Betting the Farm

Against the odds, a family dairy is fighting to innovate and grow with the help of a Tufts vet
dairy owner and cows in barn
Erica Hermonot, left, and Cummings School student Anya Price, A12, V16, examine a calf. Fifty years ago, there were 1,600 dairy farms in Connecticut; today there are 120. Photo: Alonso Nichols
July 20, 2016

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One day last fall, Eugene White was standing inside a barn in Woodstock, Connecticut, observing a small group of heifers that would soon give birth to their first calves. White, who leads a Cummings School program that sends large-animal veterinarians on house calls to farms, looked around him, taking in the bright, airy barn. “This is very nice,” he said. “Pretty luxurious, space-wise. How long did it take you to convert this space?”

Erica Hermonot sighed at the memory. Three years ago, she and her husband took over the day-to-day management of the herd at Fairholm Farm, which her family had founded nearly a century earlier, and her days were consumed with the challenges of keeping a small dairy operation afloat. The family was trying to grow Fairholm, because data suggest that getting to 400 or so milking cows gives independent farms an economy of scale that can result in higher profits.

So when a neighbor had showed up to say that he’d finally had enough of the extraordinarily long hours and tight margins of the dairy business, and, like farmers across the country, was going to sell his cows, the family decided on the spot to buy his entire herd.

“We are now also renting his farm, which is about five minutes down the road,” Hermonot told White, the Amelia Peabody Professor of Agricultural Sciences. White was aware that the neighboring farm was shutting down, because he’d been the regular vet there for 19 years. When he asked Hermonot what she was going to do with the property she had rented on the farm, she said she planned to house her weaned calves in two buildings there.

White furrowed his brow at this news. He said he wasn’t sure that was the best strategy.

Hermonot’s face flashed with frustration. She’d known White since she was 12, when he first started working with her family’s farm as part of the Tufts Ambulatory Service. Things could occasionally get testy—especially with the stakes for farmers getting so high over the years. Dairy farming, never an easy life, had become more challenging than ever.

Erica Hermonot with Eugene White of the Tufts Ambulatory Service. Photo: Alonso NicholsSeven years ago, when Hermonot first returned to manage the cattle on the farm that her great-grandparents had founded, milk prices were at an all-time low. Across the country, dairy farms were spending more to produce their milk than they were being paid for it. Granaries were shutting off feed deliveries. Milking herds were being auctioned off for beef. The U.S. Department of Agriculture even started promoting a national suicide hotline to dairy farmers.

Fairholm managed to weather that storm, but many other farms did not. The number of milking cows in Connecticut has been stable for some years, but the number of dairies continues to shrink as the industry consolidates. In 1965 Connecticut had 1,600 dairy farms. Today it has 120. Those that remain must innovate and grow, or, like Hermonot’s neighbor, simply shut down.

Helping the Farms

Tufts has long recognized the struggles that dairy farmers face, both in New England and nationwide. In 1980, the university established its ambulatory service to help address a shortage of food-animal veterinarians by creating a practice based in Woodstock that would travel up to two hours away for farm visits. The idea was to help farmers and also provide the next generation of vets with hands-on experience caring for livestock.

The staff has since quadrupled, and today nine large-animal veterinarians, accompanied by fourth-year Cummings students, make about 4,000 calls each year to farms all over Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Together, the vets tend to more than 35,000 cattle (most of them dairy cows, but some raised for beef), 2,000 horses, 700 sheep, 700 goats, and 800 alpacas and llamas.

White regularly visits about 15 dairies, most of which he’s worked with for nearly 20 years. He travels to each farm once or twice a month to check on the health of the herd and to help keep the milk flowing by confirming which cows are pregnant and which need to be bred. He also acts as another set of eyes for the farmers, looking for potential problems, such as cramped cattle housing, nutritional deficits in the feed, or improper milking technique—and as his exchange with Hermonot demonstrated, he can be blunt about what needs to be improved.

Hermonot’s moment of frustration passed. She acknowledged that White’s concerns about her plan to house calves in the rented barns could be valid. “If it doesn’t work we’ll try something different,” she said.

