessary, isn’t it, Regina?
RB: It is, it is. Brent was fortunate to have an animal science degree from the University of Vermont, which gave him a lot of information about animal nutrition and biology and those types of pieces, which were very important. But the day-to-day nuts and bolts of how things work—how do you milk a cow, what do you do when a cow needs assistance after calving, how do you fix equipment, how do you know the hay’s dry enough to bale—all those types of things you learn usually by working with other people.
TM: Well, you know, you have now been farming with Brent organically for, it’s gotta be 20 years. And so I’m just wondering, and you are very, very active both in your community, on the farm, and so on—have you seen much change in women in agriculture in the last 20 years that you’ve been an organic dairy farmer?
RB: I would say yes and no. As we talked about at the very beginning, women have always had a very integral part on the farm. I have a walking buddy, with whom I walk in the mornings, and she lives at another dairy farm just down the road—grew up in Boston so was even less familiar with farming than I was when she married into her family. And it became clear to us over the years that each family has their own system of who takes what role on the farm. Some people are interested in doing some pieces that other women are not, so it makes it a really interesting mix when you ask people what their responsibilities and what roles they take on the farm.
The nice thing that we’ve seen is that right next door to us is Vermont Technical College, which has an agricultural program. And there’s a pretty even mix of young men and young women in that program. And over the years we’ve had some very lovely young women who work with us on the farm, either helping with milking or with other responsibilities here. And they have some really interesting skill sets that we see more frequently in them than some of the young men. They’re more attention to detail. They’re very calm with the animals. There’s a lot of very interesting dynamics that they bring when they help us here at the farm.
TM: That’s really wonderful to hear, and it just makes sense, I think, in a lot of ways—you know, we’re mothers! Tell me, Regina, what are the favorite things that you like to do on the farm?
RB: Well, one of the nice things that I do every day is that Brent gets up early at 4:00 and goes to morning milking, and usually between 6 and 6:30 I join him in the barn, and we finish up chores and get the cows out to pasture and clean the barn. And what I value about that is it’s one of the quieter times during the day when we have time for conversation that’s uninterrupted. And there’s a certain, I wouldn’t say mindlessness to it, but it’s simple tasks that require some physical activity, and it gives a chance to interact with the cows. So I particularly like that time of the day.
There’s times when I enjoy going out and tedding hay or doing something on the tractor—again, just because you can think your own thoughts while you’re doing other work. So those are some of the pieces that I enjoy.
TM: And I know that Erin probably isn’t on the farm right now, but when she was, did she help you milk and all that?
RB: When she was younger, it was interesting, we use to tell the story of when she was about three years old, she spent a lot of time in the backpack. And so her father, who was often carrying her, would tell her things as they were bringing in the cows. So by the age of three she could identify all the cows by name and could even tell you at that point, which stall they stood in in the barn. So she was very much—because she was integrated into what we were doing every day—was paying close attention and was a little sponge.
So over the years it’s been interesting, she’s worked for her dad doing different pieces. She did a little bit of milking for him last summer and decided it really wasn’t her cup of tea. So this summer she worked for him a few weeks before she went off to be a camp counselor, and she was mostly working on another enterprise we’re doing around cut flowers, which she thought was much cleaner, something she enjoyed. But it’s interesting, if you ask her, over the last number of years, how she felt about living on a farm, she said, “Perhaps I won’t farm myself, but it really makes me happy to be a farm kid.”
TM: You mentioned early about how, for you, you wanted to have an organic farm—you wanted to make sure that there wasn’t something that Erin would be exposed to, and so on, of course, and then being organic. What are the things that really stand out that make organic dairy farming different than conventional?
RB: Sure. I just remember a number of years ago Organic Valley produced a video of different farmers who were talking about their experiences going to organic production, and there was a really poignant story from a farmer whose name I don’t remember, but he was talking about, he had been out, I think, spreading fertilizer in the field and he had it on his clothing, and he came in for lunch and his little girl wanted to climb up on his lap while he was eating, and he couldn’t hold her because he was afraid of her having contact with that. So I think that was a story that stuck with me for a long time.
And the fact that we don’t use some of those toxic pieces that are commonly employed and some of pieces of conventional agriculture, like the chemical fertilizers and pesticides and herbicides—a lot of those pieces aren’t on the farm, so we don’t have to worry in the same way about those types of…that the children are exposed in some way to those types of things. And I think the fact, talking, too, about grazing, there’s something just so nice about interacting with animals who are coming to and from the barn, who are going out to pasture. It’s a very gentle way to farm in a lot of ways. It’s a nice way for children to interact with the animals in a way that’s not at all threatening.
