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“There’s maybe three people in Washington who understand how milk pricing is derived at the farm level, and they don’t agree with one another!”   
- Peter Orr, from the Oral History of Dairy Farming at Fort Hill Farms

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- by E.A. Zimmerman

In exchange for work, an eighth grader was offered a cow in lieu of pay.  And so began a dairy farm.  Today, that calf’s bloodline still courses through a herd of about 430 cows at Fort Hill Farms, owned by the Orr family in Thompson. 

Milking at Mapleleaf Farms.  Courtesy Historic New England
Milking Parlor at Fairvue Farms. Photo by Bet Zimmerman

Farmers, Cows, and the Land Exhibition at Roseland Cottage
To find out more about the rich history of dairy farming in Connecticut, visit a special exhibition at Roseland Cottage in Woodstock.  It starts on June 19, 2010  at 1 p.m. with a one hour tour of Fairvue Farms on 199 Route 171, followed by an opening reception from  2-4 p.m. at Roseland Cottage on 556 Route 169.   The exhibit includes oral histories, historical and contemporary photographs.  It will be at Roseland Cottage from June 20th to October 15th.  Admission is free!  See it Wednesdays – Sundays, from 11 a.m. – 5 p.m.   For more information call 860.928.4074 or see http://tinyurl.com/2dpf4x9.    

Top photo: Mapleleaf Farm. Bottom photo: Milking parlor at Fairvue Farms, 2002, photo by Bet Zimmerman

Robin Chesmer’s parents tried to convince him to become a dentist.  His dream was to become a farmer.  Today, Robin and his son Lincoln run Graywall Farms.  Their dairy spans 700 picturesque acres in Lebanon. 

Bill Peracchio started out picking vegetables as a lad.  He remembers driving cattle right down Route 44 in Manchester.  Now, his son is a fourth generation farmer.  Together, they run Hytone Farm out in Coventry. 

Paul Miller started dairy farming as a teen.  The land in Woodstock where he and Diane operate Fairvue Farms has been used for farming for over two centuries.    

Despite challenging economic times, a complex and arcane milk pricing system, and development pressure, these progressive family farms have stayed in business.  Others have gone by the wayside.  In the past decade, the number of dairy farms in Connecticut has been cut in half.  Forty have been lost in the past five years alone. 

In an effort to ensure that their stories are not lost too, Historic New England partnered with The Farmer’s Cow. Their project brings together oral histories and photographs of American agriculture during the last century. It will be on exhibit at Roseland Cottage in Woodstock from June 19 – October 15, 2010.

The exhibit highlights aspects of the dairy farming business that have changed over time.  These changes involve everything from mechanization, breeding, cropping techniques and feed, to energy and manure management.  However, even with state-of-the-art technology, farmers like Chesmer know that “you can’t take milk from a cow – she gives it.”  And she only gives it when she’s healthy and happy. 

In 2003, the Chesmer, Miller, Orr and Peracchio families banded together with Mapleleaf Farm in Gilead, and Cushman Farm in North Franklin to form The Farmer’s Cow.  They realized that their milk was disappearing as a faceless commodity into the market.  Now, through their collective and other coops, farmers are connected directly to their products. 

Also, stores are recognizing that customers want locally produced food.  A woman who had read about the Farmer’s Cow brand challenged Stop & Shop to put it on their shelves, and they did.  Today, the Farmer’s Cow products are carried in about 300 different stores.

Milk from The Farmer’s Cow is about as fresh as you can get. For example, a days worth of milk from the Orr and Miller farms fills a trailer that is picked up in the morning, processed and goes out in trucks for delivery that afternoon.  To get it any fresher, you’d have to drink it straight out of “the business end of the cow,” notes Perachio. 

There are other advantages to keeping local farms in business.  One is open space.  About half of farmland in our state is still held by dairy farmers, according to Peter Orr.  Another is cost.  “When a dairy goes, you don’t only lose that farm, but it puts pressure on every other farmer around because the infrastructure goes,” says Miller.  For example, when the Cargill Grain Company recently moved to NY from CT, the cost of shipping grain went from twelve dollars a ton to twenty.  

Another consortium, Very Alive, lobbies for farm-friendly legislation. They are working together to avoid squandering “important resources and landscapes that make our state so special and add to the quality of life of everybody,” says Chesmer.


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Originally published in the Villager newspapers on June 11, 2010


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