The Family Business

Erica Hermonot walks through one of her barns with her daughter to check on the herd of Holsteins. Once, Hermonot wanted nothing to do with the dairy industry, but she now says, “I was put on this earth to work with cows, and I’m only here because of the three hard-working generations before me.” Photo: Alonso NicholsFairholm Farm is defined by the kind of pastoral landscapes that attract people to rural Connecticut. The 424-acre farm has fertile land with good drainage. So do the rest of the farms in Woodstock, actually, which helps explain why the town, situated about 50 miles northeast of Hartford, is home to 10 dairies, more than any other town in the state.

Hermonot’s great-grandparents, Ethel and Estella Barrett, bought Fairholm in 1920 for $14,000, a good value for a farm of its size—100 acres back then, with a handful of cows and some equipment. The word “farmer” often evokes the image of a strong, independent man in coveralls, but ever since Fairholm came into Erica Hermonot’s family, the driving force behind the farm has been women.

Estella Barrett was quite a businesswoman, recalled Erica Hermonot’s mother, Diane Morin. “My grandmother was born on a farm across town,” Morin said. “She was a Wellesley graduate, which was pretty amazing in the early 1900s.” Under Estella’s stewardship, the farm produced cottage cheese and yogurt, in addition to milk, to bring in extra money during the Great Depression.

Morin’s father, George, and his two sisters were all born in the original 1812 farmhouse at Fairholm. He was 16 years old when his father passed away in 1941, leaving him alone to help Estella run Fairholm while both his sisters worked off-farm. When Morin came along in 1959, the farm was milking 80 or so cows. By the time she was in her late teens, that number had risen to 120. “We’d be up milking at 5 or 6 in the morning when I was little,” Morin said, “and as the herd grew, that start time got earlier and earlier.”

Morin’s father inherited the farm in the ’60s, and her mother, Cecelia, took over when he developed kidney disease. For a decade, Cecelia performed dialysis on her husband three days a week at the home they had built on the farm, while she continued to milk cows the other four mornings.

In 1988, Morin’s father died at age 62. For a short time, Morin worked the farm alongside her mother, brother and sister, but eventually both her siblings moved on to other areas of agriculture. That, Hermonot said, shaped the trajectory of her mother’s life. “I don’t know if this was what she really wanted to do,” Hermonot said of Morin taking over the farm, “or if she ever had a choice.”

Morin eventually married, and her husband, Todd, at first tried to help out around the farm while also working for the state Department of Transportation. But it wasn’t long before he quit to work at Fairholm full-time. Together the Morins nearly doubled the size of the milking herd they started with, reaching about 200 cows.

Pepper, the farm cat, greets the calves at the Fairholm Dairy. Photo: Alonso NicholsFairholm operated on tight profit margins, however, and that meant that, like small farmers everywhere, the Morins relied primarily on themselves and their children for labor. For Erica, who was the second of four kids, the farming lifestyle was isolating. Just one other girl at her high school lived on a dairy farm, meaning few of her friends understood that special teenage indignity of getting splattered with manure while mucking out the barns each day after school. More than once she was forced to cancel a date in order to cover someone else’s duties on the farm. It was lonely and embarrassing work. “I was very shy, and I just wanted to blend in,” she recalled.

When it came time for Hermonot to leave for college in 2003, she was happy to say goodbye to the family farm for good.

The Veterinarian as Partner

In his 19 years as a veterinarian with the Tufts Ambulatory Service, Eugene White has seen plenty of dairy farmers decide that the industry’s erratic rewards just aren’t worth the nonstop grind.

White grew up in Connecticut with a romantic image of dairy farming: the farmer taking care of the cows and the cows taking care of the farmer. “It’s this perfect closed loop,” he said. “You treat her well, you feed her well, and in return she makes milk.”

So after attending the University of New Hampshire, White decided to become a dairy veterinarian. He graduated from the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine in 1995 and joined the Tufts Ambulatory Service two years later. Fairholm Farm has been in White’s regular rotation since the beginning. It stood out right away. “It was a super well-managed farm,” he recalled. “The things that would strike you about it were the standard of care that they had for the cows, and how they valued each animal individually.”

