Down on the College Farm

Norwich — Coming from a long line of dairy farmers, Quinn Nelson has been around cows all his life. But this fall, the Vermont Technical College student picked up some new knowledge.

[View the article originally published in the Valley News.]

“My people skills are greater,” said Nelson, who was among the first group of students to spend a resident semester at VTC’s Norwich Farm, a private-public partnership on Turnpike Road.

Nelson, a Derby, Vt., native who now has a hand in managing one of his family’s smaller farms, finds himself addressing issues as they arise, he said. “I’m more comfortable explaining what needs to be done and why, and letting (workers) know they're useful and doing a good job.”

The college’s 10-acre property boasts two independently operated businesses — a dairy farm and a shiny new creamery, and three residential buildings. It’s set up so students can be immersed in dairy farm life and get an up-close look at effective management practices.

Norwich resident Andy Sigler donated the property and surrounding acreage to VTC in the spring of 2015, and a few months later the college sold 352 acres to Upper Valley Land Trust for $300,000. The conserved land, located between Turnpike and Beaver Meadow roads, is mostly forested, but also includes about 70 acres of open land. It’s open for recreational use and can be used by the college for farming and teaching.

“Our goal always was that the farmland … should be secured so it can be used for agriculture and education,” and that the forest and trails would be available to be integrated with the land the college retained, as a whole block of property, said Jeannie McIntyre, the land trust’s president. “It’s a great benefit to the community and the region.”

The sale enabled VTC to make Americans with Disabilities Act upgrades to the onsite dorm, which can house up to 12 students. The college bought the dairy processing equipment with a federal grant and spent $70,000 to fit up the creamery in an existing building.

While some details are still being worked out, this fall was “probably a good stepping stone for our future semesters there,” said Kimberly Crowe, a veterinarian and VTC professor who oversees the residential program. “I think everyone is excited.”

Dairy farmers Josh Swift and his wife, Barbara Swift, started leasing from VTC in the summer of 2015, and now have a herd of about 85 cows, including three dozen heifers. Norwich Farm Creamery, run by Chris Gray and his wife, Laura Brown, had a soft opening this fall. The couple sells bottled milk locally and plan to add other products, such as cheese, yogurt and kefir.

“I want to make it one of the best facilities in the state, if not the country,” said Gray, who worked with the college to design the creamery.

Having a fully functioning business partnership in place will be a boon for everyone, said VTC spokeswoman Amanda Chaulk.

Success at the farm is “a virtuous circle,” Chaulk said. After seeing best practices at work there, students “can envision themselves in successful businesses as well.”

The Norwich residential experience is required for students in VTC’s dairy farm management program, and open to those in related majors.

During the semester, students take all of their classes on site. They’re assigned milking shifts and other chores, take turns managing the barn, help in the creamery, and travel to nearby farms to look at dairy farming practices and offer feedback to the farmers. Over several months, they see the daily triumphs and struggles of farming, struggles made even more pronounced with the recent slump in milk prices.

In order to concentrate solely on the farm, Josh Swift, 28, sold the land care business he’d started in high school. It meant working the same long hours for less pay, but it’s worth it, he said. “It’s been a total chance of a lifetime for our family. … You can’t step out and buy a dairy farm.”

A Norwich native, Swift’s connection to the property dates back to childhood, when his father managed the barn there, under a different owner. Last month, he noted a gloomy similarity to that time.

Milk prices are $17.10 for 100 pounds, slightly less than his dad was getting in 1981, said Swift, who also worked on the farm years back. “This spring, we saw $13 for 100.”

With prices like that, “you have to improvise to the best of your knowledge, without affecting the health of the cows,” he said. Nonetheless, after paying for feed and other necessities, he finds himself in the hole at the end of the month.

To stay afloat, he trains and sells oxen. And he’s had help along the way. Local farmers have let him take cows and pay for them later. His father works alongside him on the farm, and the college lined him up with a financial adviser.

Upper Valley Land Trust has “been great to work with,” giving him free range to run the fields as he wants, he said. The cows, all named, are primarily grassfed in the warmer months.

And the interdependence of the creamery and dairy farm is expected to pay off, too.

The creamery currently bottles milk from six of the cows, about 100 gallons a week, which is sold at local businesses, Norwich Farmers Market, and a self-serve store at the farm, Gray said.

Eventually it will use all of the milk, which flows from the barn to the creamery via a sloped pipe. In such an arrangement, the price isn’t set by the milk board in Chicago, said Gray who, with Brown, was previously a partner in a West Pawlet, Vt., farm that produces award-winning cheese. And that’s part of their plan for sustainability.

“Our mission is to ... feed people, maintain the working landscape, train future dairy farmers and creamery business owners, and, hopefully, to employ people,” he said.

Diversifying to include value-added products, such as cheese, is another way to insulate against volatile milk prices, said Crowe, who sees onsite creameries and stores as the future of dairy farming, especially in Vermont. Unlike some places, the Green Mountain State “is very ‘buy local, eat local.’ ”

As a public facility, visitors can walk through Norwich Farm and see what the cows are eating, how they are taken care of, said Crowe, who also chairs VTC’s Agriculture Department. With growing interest in local food and food safety, “people are willing to pay a premium for that knowledge.”

The college encourages community involvement on the farm, which Swift considers a plus.

You might find five little kids standing there looking at cows, “but that’s what we love,” he said, before issuing an open invitation. “If someone in town wants to learn about milking, meet me here at 4 a.m.”

The farm has been used for coursework by local middle schoolers and by a Dartmouth College class, and it’s also home to continuing education courses offered by VTC, including cheese and yogurt making classes scheduled for spring. Other projects in the works include summer courses for high school or gap-year students, and possibly programs for agricultural students at other colleges.

New as it is, the residential program, with its intensive, concentrated coursework, may have already had an impact. The six students who lived at the farm did “rather well” at this year’s Northeast Regional Dairy Challenge, compared with students who competed in previous years, and were well represented on the first-, second-, and third-place teams, Crowe said.

The intercollegiate event asks students to apply what they’ve learned in class to a real-life situation; evaluating a farm, milk quality, disease management, forages, and financials, and making recommendations to the farmer.

The Swifts said they enjoyed the inaugural semester.

The VTC students are “a great group,” Barbara Swift said. “We got really close with them.”

As they worked, Josh Swift often asked the students how they would do various tasks and was willing to try their suggestions.

“We all have different ways of farming,” he said. “They can teach us as much as we can learn off them.”

Looking back on the semester, Nelson said he learned a lot about business relationships, planning ahead and veterinary medicine. No matter how experienced farmers are, he said, “we all learn every day.”