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This is another story in our series about young dairy farmers in Maine. In many ways, dairy farms are the cornerstone of Maine’s farming community. Dairy farmers steward large tracts of farmland for feed and forage, while supporting the feed stores, equipment retailers, and large animal vets that all Maine farms rely upon. Of the 400,000 acres of farmland that will be in transition over the course of the next decade, we anticipate that a large percentage of that land is currently in dairy farming. What will happen to that land, and the infrastructure and communities it supports?
While farming in Maine is growing, Maine’s “traditional” dairy industry has not seen the same growth. The younger generation of farmers choosing to go in to dairy farming and sell fluid milk to large processors are few and far between, often deterred by low milk prices and high start-up costs. Those who have bucked the trend and have decided to become either first-generation dairy farmers or to continue their family’s farm, have an important role to play in ensuring that dairy farms remain the foundation of Maine’s farming landscape.
From the outside, it might appear that Annie Watson and Mike Moody of Sheepscot Valley Dairy Farm in Whitefield tried hard to not become dairy farmers. Mike grew up on a dairy farm in Lincolnville, learning the trade from his grandparents, in an area where there were handfuls of dairy farms around. In 2005, he was the last one, and he sold his herd, just a few months after he met Annie. Their first date had involved riding around on his tractor and chopping corn and Annie could see how much he loved this work and lifestyle, but that how exhausted and burnt out he was also, filling in the extra hours with urchin diving and striping lines on parking lots for extra money to keep farming.
He needed a break. Annie and Mike talked about other business ideas and opportunities, but as Annie says, “once a farmer, always a farmer” and six years later, they decided dairy farming really was what they wanted to do, and they wanted to do it together. “We knew it was a lifestyle we both wanted and that it was a great way to raise a family,” said Annie. “In 2012 we got married, and within our first year of marriage, we had connected with a farmer thinking about retirement, and in May of 2013, we purchased our farm in Whitefield. Not bad for newlyweds!” On the day they bought their farm, the retiring farmer milked the cows in the morning, papers were signed that afternoon, then Annie and Mike milked their new herd that evening.
Today, they manage about 250 acres (both owned and leased) for grazing pasture and hay, and milk around 50 cows in a herd of 125, give or take. They are a certified organic dairy and are members of CROPP co-op, which owns Organic Valley.
Mike acknowledges that growing up on a dairy farm definitely makes the learning curve of starting a new operation much less steep, but teaching Annie about running a dairy farm presented unique challenges. As Annie recalled,”it was when he had to teach me to milk and we worked together that the real challenge came. When you’re so used to doing something on your own, it can be difficult to teach someone else. I am someone who really likes to learn new things, and I try my best. For me that involves asking a lot of questions, which at times, drove Mike nuts! But it also made him think a little differently about some things, and I think it ultimately made us both better farmers.”
Those challenges taught the couple how to be better communicators in business, and in life. “Some couples can’t imagine working together, but honestly I can’t imagine not working together- it has strengthened our relationship so much, and we have a great deal of respect for one another.” As their young family grows and changes, Mike says he misses the days when they would both do the milking together, which is now less frequent with kiddos, and Annie’s work as an event planner.
For any family, dairy farming “is a commitment unlike any other…the idea that you have to sacrifice seemingly “normal” things like vacations and free time is scary to many,” said Annie. “We live in an age where the idea of signing a cellphone contract is unimaginable to some. Being there to milk the cows twice a day, every day is a lot to take on.” But it’s been the right choice for their family, and they wouldn’t trade the lifestyle.
Mike echoed the sentiments we’ve heard from the other dairy farmers we’ve talked to around the state: it’s really difficult for young farmers get into dairy farming, either by taking over an existing farm operation, or starting one from scratch. For most retiring dairy farmers, the value of the farm is their retirement, and as much as they would like to be able to, simply can’t afford to hand the farm over to the next generation. At the same time, the cost of starting a dairy farm from scratch, or buying an existing farm is often prohibitive, and younger dairy farmers can’t afford to buy the farm without some substantial capital in hand, and/or without going into debt.
Mike and Annie were fortunate enough to have received a family inheritance, which enabled them to put a down payment on the farm along with saved money from Mike’s time commercial fishing in Alaska and Maine. They were able to owner-finance through the previous owners which is also a huge help. The farm came with the Organic Valley supply chain, so they know they’ll continue to see a return on our investment because of the relationship already established. These days, organic milk prices are on slightly more stable ground. Mike and Annie hope that the work they’re putting into their farm now will enable their business to continue to flourish and grow, and that someday, if their kids want to take over the farm, they will be able to, without taking on debt.
“We are so fortunate to live in a community that really supports agriculture.” Annie says. “We live next door to another dairy farm, also run by a young family, and it has really made all the difference for us. Mike and our neighbor throw ideas back and forth, and it is so nice to have people in our lives who understand what our life is like. We are also surrounded by a community that understands what it’s like to have tractors driving down the road, and sometimes it can stink when we are spreading manure. We don’t often hear any complaints and we are fortunate for that.”