Photographs by Jenny Nelson
Text by Ellen Sabina
in many ways, dairy farms are a cornerstone of Maine’s farming community. Dairy farmers steward large tracts of farmland for feed and forage, while supporting the equipment retailers, feed stores, large animal vets, and other agricultural services that all Maine farms rely upon. Yet, while there are indicators that farming in Maine is growing, Maine’s commercial dairy industry has not seen the same kind of growth. The number of midsized dairy farms has steadily decreased over the past few decades, as has the number of acres of farmland managed by dairy farms, due to the high cost of production, infrastructure, and the volatility of the milk market. The average age of Maine’s dairy farmers is 54, and within the next decade, many will be reaching retirement age. At the same time, very few young farmers are choosing to go into dairy farming, deterred by the unpredictable price of milk and the high start-up costs inherent in the land base and infrastructure needed to establish a successful dairy farm. Without young dairy farmers, what will happen to all of the land currently in dairy, and to the infrastructure and communities that Maine’s dairy farms support?
The few young farmers who are bucking the trend and have decided either to become first-generation dairy farmers or to continue their family’s farm have a vital role to play in ensuring that dairy farms remain a foundational piece of Maine’s farm and food system. These are some of those farmers.
Caitlin Frame, Andy Smith, with son Linus, first-generation dairy farmers
For Caitlin and Andy, producing good food “is extremely gratifying work. It’s amazing to think of all the people who are nourished by what we produce on our farm. All that milk, meat, yogurt—that incredibly rich, nourishing animal protein—starts with just sun, soil, grass, and water, and we get to be part of stewarding it.”
Caitlin and Andy feel fortunate to be able to pursue their dairy farming dreams. The support
of organizations like Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association and Maine Farmland Trust helped them access education, and eventually, a farm of their own. When they think about the future dairy farms in Maine, their hope is that “small and midsize dairy farms can become profitable again…we’re counting on it. And we’re counting on organizations like MFT to make the large land base necessary for such operations accessible.”
Brad Santy, second-generation dairy farmer
When he looks ahead to the future of his farm, Brad Santy is hopeful. He feels good about the decision to be an organic dairy farmer, and thinks that will help put the farm in a better position for his kids, who he hopes will want to take over someday. “It’s tough to start a farm with such huge overhead involved—land, infrastructure, equipment, and a herd,” said Brad. “It’s incredibly hard to start small, too, with one tractor and 10 cows. I don’t really know anyone who started a dairy farm from scratch without taking on an
enormous amount of debt.”
Taking over an established family farm may be a bit easier than starting from scratch, but dairy farming will always be challenging. Equipment is expensive, milk prices go up and down, and access to enough land for pasture and feed is often a concern. And yet, if you love dairy farming as much as Brad Santy does, the decision to take on those challenges is an easy one. As Brad’s tattoo reads: “Farm on.”
Austin and Walter Fletcher, fifth and fourth-generation dairy farmers, respectively
Though Austin Fletcher grew up on his family’s dairy farm, he wasn’t always sure farming was what he wanted to do for a living. “There was a time in high school when I definitely wanted nothing to do with it,” he said. “I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t think I wanted to do it.” But after leaving Maine and working other jobs and on other farms, Austin felt the pull back to his roots.
At 33, he’s happy to be back in Pittsfield, working alongside his dad, and preparing to continue the
family business. The plan is for Austin to take over the farm gradually as Walter transitions away from farming full-time. “There is a personal satisfaction,” said Walter, “a sense of accomplishment, when your children look at what you have done and see some- thing worthwhile. And when one of them says, ‘I see what you’ve done and I would like to be a part of it, to build on it and carry it forward,’ it is the greatest com- pliment that I could receive. It makes me very proud.”
bo lait farm
Conor and Alexis Macdonald, first-generation dairy farmers
While neither Conor nor Alexis grew up on dairy farms, they both “really love cows and love working with large animals, so we wanted to start a business doing just that,” said Alexis. “So many of our friends and family tell us they never would have thought we’d have become dairy farmers, but it seems to embody so many of the things that are important to us: animals, nature, hard work, community. It can be exhausting and maddening and frustrating at times, but it’s also empowering and rewarding.”
While their decision to become dairy farmers was relatively easy,
being dairy farmers is anything but. Without a background in dairy farming, their learning curve has been steep, and making it work is a constant challenge. “There’s so much to know when you’re running a farm. You’re a vet, plumb- er, carpenter, accountant, manager, electrician, mechanic … the list goes on. Most dairy farmers we know still claim to have only learned the tip of the
iceberg, even with decades of experience under their belts. It’s no exaggeration to say we learn something new every day, whether we want to or not.”