Sterling Bridge Dairy

Sterling Bridge Dairy
The "Three Cow" Dairy

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

"You guys do everything the hard way"

We've always lived a thrifty life. I've always believed it to be the key to enjoying life, retiring early and doing the things you want to do most. Whether you garden, keep a cow, repair your own car or ride a bike everywhere you go, someone isn't going to like it.

Take the title of this post, "You guys do everything the hard way," was a comment my sister-in-law made when my wife was starting the grill one day with sticks that had fallen off the oak tree in the yard. By using sticks not only could we skip the charcoal lighter fluid, but the yard got pickup as well. I guess that was the last straw for Tracy. She just didn't understand why I wouldn't spend my money on a bottle of lighter fluid.

Tracy wasn't the only one who struggled to come to terms with Nancy and I. Throughout our 24 years of marriage, we have always looked for ways to save money, and as time has passed not only have we gotten better at it, the comments other make about our thrifty (now called "green") lifestyle have been amusing. Comments such as visiting the Crompton's is like "going to a museum" or "going back to pioneer days."

It is important to point out that during that time of life, we were living in town, with running water, central heat and a refrigerator! It was a windup microwave oven turntable my mother gave us that sparked the "museum" comment.

Since our return to the land, we have found ever more ways to be "radical" as our farmers market manager described us when she found out that the refrigerator had been tossed out the door! The too big to fail bank was shocked when they found out we didn't have a cell phone either.

So, you might be wondering, just what got this all going, after all, everyone has a refrigerator and a cell phone. I'm not sure what got this going, other than being tired of working for lousy managers and giving all my hard earned money away.

Way back in 1985 when Nancy and I were married, we rented an old farm house north of Mazomanie, WI and did our best to do without as much as possible, and that included not having a TV. Horror! My mother just couldn't stand it, so she gave us her old black and white set that she had had since about 1970. We didn't watch it much, except for Star Trek and Siskel and Ebert on Sunday late nights, kind of a nice memory.

Back then you didn't need much by way of electricity, we just had a shallow well, a 1950s refrigerator that cost a buck a month to run, an old freezer, some lights and that old TV. I didn't leave it plugged in so as to save power. In 1985 our light bill was all of about 10 bucks per month, or 2 cents per kilowatt hour. Nice by today's standards.

One of the greatest challenges for small scale farmers (and people who decide to live without a paycheck) is keeping their costs under control. Everything seems to be going up, well in fact it is. With the arrival of a new president in the White House, I began to be more sensitive to issues pertaining to energy. During the summer of 2009, the Cap and Trade bill was before Congress. The "Cap" was for carbon emissions believed responsible for global warming, or climate change (actually, the sun is guilty as all the plants have been warming...) and the "Trade" part dealt with trading carbon credits around between users. Well, that all sounds good and fine but for the small farmer that means electricity rates were going to go up to pay for all that carbon capping. So, that meant we needed to take a hard look at our energy usage to see what changes we could make.

Around this time, I was working with the guy from the state Soil and Water Conservation Office on ways to improve our farm. We had been given a grant for a conservation project and that included the installation of a pump in an unused well on our farm. The govie guy wanted to run power from the house to run an AC pump. I couldn't see the point to it. 25 years ago, electricity was about 2 cent per kilowatt hour, now it was 12.55 cents (January 2010 bill) and I didn't think AC was the way to go. Somehow, I managed to convince him that a DC solar system with a 1,000 gallon cistern to provide water for the farm was the answer.

Then, come October, 2009, I ran across an article on the Organic Consumers Association website called "The End of Electricity." Most of what I had seen on that site dealt with organics and the like. This was new; the end of electricity. This required some looking into as electricity is essential to modern life and running the internet and writing blogs, as well as milking cows and cooling milk.

The gist of the report looked at the condition of the national electrical grid, (poor, worn out, past service life) the absence of money to update it (about $9.22 trillion was needed), and peak oil, as oil is also essential to having electricity. If you have not discovered peak oil, now is the time to do it, so google it. Anyway, the article looked at the possibility of systemic collapse of the grid and the impact that would have.

Having thought about this issue and looking at the electric bill for the house and the barn, I decided to take the next step and rethink the way we do things. While it may be good for the environment, it will also be good for my farming operation. When I realized that things could really change a lot in the next 10 years, I decided that we needed to find more things we could "do the hard way."