So those pieces have been really positive for us—having grazing as [an] essential part of organic production and then not having some of those things that people would be more concerned about their children being exposed to.
TM: Well certainly having pasture is so much easier to stay away from pesticides, because you don’t really need them. I’m always amazed to see that there’s sometimes 15, 18, 20, 22 different kinds of grasses. Do you have like a large variety of plants in your pasture?
RB: We do, and it’s interesting, one of our staff [unclear] called it a salad bar, that the cows can pick and choose depending on what their bodies need and what kinds of things they like to eat—which is really fun to watch. If you watch a cow she’ll very selectively go through and be looking for things depending on that. So we have some things that are naturally a part of our pasture that come back year after year, and then there are some things that we introduce from time to time, like white clover, that is a particular part of the mix that makes a really good thing for the cows to have. So yes, having that diversity is really a positive thing.
TM: I like that, the cow salad bar—pretty fun. You know, one of the things that I hear a lot about when I talk to all kinds of farmers is how do organic farmers do it without antibiotics? Because of course they’re not allowed. Do you want to give our listeners a little clue on how you do it without antibiotics?
RB: Sure. I think that’s one of the most significant mental challenges that farmers who have gotten used to using antibiotics when necessary have to look at. And I’ll say a couple of things. The first is that if an animal is very, very sick and the vet advises that the only way to save that animal’s life is to give an antibiotic, organic farmers can do that, and then the cow has to leave the herd and no longer be in organic production. So I won’t say that an organic farmer would never use an antibiotic. If it was necessary, absolutely, that would happen.
But what we’ve found over the years is that our cows, just because of a couple of things—because of grazing, being outdoors in the fresh air and sunshine, not being pushed to make so much milk—are less prone to get sick. So we’re very rarely in situations where animals are in a position where they have to have any kind of medical attention. And then we also have a toolbox that has a lot of really good tools in it for different types of things that have gone wrong. We have some herbal tools like garlic or calendula or aloe or different mixtures that vets and others have formulated that are allowed under organic production, that actually can be very useful. They sound fairly benign, but they’re actually quite potent as far as addressing some of the health issues that may come up for our cows.
So I’d say that the combination of really good health and the ability to use some tools in our tool box when they are sick have really been a positive. And I know that in the 19 years that we’ve been here at our farm, we’ve never been in a situation where we’ve had to bring out an antibiotic for our cows. And for a lot of people it’s a very rare occasion. So I think that’s something that most people find that they can get beyond after they are in organic and move through that process.
TM: Wow, I’m so happy to hear that that has gone well with you. And I hear that story a lot, but what you said was, “We don’t push them too hard.” So I couldn’t help but ask this following question, and that is, without pushing them hard and getting the maximum that you can from that cow, are you finding that it still makes good economics?
RB: That’s one of the beautiful things about organic. The idea that if we pay farmers what it costs to produce the milk and we acknowledge that cost of production, then it can be possible for farms, whether it’s our size, milking 40 cows, or slightly larger farms with a few more cows, that you can make a living at that size. We’re seeing, in contrast, on the conventional side is pay prices that are the same as the 1970s or the 1980s. And if your listeners think about what they might have been earning in the ’70s or ’80s and living on that in current times, you can understand why a lot of farms do push their animals to produce as much milk as possible, to make up for the fact that what they’re being paid really isn’t covering what it costs to produce that milk. So it’s a situation, you know, farmers aren’t necessarily trying to push their cows too hard, but in a situation where you don’t have enough money to pay your bills, you would need to make as much milk as possible.
TM: If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio, and I’m Theresa Marquez. And I’m here today with Regina Beidler, who is an organic dairy farmer in Vermont, and we’re talking about organic farming and much more.
Organic farmers don’t use antibiotics; we’re very restricted in, of course, the pesticides and other inputs that we have. But, you know, organic is still farming, and it’s not black-and-white sometimes. Are there things that you would change about the organic system?
