by cynthia graber
The first in a series about aging farmers, land and access for farming’s next generation.
The Carter and Stevens Farm undulates over 1,000 acres in Barre, Massachusetts, about a 45-minute drive from Worcester. Molly Stevens DuBois, 28, gestures out at the green hills. There are no cows there now, as they’ve been moved to a pasture a short drive away.
“We’re the largest pasture-based dairy farm in Massachusetts, so our cows are out on grass, where they should be,” she says proudly. This land has hosted cattle for hundreds of years. When the Carter family—Molly’s great-grandparents—purchased the original tract in 1938, they were only the second family to work this land. The first, the Allens, set cows to pasture in 1749. Clayton Allen farmed the land in the 1880s, and he inscribed the details of his days in reams of small, leatherbound diaries that were handed down in his family, eventually passed on to Molly’s grandmother, Audrey. Molly marvels at how the stories in the diary reflect her life.
“You can read about how he’s doing something like spreading manure on the front flat fields, and I’d think, ‘I did that yesterday!’ It’s the same land, the same jobs,” she describes. “Maybe they were using a horse-drawn manure spreader, and I have a tractor, but it feels very connected to the past.”
Audrey Carter moved onto the farm with her parents when she was a child. As a young adult, she met Daniel (Dan) Stevens when she overheard him boasting about how many cows he’d milked that day. She tossed out that she’d milked even more. They married, transforming the Carter Farm into the Carter and Stevens Farm. Their son, Phil, has been working with Dan and running the farm for decades, with help from his wife, Erin, and their four children. The farm holds about 200 cows; they spend most of the year meandering around the rocky hills. The family sells hay for horses, and they offer their meat, vegetables, ice cream and other local products at the farm store. Dan, now nearly 80, still helps out.
But like many farms across the state, the viability of the farm has been far from assured in recent years. Phil suffered a debilitating fall from a barn roof about a decade ago. The price of milk is volatile, often low, and farms that primarily sell milk to the wholesale market cannot set their own prices. So from year to year, it’s unclear whether the farm will even make a profit.
Farming families struggle in the face of a number of challenges, including the climate, the economy and competition from cheap food produced by huge monoculture enterprises or concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) that can confine thousands of animals. And farmers across the United States are facing another, perhaps equally insidious, challenge: their age. The average age of farmers nationally was 57, according to the 2007 census. Phil himself is 52. All these aging farmers must confront the question of what will become of their farms. But in this sense, at least, Phil is fortunate. Two of his four children, Molly and Will, along with Molly’s husband, Sean DuBois, have taken the reins. e farm will remain in the family.
A few years ago, Phil was ready to call an end to dairy farming. He was discouraged by the challenges in the dairy market, and the difficulty making ends meet. He suggested that they scale back and forgo the cows.
“I was, like, ‘This is my life, I don’t want it to end!’” said Molly. “I didn’t think we’d be a real farm without the cows. We wouldn’t be ourselves, and my kids [Maple, 3, and Rye, 1] wouldn’t have the same life growing up. And where would we get the milk to sell at the store? How would we make our ice cream?”
Molly, Will and Sean didn’t just dig in to their position; instead, they surged ahead with new plans for the farm. They worked with Phil to design a modern, airy new milking barn, made of salvaged wood and equipment they reclaimed from a now-defunct dairy in Pennsylvania, and a spacious loafing barn for cows waiting to be milked. The new system will allow them to be significantly more efficient, milking all their cows in an hour, down from nearly three hours in the old barn. The cows will spend less time waiting, more time nosing around in the grass.
The farm needed this modernization to move ahead, but the new installations would cost close to $750,000. The farm couldn’t survive with that kind of debt. So Molly searched out state and federal grants for small farmers.
Faced with not only the interest of his children but their enthusiasm and plans for the future, Phil caved. “I’m not sure it was a good decision,” he admits. “It’s scary the way the dairy industry is going, with these huge factory farms. Can we compete down the road?”
In order to sell more milk at their own prices, the family constructed a farm store seven years ago from a 1730s house that they deconstructed in nearby Phillipston and rebuilt on their property. They began stocking it with produce from the farm, grass-fed meat from their steers and other mostly local and organic offerings. They asked a friend to make a variety of ice-cream flavors with their milk, which have become a major draw. The store, though, only sells the equivalent of what can be produced by about two cows, not nearly as much as they’d hoped. The family still must sell the rest on the wholesale market.