Starting with the barn, we decided to go back to the ways people were making cheese 100 years ago. Natural rind cheeses aged in a spring house. That will require smaller cheese molds and construction of a spring house over one of the three springs on this farm. This will save as much as $60 per month during the cheese making season. We also stopped using our electric water heater, using a wood boiler instead saving about $600 per year. The next thing to go is the pipeline milking system to be replace by a small vacuum pump and a bucket milker. That will mean that I have to carry the milk to the cooler to dump it in, but I can't justify a pipeline milking system for four cows and 10 goats.

Back up at the house, we decided that the house water system would be tied into the 1,000 gallon cistern and the AC pump put on stand by. We also got rid of all the CRTs (TV, computers) and went with flat screens. The refrigerator was also tossed out the door, and replaced with coolers stocked with ice from the freezer. It is amazing how much less food you waste when you don't have a refrigerator, as well as the electricity that you don't use.

So, here is my "radical" list and what we will or have replaced it with:
1) Refrigerator : coolers
2) AC pump: DC solar pump and a cistern (we also have a rain water cistern with a hand pump)
3) Automatic washing machine: hand washer with a hand wringer
4) Pipeline milking system: small vacuum pump with bucket milker or hand milking
5) Cheese aging room with refrigeration unit: spring house
6) Electric water heater: wood fired water heater
7) LP Heat: wood heat
8) Electric shop tools: hand tools
9) Chainsaw: Two man crosscut saw
10) Cell phone: land line

Well, that's a start. Some of these things we have changed, some are making the transition, some we hope to do this year such as install a wood burning cook stove in the kitchen. While others may view the things we do as "doing things the hard way," not only has this lifestyle been more sustainable and healthy, it has also been a lot more fun.

Monday, February 8, 2010

I've got a guy with three cows that's making it....

Earl Butz, would have never believed such foolishness. A guy with three cows making a living in dairy farming? Impossible. Yet, that is where we found ourselves after we stopped selling milk to the "Co-op" in June 2008.

Earl Butz was Richard Nixon's Secretary of Agriculture who had become famous for his mantra "Get big or get out!" This was the wave of the future in agriculture 40 years ago. American farmers were going to feed the world and to do that they needed to get larger and larger and produce more and more.

Back in the early 1960s, when there was still a future in farming, farmers could make a living and were still, by and large, producing good quality foods. Farms were still small by today's standards, grew a variety of crops and kept a variety of livestock. They were mostly self-sufficient feeding themselves and their communities. Trucking food 1,500 miles from farm to plate was just beginning. The Midwest was still dotted with small dairies that bottled milk in glass bottles, local butchers that still processed local meat and grocery stores that sold good quality foods.

However, due to high food prices during the late 1960s, the Nixon administration began the campaign to increase food production. Acting President Henry Kissinger would later say that ag policy was too important to be left to the farmers and that the policy makers in Washington knew better.

Butz's solution to increase food production was simple, increase farm lending to increase farm size which in turn increased production, and produce they did. By 1980 food prices had dropped and the grain supply was so great that the USDA started paying people to stop farming. I can remember the summer of 1980, driving across Iowa and Nebraska to endless miles of weedy fields that had gone out of production. Too much corn in storage, corn that needed a purpose, corn that in the next 30 years would find its way into virtually everything on the grocery store shelf.

One thing that most farmers didn't think about in their quest to get larger was that they were borrowing money based on low energy costs and high market prices. In the urban world, it is much easier to take out a 30 year note and expect to remain employed and to make more money as time goes by to pay the loan back, but in farming things change. By 1980, that change was a foot, input costs were up, market prices down.

The 1980s would be the decade of "Farm Aid" as farms across the Midwest went under in droves. Earl Butz's "get big or get out" campaign had made food cheap for suburban Americans but it had also destroyed the rural community in the process. Crime rates soared in rural Iowa as kids finished school to find the John Deere factories in Dubuque or Waterloo were no longer hiring. Many farmers found themselves working two jobs plus operating their farms just trying to stay alive. Many went under and were sold off into larger and larger operations, still unable to make a profit.