RB: Oh, that’s such a good question. The thing that I’ve noticed more than anything is there’s been really dramatic growth in the organic industry over the years that we’ve been a part of the organic marketplace and organic farming. And so it’s always a challenge, when anything gets larger and you have more players and more farms in the mix, to just make sure that the kind of strictness of standard that we all know is expected of us is maintained as much as possible. It gives us a lot of [unclear—pleasure?] as farmers to realize that a lot of the early work around the standards was done by organic pioneers, by farmers, by people who sat down and said, we feel like this has to be really strict in order for consumers to have confidence in what they’re purchasing.
And I think, you know, the more players that are in there, it’s easier to go towards things that are not necessarily as strict as we may want them to be. So I think that’s something that we all try to guard as farmers, is trying to make sure that that same strict standard that people have come to expect of us is maintained.
TM: Yeah, and so far we’re still small enough that you probably know everybody who’s doing organic around you, don’t you?
RB: It’s true, in our communities we certainly know each other very well.
TM: And you also know your conventional farmers very well, I’m assuming, as well.
RB: We do. When there’s times of an illness in a family or something that happens, people in your community are very quick to step up and to help, regardless of whether you’re organic or conventional.
TM: And I’m always trying to determine, myself, because the Rootstock Radio is very much about alternative food system, trying to change the food system, that I know that there are farmers out there who probably don’t agree with us. And I’m never wanting to disparage anyone. But you are such an example, Regina—I know all the good things that you do in your community, and that community is made up of not just organic farmers but conventional farmers. And I just am so curious, just how is it that you maintain good relationships with your conventional friends while still caring for and practicing these organic production practices and, in many ways, organic lifestyle?
RB: Sure. I know that most of our conventional neighbors we have very good relationships with. There’s a sense of camaraderie and a willingness to loan equipment when something is broken, or to help each other in a lot of ways. And I think there’s an active curiosity from a lot of farms who are watching what we do and ask a lot of questions. We know that a lot of people who come towards organic farming come from the conventional route, through grazing, and then come towards organics. So you never know which of your neighbors might eventually come towards organic production.
And there are times when people who are not as close to us or who have a very aggressively verbal opinion that runs contrary or have things that are unkind to say, we usually take the tack of just biting our tongue many times, trying to understand the stress that they’re under. I think there’s a perception, and maybe not a misperception, that organic farmers are often praised more than conventional by their consumer bases. There’s a lot of mixed feelings out there. So it’s seems like most of the time it’s most valuable just to try to understand and sometimes to bite our tongue.
TM: That probably is the best advice that you can give to those of us who really are trying to figure out how to build bridges between organic and non-organic farming. Any other thoughts, Regina, on what you think works when we’re trying to just kind of say what it is we do without trying to be holier than thou?
RB: Yeah, now, it’s interesting. A number of years ago, there was some GMO labeling legislation in Vermont that was defeated. It was labeling of seeds—it wasn’t actually labeling of food products. But it drew a very strong line, unfortunately, between conventional and organic dairy. And so an organization here in Vermont, in an attempt to try to heal that rift, brought together six organic farmers and six large conventional farmers and had mediated meetings throughout the winter months, which was really an interesting experience. And I’m a secondhand observer since my husband, Brent, was one of the participants, but it was interesting to hear, as feelings were being shared in that group, that some of the larger farms felt badly that they were being perceived as “bad neighbors,” as “bad people” in their community—that their children would sometimes go to school and be criticized for the type of farming their families were doing.
So again, just in the sense of being understanding that nobody likes to be painted as doing something bad—we all like to think we’re taking care of our animals and the environment and our land in the best way possible. So those conversations that are meaningful are only going to happen if somebody’s not feeling attacked.
TM: Regina, would you say that farmers have just more in common as farmers than not, at the end of the day?
RB: Yes, I agree with you completely. There is a shared interest and a shared experience that is much more common amongst us than those things that separate us.
TM: I am very interested in how you are doing other things on the farm and in your community. Did I hear that you’re growing grain and selling it locally?
RB: We are. A number of years ago—every year Brent and I keep track of where our expenses are and where we feel the points of vulnerability are—and so probably 12 or 13 years ago we thought, it’s really kind of an Achilles heel for our farm to bring in imported grain from other parts of the country or from Canada to feed our cows. What if we started growing our own grain? And so with borrowed equipment from another farmer, we grew a field of rye and then borrowed his combine, a farmer-friend of ours’ combine, to harvest it. And cars were pulling off the road—it’s very rare to see combines in Vermont.