Then, three years ago, they decided to start an evening barbecue on Friday and Saturday nights in July and August. Phil designed a cooking contraption, a combination open-pit wood-fired stove and pizzaoven-turned-smoker, which he built with Sean. Up to 200 people from the community file in every weekend evening and sprawl across the picnic tables for a taste of their home-grown hot dogs, hamburgers, ribs and chicken, with the requisite sides of the farm’s vegetables and a finale of a creamy dessert. This has become quite a community event. There’s even a small petting zoo nearby for families with small children. After the barbecue season ends, in the fall, they offer acres of pumpkins and haunted hayrides.
All these projects—the farm store, the barbecue, the new milking and loafing barns—have flourished due to the enthusiasm of the family’s fourth generation. If none of Phil’s children had wanted to take over? “I’d be a millionaire,” he cracks.
Half the land is protected through a state program that designates it farmland in perpetuity. Theoretically this leaves a potential 500 acres for sale. Still, Phil is thrilled that the land is remaining in the family. “My grandfather could have become a millionaire, my father, I could have. But then what would Rye and Maple have?”
The surge of energy provided by the Carter and Stevens Farm’s younger generation is mirrored across the state in families whose children, like the Stevenses, are claiming responsibility for the farming operations. At Volante Farms, siblings Dave, Teri and Steve, now in their 20s, have come together to take over the operations of the vegetable, fruit and flower farm from their parents. The family has been farming for nearly 100 years, first in Newton (the land there is no longer farmland) and at this Needham location for almost 50 years. Dave, 29, manages the fields, as Teri, 26, runs the retail store and works in the greenhouses. Steve, 23, who graduated college in 2010, focuses on irrigation, and has taken over the baby greens. This year he was also in charge of the plans for their newest crop: asparagus.
The siblings have overseen the building of a significantly larger farm store, which will provide basement storage and will allow them to remain open year-round. And they’ve spearheaded a 14,400-foot hightech greenhouse, with eco features that include a variety of water-saving and energy-efficient technologies, much of which was supported by grants from the state and federal governments. The greenhouses provide the space for growing the farm’s brilliantly colored flowers, along with baby greens that fly off the store’s shelves. The fields at this location and their other farms in Needham supply the vegetables for their farm store, a community favorite.
“We’re lucky that we’re a functional family,” says Dave. “It’s worked really well so far. And for a family farm, that’s probably the biggest challenge.” Teri agrees: “We’re pretty grateful to our parents for that, too. They never forced us to work on the farm. It was more ‘You’ll work on the farm until you go to college, and then you’ll make up your own mind.’ They showed us how to work hard, that’s for sure, and the importance of family.”
And at Jordan Farm, another Central Massachusetts dairy farm, son Randy Jordan has taken over the business. The farm recently worked with Casella Waste Management to open an anaerobic digester, which will turn food waste and cow manure into methane gas that can then be burned to generate electricity. This is the first such facility in Massachusetts and can provide power for about 300 homes a year.
Farming is becoming an increasingly attractive option to a younger generation. Scott Soares, Massachusetts Commissioner of Agriculture, says his office has seen a rise in interest from younger would-be farmers around the state. And between the 2003 and the 2007 censuses, unlike in years past, there was an increase in income generated from farming, and almost no decrease in farmland.
Still, the stories of these individual farms don’t paint the whole picture. The Stevens family has plenty of anecdotal tales of farms where the kids were not interested in taking over, and so their parents sold the land. Phil remembers all the farms that used to exist decades ago in nearby towns. “There’s only one farm in that area now, Jordan Farm,” he says. “They’re all gone. There were dozens of them. And that’s just in my lifetime.”
And as the family chats over a lunch of barbecue leftovers, one member of the family that owns Diemand Farm in Wendell drops by. Her farm’s eggs are sold here. There are 12 siblings among her parents’ generation, and they and their children are debating what to do with the farmland. It’s not clear that a member of the family will take ownership. Molly, Will and Sean know that they face a challenging path. They’d like to have more control over the price they can earn for a gallon of milk, and to do so they need to attract more people to the store. The barbecues and ice cream help them diversify their income and build community in Barre, but it’s not enough. The investment in the new facilities should make them more modern and efficient, yet they know they’re taking a risk in an uncertain economy.
Two of the Stevens siblings decided to work in fields unrelated to farming. Molly and Will don’t resent their brother’s and sister’s choices, but they—and their significant others—see no other option other than to continue farming. They don’t want to be the generation that ends the centuries-old tradition of milking cows. They want to raise their children with both the freedom and responsibility they had growing up. There’s simply nothing they’d rather be doing.
As Molly talks, she notices customers coming into the store. “Oh, they wanted ice cream!” she exclaims. She gets back to work.
Next issue: What happens to the land when farmers don’t have a younger generation to take over?
Cynthia Graber covers agriculture and science, among other topics, for a variety of magazines and public radio shows. Contact her at www.cynthiagraber. com.