Lisa chides me every year about this time. I spend part of many days walking around the perimeter of the pastures and hay fields picking up fallen sticks. No, I don’t know any other farmer who does this, but somehow it seems important. Most of the fields are surrounded by mature maple and ash trees. Each tall, majestic tree seems to have an endless supply of dead branches to shed. The farm is also high up (1400’) and open to the ever-howling west wind.
I have this strange sense that fields should grow grass, not sticks. The branches get in the way of the tractor, end up incorporated in hay bales and puncturing the plastic wrap, are underfoot and an eyesore. So, I take the time before the grass grows too high to remove them from the fields. After all, just because I cannot see something doesn’t mean it's not there! After several years now, there are little mounds of branches and limbs scattered around the edges of the fields. They make perfect habitats for smaller animals. Almost like Hobbit houses.
I’ve finished picking up the sticks from this past winter, but will continue to check throughout the summer season. New-fallen branches also cause no end of problems with the electric fence. Our biggest cow breakout happened a few years ago when a giant limb smashed the wire fence into the ground. Naturally, this happened to be the paddock where the cow were. We eventually found them in the neighbor’s vegetable garden. They were quite happy; the owner was not. Whoops! So we run stick patrol often.
As you may know, dairy is a precarious business. The number of dairies in the country has been trending down for decades. Vermont lost another 19 dairies in January alone. We now have less than 600 commercial dairies in the state. This includes conventional and organic. (Although the VT Agency of Ag proudly touts that we still have the same number of dairy cows! Think about that for a moment....)
Even value-add dairies have taken a serious hit with COVID. There are about 45 cheesemakers in Vermont. This is a hefty number for such a small state, but we’ve recently lost four local cheesemakers (that I know of). The folks at Blythdale Cheese are retiring. Diane and her husband at Landaff Creamery (in NH) have also retired. (Her father, Dr. Erb, was our vet growing up). Janine Putnam and her husband at Thistle Hill Farm in Pomfret, who have been making their famous Tarentaise cheese for many years have ceased production and sold the cows. “We just can't make any money without a solid cheese and organic milk market here in VT,” Janine told me. “Cheese sales have crashed without restaurants and smaller gourmet shops.” She was also shipping excess milk to Horizon, but this national organic processor keeps paying farmers less and less for their milk while now forcing them to pay for trucking. And Spring Brook down in Reading just let go all their cheesemakers. Oy!
Randy Robar, co-owner of Kiss the Cow Farm