But what we realized at the same time, there’s a very strong local foods movement here Vermont as there are in a number of states, but the localvores, which is our local eating movement, said, “Why are you growing grain for animals? We want grain for human beings.” And so that year we decided that would be the last year we grow grain for cows, since we didn’t really have the land base to grow enough for our own animals, and we would go towards not feeding any grain to the cows and instead grow grain for human beings.
So over the last number of years we grew both wheat and spelt—which, for people not familiar with spelt, it’s a lower gluten; it’s in the wheat family but has lower levels of gluten. It has a husk on it so it grows better in regions where there’s a little bit more rain. And that’s been really a great experience for us. We were, again, knew a farmer in Iowa who was willing to almost gift us with his old combine, so slowly but surely we’ve built up our infrastructure here. And this year we’re growing just spelt, which we have a mill from Austria in one of our buildings, and we mill it here on the farm and sell it to our community.
TM: That is really lovely. And what about the rye—have you given that up?
RB: We have. That was something that we did as an experiment. Sometimes we’ll plant it as a cover crop in the fall, if there’s a field that needs a cover crop, but most of the time now, we’re just focused on spelt. As part of one of our rotations, when we’re renovating a field, we plow it up and we’ll plant spelt, and then after a year of that, we plant it back to grasses for grazing again. So it’s really been a neat way. People are excited to be able to interact with farmers, not only supporting the products that they can purchase at the store, but what they can purchase here at the farm as well. So we have that available, and we’re growing some cut flowers this year and have eggs, so that people can stop by and buy things from us here at the farm.
TM: Wow, it sounds like you’re going back to kind of an old-fashioned farm, where there was a lot of diversity. That sounds like a very intelligent thing to do. I’ve read that with the amount of change that we’re seeing in the climate, with extremes, that farmers are probably wise to go back to a little bit more diversity.
RB: Oh, I was just going to say, I agree with that. And we’re fortunate to live in a state, in Vermont, where diversity in farms has been something that’s been a tradition and one that still stands. It’s not uncommon at all to see farms here who have maple sugar operations or who do a little bit of logging, or have smaller enterprises that go alongside the dairy operations, as something that’s just been part of the tradition here.
TM: I guess my final question would be, I have to ask this, and that is: gee, as an organic dairy farmer, as just a farmer who’s a woman, what kind of advice do you have to women who are, and youth, who are thinking about going into farming, from this wonderful experience you’ve had over the last couple decades?
RB: I’m so glad you asked that, because that’s a source of conversation not only in our household but a statewide conversation as well, and I’m sure beyond our state borders. What do you do with kids who are really hard workers and who are really interested in farming, and how do you get them from 18 or 19 years old to a point where they can successfully launch into their own operation? I look at some of the kids who have milked for us over the years, who are wonderful with animals, who have that basic skill set of knowing how to milk cows and take care of that piece. But how do we teach them, not only around milking cows and equipment and taking care of animal health and land and maintaining all those pieces, and learning a business, and learning how to be their own manager, and managing of people—all those diverse skills that we know it takes for people to run their own farm. And so that’s the source of conversation now, is how do we get kids from 18 and 19 through school with the information that they need, the book learning that they need, and then connect them with farmers who could be mentors and who can work with them until they’re ready to launch onto their own farms.
So for anyone thinking of farming, I would definitely encourage it. We need farmers, and we need people who are passionate about farming. And just continuing to find people who will work with you, who will help you get the information and the skills that you need. And I know that when we were starting, anybody who’s a hard worker and who’s doggedly going after their goals, you will find people right behind you are willing to help.
TM: Well, one thing that we always say is that the kids that are raised on farms definitely have some of the best work ethics that we’ve ever seen. And I so appreciate you saying that we need more farmers. And I know that Regina can say this, but I’ll say it too, and that is farming is a wonderful, meaningful occupation, and one that deserves just as much praise as a doctor, a lawyer, or any professional. Feeding people is a lovely and beautiful thing to do.
RB: I would agree. Farmers are some of the smartest people I know. And at times, it’s hard work being a farmer, but there’s times when you look up and you see something going on around you in nature, or you have chances to be with your children, or somebody stops by for a visit and you can sit and visit for 30 minutes. There’s a lot of pieces of the life that we lead, too, that are quite lovely. So it’s a balance of very hard work and really lovely things sometimes in unexpected forms.
TM: Regina, thank you so much for talking today. I could talk with you for another hour, I’m sure. And I look forward to when we see each other again and we can continue the conversation.
RB: Thanks so much, Theresa, I appreciate it.