As anyone familiar with James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small could guess, White has spent plenty of time at Fairholm armpit-deep in cows dealing with pregnancy issues. But in the time since he graduated from veterinary school, technology and information have transformed the dairy farm, much as they have the rest of modern life.

“When I graduated from veterinary school 20 years ago, if I could run a bottle of calcium through a cow to treat milk fever, trim a foot and diagnose a pregnancy, I was really valuable to a dairy,” he said. “But that skill set doesn’t cut it today.”

A farm worker milks cows at the Fairholm Dairy. Photo: Alonso NicholsThese days, White and the other Cummings School vets analyze reams of data on each farm’s milk quality, production volumes, and rates of pregnancy, lameness and infection. They help keep farmers abreast of best practices by explaining how their operations compare with top performers across the country.

“If we can keep farmers up-to-date on new vaccination and breeding programs and the latest technologies,” said White, “they have a chance to at least control what it costs to produce the milk, if not what they receive for it.” In a 2014 analysis for Fairholm, for example, White calculated that if the farm could regularly ensure that 25 out of 100 eligible cows became pregnant, it could realize an extra $134 per animal, or nearly $32,000.

That extra sliver of profit from being a little more efficient at producing milk is what might allow a farmer to spend more time with family by hiring another worker or adding robotic milkers. It could mean being able to build a better barn, transition the farm to the next generation, or just take a vacation for the first time.

Improving the lives of dairy farmers and their cows is what motivates White in his work for Tufts. “Otherwise,” he said, “I couldn’t care less about helping someone make an extra buck.”

Finding Her Calling

In 2003, Erica Hermonot entered Eastern Connecticut State University. Relieved to at last be free from the demands of Fairholm Farm, she began taking psychology courses. It wasn’t long, though, before she started getting the calls from home whenever someone on the farm called out sick and her family needed her to fill in. Eager to put more distance between herself and the farm, Hermonot transferred the following year to the University of Wisconsin at River Falls.

At Wisconsin, Hermonot continued to pursue her psychology degree, but quickly realized that in her haste to remove herself from the family dairy farm, “I had escaped to the dairy state. I should have known.” Before long, she was mixing with the school’s thriving agriculture community. Unlike in high school, when her responsibilities at the dairy set her apart from her classmates, Hermonot was suddenly surrounded by people who’d grown up on farms, and who were eager to get back to them.

“I had never met anybody in Connecticut who had gone through what I had,” she said. She started to rethink farming, and her certainty that it just wasn’t for her. Halfway through her junior year, in 2006, she decided that she would tell her parents that she hoped to someday run Fairholm. The prospect of the conversation filled her with both anticipation and dread, as it wasn’t at all clear what her parents had planned for the farm. The Morins had begun to downsize, selling off 50 cows the year she’d left for college, and they’d begun using some of the land as a shooting preserve for hunters for extra income.

When Hermonot at last called to break the news that she wanted to work the farm, it was her mother who answered the phone. “My mom was pretty quiet and told me I needed to tell dad,” she recalled. “That was a funny conversation, a lot of ‘Ok… Oh… Yup.’ I’m pretty sure I caught them both by surprise.”

“Until that point,” her mother said, “we didn’t know if any of our children would want to continue dairy farming, something we would not push them into. We were filled with mixed emotions: surprise, excitement—and fear of what the future would hold for her.”

Staying Afloat

Just two days after graduating from the University of Wisconsin in 2007, Hermonot returned to work alongside her parents at Fairholm. Things got off to a good start, with the Morins putting a plan in place to slowly transition ownership of the dairy to Hermonot over the next 30 years by giving shares of a small-business corporation that was created after Morin’s father died. It wasn’t long, though, until Hermonot encountered her first serious problem as a professional farmer. In 2009, dairy prices hit an all-time low, and dairy farms across the country were losing as much as $200 every month for each cow they owned.

The dairy farm ships out about 3,300 gallons of milk each day. Photo: Alonso NicholsAt Fairholm, Hermonot and her parents worked to hang onto their business. With little money to pay for extra help, the three of them worked 16-hour days, seven days a week. They’d head out at 4 a.m. to milk cows in the dark, and then finish the day with another round of milking that concluded at 8 p.m.

