By Sharon Lakey
Twenty-five-year-old Casey Carson leaned forward in the chair, his eyes lit with determination. “I don’t consider it a risk. I went into this with the attitude that it is going to work.”
Striking out on his own as a dairy farmer in tough economic times is daring in anyone’s book. It is also a hopeful sign that dreams still flourish in an industry that has been in decline in our state for a long time now. Presently, only nine Danville farms are shipping milk; the Carson Family Farm, the newest, began shipping to Horizon Organic in March.
Dreams take a lot of work and support from many corners to become a reality. For Casey, the idea generated from a love of place. Many Danville residents may remember him from his youth; he and his brothers, Brett and Asa, were those handsome boys driving a pair of young oxen in Danville Fair parades. The Carson land lies between the villages of Danville and North Danville. Beautiful rolling acres spread out on both sides of the road, and the stately Kittredge Hills stand guard in the distance.
Grandparents Leonard and Helena lived just down the road from Partridge Lane where the boys grew up under the watchful eye of Janet, their mother. Though they never milked, they raised beef, and the whole family got together in summers to do the haying. This effort kept 114 acres of Carson land free of forest.
After graduating from Danville High School in 2002, Casey found work milking at two local dairies: the Webster farm in Danville and the Kempton farm in Peacham. In the fall, he entered Vermont Technical College to study dairy, but it was always a “hands-on” education that compelled Casey. He sought and landed a job at Sprague’s Dairy Farm in Brookfield, VT, an operation milking 400 head, three times a day. “I was spending a lot more time out there than in class,” Casey admits. He quickly decided college wasn’t for him.
In the back of his mind was a burning question, one that was put to him by two older mentors when he was hiring out as a milker. Don Moore of Peacham and Matthew Lindstrom of Molly’s Pond asked him, “What are your long term plans? Where are you going from here?”
Hoping to answer that question, he decided to try his hand at milking on his own. He rented a farm in 2005 from Melvin Churchill in Cabot. Finding the barn too small, he looked for a larger space and moved his cows to an empty barn owned by Betty and Albert Ackerman, where he milked through the winter of 2007. But when the Ackerman grandchildren decided they wanted to milk, he was out of a barn and ended up selling his herd to them.
Without a barn, what was he to do? “My Grandfather and Mom were very supportive,” says Casey, and the thought of placing a new barn on Carson land took hold. When he expressed self-doubt, he remembers his mom’s reflective words, “Money worries everyone.” Fellow Danville dairyman, Everett McReynold’s encouraged him as well, and Casey came up with a plan. The Vermont Economic Development Authority (VEDA) thought the plan sound and family support worthy, because they offered him loans to build the barn and start operations. “They’re working with me,” said Casey, who will begin to pay back the loan this fall.
Those driving the road between North Danville and Danville last summer saw the dream-barn emerge, stick by stick. With added muscle from Jesse Kittredge, Geoff Pelletier and Ryan Ward, who helped set the posts and carrying beam, the big barn gradually appeared. It’s located in the field just behind his boyhood home, set at an artistic angle to the road and painted red. The free stall design was chosen for the convenience of a one-person milking operation. “I think it’s better for the cows, too,” said Casey, “because they can walk around.” The design also allows for lots of airflow, keeping the barn fresh during Vermont’s long winters.
Leonard got to see the barn, but didn’t get to see it in action. “It really hurt me when he died; he was a big support for me,” said Casey of his death in early January. In spirit he is there, though, in the form of a portrait hanging in the tank room and his red tractor sitting beside the barn along with Casey’s yellow Caterpillar Challenger. The skid steer, used to clean the barn, is yet to arrive.
Casey decided to go organic because of the size of his farm and a higher price for the product. He likes the management style that comes with organic, too, because the cows must be able to pasture. To accommodate their range, he will work to clear more of the pastures that have grown up. Grain is purchased from Morrison Custom Feeds in Barnet, who handle organic feeds in the area. “I trust them,” he says. Fieldwork is hired out to Matt Gilman of Wheelock.
His favorite cows are a cross between Holstein and Jersey. “Holstein for the production and Jersey for the milk quality,” said Casey. He purchased young cows that had never been milked this spring from John and Beverly Rutter, who were downsizing their herd. The bank considers a cow viable for three to four years, but “they can go longer if organic, because you aren’t pushing production so hard,” said Casey. For the next few years, he plans to milk around 60, but his eventual goal is to milk 80, a figure he feels is economically sound and matches the size of his barn and acreage.
Though there is no set schedule, a typical day for Casey might go like this:
5:00: up for morning milking (1 ½ hour job)
7:30-8:00 feed the cows
Break: never set, but sometime between 8:00 and 9:00
Fencing and odd jobs
More work around the farm
4:30: get ready to milk
5:00: evening milking
7:00 to 7:30: finished
On the day of this interview, Casey was hard at work with a very important partner—two-year-old Taylor, his daughter. It was the evening milking time, 4:30 in the afternoon on a cold April day. “She loves the barn,” said Casey, and it was apparent from everything she did. The child was in perpetual motion. First, she used her little pink shovel, then loaded a bucket for feeding the calf, then practiced using the cups for the milking apparatus, then moved a few cow piles from one place to another with a hoe in the unused side of the milk parlor. Finally, she asked her dad if she could lie down, and he escorted her into the front room where there was a couch for Taylor’s well-deserved nap.
“It only takes about an hour and a half to milk now,” said Casey, moving easily from one cow to the next in the milking parlor. Perhaps all those hours working the oxen as a kid helped, because everything went smoothly for the young cows. Two were confused when entering the parlor, but in short order Casey was able to talk them through it without raising his voice. “I used to yell a lot, but yelling doesn’t really get you anywhere,” he said.
What kind of person does it take to dairy? “It’s hard to tell,” said Casey. “You have to like to work, especially outside. You never know what’s going to happen, and there’s always something to do. It takes the right kind of person to want to dairy.”
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This article was first published in June issue of The North Star Monthly.