The milking barn at Caldwell Family Farm in Turner burned two months ago on Sunday, Sept. 29, but the Caldwells are still amazed each day how the surrounding community, agricultural community and area businesses continue to lend a helping hand – from cleanup crew to people cooking meals for the cleanup crew, to other farms housing the cattle or showing up with a truck and trailer to transport them or donating extra equipment and supplies to replace what was lost in the fire.
“Everyone has been very supportive – extremely supportive,” owner Ralph Caldwell said.
Everyone’s first concern, of course, was for the cows. There were 80 cows that had to be moved out of harm’s way, and no one – animal nor human – was hurt. Neighbors, as well as a young couple who happened to be driving by at the time of the fire, stepped up to help. Family and fellow organic dairy farmers Greg and Gloria Varney of Nezinscot Farm, also volunteered by offering to house and help milk the dairy cows. “They stepped right forward,” said Caldwell, who added that his mother was a Varney. “The fire started at 2 p.m., and we were milking at their place by 6 p.m. Neighbors came with their trailers and hauled the cows down there. Afternoon milking was an hour and a half late.”
The Varneys were accommodating but the cows had to be moved again after another farm was found to house them because things were so crowded at Nezinscot with the extra animals. Jeff Harris of New Sharon had a barn, the space and milking facilities, but his milking operation was not up and running. The Caldwell cows will have a winter home there. Beyond that, Caldwell is not sure what will happen. He said he is still working with the insurance company, and the cost of a new milk parlor will also be a determining factor. The Caldwells’ 13,000 square foot barn that included the milking parlor and milk room, were a total loss, along with $200,000 or more of equipment. If the family does rebuild, it will be on land in Leeds.
Caldwell has been at the farm on North Parish Road since he was 6 months old. He is now 70. By 1999, the family was milking more than 200 cows three times a day. “It just went on forever, “ Caldwell said. They converted to an organic dairy that year and cut back their herd numbers and switched to a schedule of milking twice a day.
“We were already 85 percent organic anyway,” he said. “It was an easy change, and we believed in the concept. It was an opportune time to go from a big dairy to a modest size one and go organic. A lot of our land was already certifiable as organic, and for the land that wasn’t certifiable yet, we brought in non-organic beef to feed on that.”
They now offer both organic and natural beef. His daughter Deedee is in charge of the beef operation and delivers product to 60-70 health food stores. The Caldwells sell about 4,000 pounds of beef each week. The farm even has its own butchering facilities.
At the time of the fire, a son and father team – Ron and Caleb Harris (no relation to Jeff Harris) from Michigan and Kentucky – were on their way to Maine to take over management of the dairy herd, so that the Caldwell family could focus more on the beef end. Caldwell told them to keep coming and they would figure out something. Ron and Caleb are now at the Harris farm in New Sharon. Jeff Harris even had an empty house where Caleb and his wife Tonja, along with their children ages 7 months and 2 years, could live. Caleb’s parents owned a dairy farm when he was growing up in Michigan but sold the farm when they separated. Caleb went to work in construction, but four years ago he decided he wanted to return to the life of a dairy farmer.
“It’s what I was born and raised with,” he said. “It’s always been what I wanted to do.”
He originally worked for others, and started looking for his own operation. “Initially, I was looking to go anywhere that there was someone who would help me get started,” he said. “Ralph was willing to go above and beyond anyone else. That’s what brought me here.”
Caleb was understandably worried when he got the call about the fire. “I was concerned. I didn’t know how it would work out or what we would do. Up to this point it has worked out as well as it could have considering all the circumstances.”
Despite the stresses of a fire and moving multiple times to unfamiliar surroundings, Caleb said the dairy herd is doing exceptionally well. “They’ve done great. The cows are actually doing better production-wise, and their health is really good.”