Hermonot was 24 and “on fire,” White recalled. Her patience ran short and her temper often flared. “The combination of long hours and guilt made for a very difficult year for me personally,” admitted Hermonot. “I struggled with the regret that I had put my parents in a situation that they may have handled much differently if I had not decided to come home.”

Eventually, Fairholm managed to ride out the crisis, even as many dairies in Wisconsin, California and Vermont went under. Besides their own hard work, it was their low overhead that kept them afloat. For decades the farm had gotten by without making extensive capital investments, a frugal approach that allowed them to withstand the dramatic fall in milk prices.

Things, at long last, were looking up. Then another disaster hit. In 2010, a winter storm brought down an empty barn. There was no money to rebuild, so they took on a loan to build a modern replacement structure, one that could comfortably accommodate their plans to grow the milking herd.

Veterinary student Anya Price and Eugene White, who leads a Cummings School program that sends large-animal veterinarians on house calls to farms, conduct an ultrasound at the Fairholm Dairy. Photo: Alonso NicholsAround that time, Hermonot attended an event for young farmers put on by the Connecticut Farm Bureau Association. There, she met Jonathan Hermonot, whose family runs a turkey farm in Sterling, Connecticut, about 20 miles to the south of Woodstock. In 2011 they married, and Jonathan jumped right into life at Fairholm the following year. He underwent trial by fire soon after, when Todd was injured and unable to work for a few months.

The young couple has since taken over day-to-day management of the cattle, while Diane Morin handles the books and Todd Morin oversees the grass and corn crops used to feed the cows. The family has been growing Fairholm’s milking herd—with the recent purchase of their neighbor’s cattle, they now have about 450 cows—and making significant capital improvements.

They have built four new barns in the last five years (and White just reviewed their building plans for another new barn), and they’ve invested $25,000 in high-tech cow collars that let them monitor the animals’ activity remotely to catch their best breeding times.

The hard work and innovation are paying off. Today, the Hermonots and Morins work the farm alongside a staff of six employees (including Erica’s younger sister), and truck about 3,300 gallons of milk each day to Garelick Farms in Franklin, Massachusetts. Last year, the Morins traveled to Key West, Florida, for their first-ever non-working vacation.

Morin said that all of the changes at Fairholm would astound her grandmother, who started the farm nearly 100 years ago. “It blows our minds, too,” Morin said. “Erica is amazing in how she’s changed this place. Her records are impeccable, and she can use a smartphone to pull them up on the spot.”

Whatever Hermonot’s initial trepidation about taking over the farm, White said that she has both the head and the instincts for the dairy business. “Most dairies replace one out of three cows every year because of decreased production, infertility or illness,” he said. “Erica’s culling rate is often below 25 percent. She takes such good care of those cows that her milking herd has enjoyed double-digit internal growth for years, which is well beyond the national average.”

The Future Calls

Holstein calves at the Fairholm Dairy; the calf at center is a red Holstein. Photo: Alonso NicholsOne recent morning, Erica Hermonot and Eugene White circulated through a barn, painstakingly noting the pregnancy status of the 120 new milking cows bought from the neighboring farm. Morin typically watches Hermonot’s two children, but on this day, with rain in the forecast, she was out driving a heavy-duty truck to bring corn into the silo. So 2-year-old Mackenzie followed her mother down the aisle, clipboard in hand, while 10-month-old Alex snacked on crackers in his stroller.

The Hermonots and Morins plan to continue to work toward a business model that will help ensure that the farm will thrive for years to come. “We want to hand off an efficient and profitable business, not a burden, for the next generation to keep going,” said Erica. Still, it’s too early to say whether their kids will someday join the family farm.

“At 20 years old, if I felt the only option I had was here, I would have felt stuck,” Erica said. “I can now see just how much of a privilege it was to decide for myself that this is what I wanted to do, then to be able to actually do it—a job that I care so much about. I want my children to have every opportunity to do whatever makes them happy someday. If it’s this place, that would be amazing. I hope I build a passion for farming in them. But I really think it is a calling.”

Genevieve Rajewski can be reached at genevieve.rajewski@tufts.edu.

This article first appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of Cummings Veterinary Medicine magazine.

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