Being known as the "three cow dairy" was never my intent, in fact, I was not the one who coined that phrase. It was the result of conversations that my milk inspector had had with too many dairy farmers in SW Virginia during the summer of 2008 when energy prices had hit their highest point in history. Other dairies, that sell their milk to a milk buyer who sells it to a processing plant who ships it hundreds of miles to sell in plastic bottles on store shelfs to people who think milk comes from a factory and not a cow, were not making enough to cover costs and getting bigger just didn't seem to do the trick any longer and probably didn't want to hear that "there was a guy making it on three cows."

Well, that wasn't really true, I did have 12 goats and I had saved a lot of money ahead to get going, but the more important point here is that the tables have finally turned the other way. Gone are the days of large farms dominating the food system. Gone are the days of "get big or get out." The revival of artesian cheese making started in 1985 and a growing demand for local food had taken root and by 2008 was threatening the status quo.

When I was working for the Department of Homeland in-Security, I was asked the question, how do we protect our food system? I said the answer was simple. Increase the number of targets in the target set. The drive for economic efficiency had reduced the number of milk plants and meat packers to a handful nation wide, a perfect target set for a terrorist group. The solution was to return to the 1960s, lots of small producers, a target set impossible to attack. Well, needless to say, my masters didn't want to hear that. Governments are always the last to change, too many vested interests.

If your looking for the culprit, cheap energy is responsible for the food system that exists today, and the end of cheap energy will be its undoing. Americans are beginning to wake up and realize that cheap food produced by cheap energy has not done their health a bit of good. Farmers are also realizing that cheap energy is a thing of the past and if they want to survive they will have to change as well.

There are farms that are making that transition. I know of two dairy farms in the New River Valley that don't look like or act like traditional dairies. When you visit them, you will see little by way of buildings or equipment. These are grazing operations that use little by way of inputs and as a result are making a good living. Areas like Floyd Country, VA are seeing a revival of small scale organic farming and value added production. One no longer needs to be a slave to the system, be owned by the bank for 50 years and stuck in a hopeless spiral of ever increasing costs and ever decreasing profits.

With the passing of cheap energy, you the consumer need to make a reassessment of where your food is coming from. Are you buying from a faceless corporation that only cares about profits or from a local farmer who you can count on being there for you? Are you ready for the day that it is too expensive to truck food around the country that you will no longer be able to afford? Or have you taken the time to secure your food supply and get to know and depend on the "three cow dairy?"

You know, cows have to be milked twice a day....

Starting a dairy is no small task. When we found our property I was less than enthused. Yes, it had a unique house, one bankers and appraisers just can't quite fit into their rectangular idea of suburbia, but for a farm it was lacking any infrastructure typical of dairy farms from my past, being Wisconsin and Iowa. So, first priority was to build a barn, a barn that looked like the ones in Wisconsin because, that's what barns should look like.

There was an area that had been cleared and leveled for a building and after a bit of probing around I managed to find a footer, 2 feet wide, 2 feet thick already in place, so I set about salvaging cement block and built 6 foot walls that would later be back poured with cement to create the foundation on which to build a building. That took about a year to complete including salvaging lots of old oak framing lumber, getting help from a neighbor to erect the frame and getting a floor poured.

By the spring of 2007, my building was complete with a milking parlor for goats, loafing pens and a hay mow that could hold about 1,000 40 lb square bales.
The milk plant was next, built in the spring/summer of 2007. While the building went up fast, it would take a year to get it all set up and the equipment installed and the milk permits issued.

Finding equipment was the next challenge. When I first decided that I wanted to go back to a life I had once sought to live, most people I knew thought I was nuts. (Really, that was no surprise, most people over the years have considered me to be an odd duck anyway, so really what did it matter). E-bay was new to me back in 2001, so I began looking around, found the farm section and in time found all kinds of goodies that began to accumulate around the home. In April 2004, we (wife, son and I) traveled back to WI for a family visit and stopped in Ohio along the way and loaded up an old Surge milking system to use for our dairy. In 2006 we would do the same thing again, to purchase a cheese making plant from a farm in Minnesota that was getting out of the business.

Initially we were going to be a goat farm. 25 acres was more than enough land to graze a lot of goats, and this land was hilly and covered with rose bushes and blackberries. Perfect goat browse! However, it takes a lot of goats to make a living and good goats are hard to come by, so in the interest of getting out of D.C., I decided that we needed to add a bit more, we needed a milk check to help pay the bills. So, we added Jersey cows to the list of things to do and started selling milk after I left D.C.

