Cows and customers come first at Local Farm
by Elizabeth Fleming,
Board Member of CT NOFA and Raw Milk Lover
© 2005, CT NOFA, from Gleanings, Winter 2005 Vol. 24 #1
Cows are clearly Debra Tyler’s destiny. Growing up in Wisconsin she was surrounded by them. Working on her cousins’ dairy farm in Canterbury, CT for the summer she fell in love with them. While teaching gifted children in North Canaan she dreamed of raising them. That dream has been reality for Debra since 1990 when what was to become Local Farm began with the purchase of Alisa (see photo), a Jersey cow who was still a part of the herd and producing milk as recently as late October until she died a quiet death in early December at the age of 22. Milking Alisa and a friend’s cow, Debra sold raw milk from a refrigerator on the front porch, but the urge to expand the herd required that she find more land, a barn, and a milking “parlor” that could be certified by the Department of Agriculture.
After exploring several options Debra worked out an open-ended lease agreement with weekender Waite Rawls that includes a depreciation schedule that allows her to recoup capital investments as well as an unusual clause wherein both Tyler and Rawls “agree to be nice”. Nice they both have apparently been, for Debra says, “Waite Rawls is the best landlord in the world”. In a beautiful spot overlooking the Mohawk Valley in Cornwall, grass, cows, and people cooperate to produces some of the finest organic milk in the state.
Today Debra’s herd stands at 7 milk cows. In the early days a distributor picked up her glass-bottled raw milk and took it all over the state. When the distributor and then its successor went out of business Debra began to do the deliveries herself. This took its toll on both Debra and her 2-year-old daughter, Margaret, so she abandoned the scheme. Instead, a deeply loyal customer base has enabled Local Farm to sell all of its milk off the farm for the past 7 years.
Working somewhat like a CSA (community supported agriculture) farm, people sign up to get 1-6 half gallon glass bottles of milk per week and pick it up at the farm on designated days. Payment is either in advance or at the time of pick-up. Debra feels strongly about the bond of trust between her and her customers, and having on-farm pickup allows consumers a connection to the farm and its practices that obviates the need for certification. (Although certified through NOFA for a number of years, with the advent of the National Organic Program Local Farm dropped certification in favor of signing the Farmer’s Pledge.) Local Farm’s milk is also carried at New Morning Natural Foods in Woodbury and a few other local stores. The stores pick the milk up at the farm.
With the health benefits of grass-fed milk becoming more and more apparent, Local Farm has shifted from feeding the cows up to 12 pounds of grain per day to using only pasture and hay (the cows still get 1/2 pound of grain at each milking as a treat). This drops milk production in late fall and winter when the pasture becomes less nutrient-dense, but Debra feels that it is better for the health of the cows and the people that drink their milk. As the supply of milk tapers off, she stops selling to stores and raises the price for on-farm pickup. Some customers are no longer willing to pay the extra amount, but some are, so Debra’s income stays steady while she is selling less milk. It may be an unconventional a system, but it works.
Running a dairy farm is a demanding task, and Debra is not without help. Aside from Margaret, now 9, who likes to take a “supervisory” role, the Local Farm crew includes Jeff Butler who works at the farm part-time in addition to being an apprentice with a local potter, and Garrick Dinneen, a sweet-faced 16-year-old sophomore at the Housatonic Valley high school who is active in the school’s Vo-Ag department. When he was 10, Garrick, who lives just down the road from the farm, wrote a letter to Debra that she fondly recalls opened, “Dear Local Farm…”, and he has been working there ever since. Remarkably self-possessed for a teenager, Garrick has clearly been imbued with Debra’s gentle ways with the cows, using intimate touch and quiet murmurings to keep them calm during milking. Debra even speaks of the possibility of Garrick taking over the farm someday.
In the near future, Debra has set her sights on breeding and selling miniature Jerseys as family cows. The breed is actually just a smaller version of the standard Jersey, bred for centuries by small crofters in England. Five- to ten-inches shorter and proportionally smaller than their larger cousins, docile and hearty, they each need less than an acre of pasture, and less if feed is brought in. Mini-Jerseys give 1 to 2 gallons of milk per day, not too much for a milk-loving family. Currently, Local Farm is home to two mini-Jersey bulls, two half-blooded mini-Jersey bull calves, four partial mini-Jersey heifers, and one half-blooded mini-Jersey cow. With her current breeding program, Debra hopes to have family cows ready for sale soon. For Debra, this is the ultimate consumer-cow connection, one she has a deep desire to foster and it’s a wonderful example of how a local, organic food system can work in our community.
Call (860)672-0229 or contact us by email for more information about Local Farm.