That certainly did get around. The big dairies started to hear about this nut case who left a six figure job in D.C. to milk cows. How much more insane can you get? The real question was just how much more contrary can you get. One day I was at the vet talking about nutrition and livestock care only to be overheard by one of these big dairy guys who didn't waste any time telling me I was crazy. I asked him two things: 1) if your so miserable why don't you get a job with the Department of State and 2) how much cheese do you make? The first question confused him (personally, I would never work for State, nor would I ever go back to D.C.) and the second made it clear that I am not playing in the money losing game of selling milk. My goal was to be a value added producer as they are the only ones who make money in farming. The rest of them are commodities producers serving the big ag corporations (slaves would be a good term for them).

So, we jumped in feet first and for six months sold milk to the "Co-op" and got going with cheese making. By the end of May 2008 we were selling at two markets, Radford and Blacksburg and got a great reception from our new customers. (We also stopped selling milk not long after, and good thing we did, when fuel hit $4.71 per gallon the bottom dropped out of the milk market and prices went from $22 / 100 lbs to $9 / 100 lbs in the span of about six months.)

As I mentioned in my last post, the world was changing and I, being so caught up in starting a business was missing out on the fun, that is until I noticed the price of energy going up up up.
By July 2008, diesel fuel had hit $4.71 per gallon (here in Willis) and it was hitting farmers hard. We were lucky in that we were not your typical dairy farm and didn't use much diesel fuel. One of the most important things that had happened in my quest to be a farmer is that my wife (Nancy) had bought me two books a year or so before. Both were written by a old farmer in Ohio named Gene Logsdon. The first book, "The Contrary Farmer" caught my wifes eye and she bought it for me. The second book, "All Flesh is Grass" changed forever how I viewed farming.

While my experiences in NE Iowa so many years ago had been good, I realized that I was trying to replicate flat land farming in the Virginia Highlands and it took a while for me to realize that I was NOT going to be a crop farmer. In the end, while I had not initially realized it, the farm I had bought was actually perfect for the type of farming that would actually make a person a living. With "All Flesh is Grass," I realized that the key to a successful farm was to let the animals do the work. Given the sudden rise in fuel prices, it was also clear to me that the world was changing and if I wanted to survive, I had to change too.

The jump in fuel prices really slowed things down around here, and in the country as a whole. Farmers were increasingly in trouble and was clear that the age of cheap energy was over and that we as a society had a choice, either adapt or parish. You think that is a bit harsh? Consider the fact that 17-20% of American energy consumption goes into producing, transporting, processing and distributing food. As much as 10 calories of energy goes into making one calorie of food. It is clear in hind sight that this spike in fuel prices was also responsible for providing a catalyst that brought down the house of cards called our economy in 2009. It was becoming clearer and clearer that I had a lot of challenges ahead of me and that milking cows twice per day would be the least of my worries....

Chronical of a Small Dairy Farm, the Beginning

Welcome to the Sterling Bridge Dairy Farm Blog. The purpose of this blog is to provide insights into and points of discussion on small scale sustainable farming. It will be a journal of sorts, chronicling life on a small farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains including daily activities and insights into the things that impact what we do and why we do it.

Our farm is now two years old, beginning in November 2007 and we are entering our third season as market farmers and cheese makers. It has been quite a ride so far, so, I would like to begin this blog with a brief history of where we came from and how we got going in this most unique business.

Both my wife (Nancy) and I grew up in Wisconsin, she the daughter of an Allis Chalmers draftsmen in Milwaukee and I the son of a City of Madison custodian seem like unlikely people to go into farming. While Nancy grew up in the big city, I had the advantage of having extended family in NE Iowa who operated a very traditional small farm (small by today's standards). This farm operated much as farms did in rural America after WWII with crop rotations, use of manure, no chemical inputs, grazing cattle, sheep and hogs on a nicely cross fenced 76 acre spread of some of the most productive land in the world. This is also where I was first introduced to "Contrary Farming" as my uncle was the most contrary person I ever knew. He didn't care what direction modern agriculture was going, he wasn't going to go with it.

I also realized (while in high school in the late 1970s) that our modern system was vulnerable to failure and that failure could be catastrophic having lived through the oil shocks of 1973. In addition my experiences on that farm in NE Iowa, I was also involved in Boy Scouts and my mother was an avid gardener and junk picker. We grew up knowing how to fix it, grow it, find it or do without it. Anyone who has ever gone on a long distance bike or backpacking trip knows just how little a person can live without. I had also had the good fortune to have seen James Burke's series "Connections" and the "The Trigger Effect" which chronicles how a single overloaded line in the NE sector of the national electrical grid had taken down New York City and most of the northeast in 1965. This left a lasting impression on how I viewed the modern world.

After high school, I attended college and tried to have a career only to find myself very dissatisfied with what was available for work. In 1984, I met Nancy who I would marry in 1985. We decided at the young and foolish age of 23 to become self-sufficient farmers in Wisconsin. We rented an old farm house and had a garden, goats and chickens while I worked in a nearby town. This lasted five years and was a very valuable experience, even though we rarely ever had two nickels to rub together and were never able to develop a self-sustaining business.

As life so often does, we weaved in and out of a number of things, leaving our small farm behind in 1990 to return to college, earn another degree in International Relations and then on to Graduate school in Defense and Strategic Studies (War Studies for short) that led to a career at the Defense Intelligence Agency. Nancy spent that time working and gardening, junk picking and practicing the fine art of living on a shoestring. Over the next seven years, I spent my time working as a Russian Military Industries Analyst writing assessments on the state of Russia's missile and space industry. After seven years, I had finally concluded that the industries that had built the mighty Soviet war machine had in a large part destroyed that empire due to over allocation of resources into military hardware, that does not produce any real economic growth.

Of course, the world was in the process of changing. My masters at the Pentagon had long since concluded that Russia would not rise again any time soon and didn't really care what I was doing. I was filling a billet updating records for the SIOP (Single Integrated Operations Plan) for a war with a country that had collapsed, but someone had to do it, and I was one of those many someones. By January 2001, I was beginning to take stock in my career, realized just how pigeon holed I was and was beginning to become disillusioned. You might think it was the nature of the work, nuclear war and all that got to me. That really was not the case. The issue was very academic and just a job. What bothered me was the way were were treated when it came to management. An endless cycle of soon to retire, or retired USAF officers who didn't understand what we did and didn't care. I was also tired of the commute, the traffic, the noise and all the problems that go with working in a large urban area. Yes, most people who work in a office don't really find the film "Office Space" very funny. It is too close to home.

In August of 2001, my family and I (wife Nancy and Son Elliott) traveled to Chicago for a friends wedding, then on to Madison to visit family and go farm shopping. Yes, back in January I had decided that it was time to change, time to sell the house, leave D.C. and the DIA behind and return to the land.

By 2005, we had visited many pieces of property in several states and had finally decided upon a foreclosed property in Floyd County, VA, 25 acres with a 17 sided Deltec home that had been built in 2000 as a part of a Y2K community that was forming to escape the end of the world. Little did I know that they were right in a way and wrong on the timing. I would not realize that until 2009. Of course, Y2K was the greatest non-event in history and the reason for these people to be here disappeared, some leaving valuable property behind for the banks to sell off. We got one of those properties.

During this time, I had left DIA behind for a new career at the newly formed Department of Homeland Security as an infrastructure analyst, evaluating threats to US infrastructure as that seems much more important than updating SIOP records. Again, I found myself in a position looking at systemic vulnerabilities, specifically in agriculture and electric power. While at the time the concern was deliberate sabotage, I didn't spend a lot of time thinking about how easily the system could collapse on its own. Really, why would one conclude that? Lots of bright people built it and want to keep it running. Yes, it falls apart now and then due to storms or equipment failure, but when it comes to electrical power, the utilities are pretty good at fixing it, so I didn't think much more about it. My goal was to get out of D.C. and enjoy the rest of my life and not worry about the end of the world.

By the end of 2005, we had sold our home in Northern VA, just before things began to slow down, and, as luck would have it, I had been sent on a rotation to the National Counterterrorism Center to supervise s watch team. For those new to government terminology, a watch does just that watches the world and reports significant things to the senior policy makers so they can try to make policy, try being the operative word. The schedule was also compressed so, we worked strings of 12 hour days then got an equal number of days off. This meant, someone was always there, and when I was not there, I was home working on our farm. By 2007, the barn was up and the floor poured and by the end of the year, I was ready to leave D.C. behind, resigning from my position in October 2007, right about the time things on Wall Street were beginning to come unglued.

Perfect timing.....

Next post: getting a farm up and running after a career in the US GOV.