I’m headed to Mapleton (outside of Presque Isle) this weekend,
June 28-29, for Farm Fest at Maple Meadow Farms – two days of agriculture, nature, music, artisans and some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. The Maine Dairy Promotion Board has also organized the Farm Fest 5K Milk Run for Sunday morning at 8 a.m. Walkers welcome.
Don’t miss the farm family favorite recipe for Salmon Stew at the end!
Were Buddha a North American dairy farmer searching for Nirvana, he probably would have settled on a plot like that of Chase’s Organic Dairy Farm atop Creasey Ridge Road in Mapleton. Green rolling pastures with 360 degree views of the surrounding hills and mountains like Mars Hill to the southeast,Quoggy-Jo Mountain in Aroostook State Park, and Squapan and Haystack mountains to the southwest. The herd of mostly red and white Holsteins seems to approve of their surroundings, as does farmer Vaughn Chase.
I visited Vaughn and his wife Laura recently and they took me up on the hill to meet their highly photogenic herd. Apparently it was nap time and several were stretched out, enjoying the brief window of dry weather.
“It’s a pretty perfect set up for a dairy farm,” said Vaughn, looking out across the 533 acres on either side of the road visible from the high point of his land. As is always the case with farming, everything is weather-dependent, but cows are generally on pasture May-November, rotating from parcel to parcel of lush green grass. The Chases cut just one crop of hay and baleage from their land each summer to cover the remaining 5-6 months.
The Chases have nearly 100 head of cattle, with 50 to 65 being milked at any time. The remainder is calves, young stock or cows being dried off (Chase Farm cows have about a two month vacation from milking).
Each spring, the cows are turned out to pasture, which is divided into nine paddocks that they graze for 12 to 24 hours before moving on to the next paddock, giving each parcel a 6-7 day rest to rejuvenate. During that rest, the paddock will be mowed to keep down weeds and promote clover, and dragged to evenly spread the manure for a fertilizer. In June, haying commences, and by the time that is done and grass has started coming back, the cows are moved to the hay fields. Come October, the cows will be back on their original pasture.
“It’s a whole cycle,” Vaughn says.
The Chases installed 3,100 feet of underground pipe running to the paddocks so that cows could have access to watering tubs, meaning they don’t have to make the long trek back to the barn when they are thirsty, meaning they drink more water and have time to eat more grass, meaning they make more milk.
“I think it’s a healthy lifestyle for them,” Vaughn says.
As the Chases explained the day to day operations and ongoing projects of their farms,
they would stop now and then to point out a gregarious cow who had wondered up in hopes of getting a scratch on the chin or a pat on the neck. Like many of Maine’s dairy farmers, the Chases consider their cows family and they know each one’s history and that of her daughters and her mother and grandmother.
Vaughn’s family has always been involved in farming, going back four or five generations, and his father started farming the plot where the dairy farm is in 1935. He was shipping milk by ’55, and the Chase’s current cow barn was built in 1967, at which time the family was milking 35 cows. Vaughn’s brother, who is 20 years older, took over in 1975. And Vaughn bought the farm from his brother in 1999. The farm has been certified organic since 2006, but the transition was relatively easy because the Chase’s had used mostly organic methods for years and did not spread any prohibitive substances on their hay fields. They did have to find an organic grain supplier, and the record keeping is extensive. A picture has to be taken of each cow, and her history has to be detailed. If for medical reasons, the Chases ever had to treat a cow with a non-organic substance, that cow could never be returned to organic status, and they could not use her milk.
“I wanted to go organic in 2004, but there wasn’t a market,” Vaughn said. That changed quickly, and in 2005, a national milk processor recruited the Chases as an organic producer. They made the transition over the next year and sold their milk organically for a few years. But then the economy crashed, and the processor changed its mind about buying milk from some farms they had recruited.
“I hated to give up on organic,” Vaughn said.
So, the Chases and several other dairy farms in the same boat came together to create Maine’s Own Organic Milk (MOOMilk) which has been in production since 2010, and Vaughn is on the board of directors. Starting a new company is never easy as more money is usually going out than coming in. But MOOMilk farmers are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
“You can make a living if you have a market,” Vaughn said. They have found that market in retail grocery stores, including Whole Foods and Hannaford in Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut.
A recent $3 million investment will also help in marketing costs and product development. MOOMilk is currently only sold in half gallon containers, and the company would like to offer a variety of sizes. It is also working on a chocolate milk formulation. They are looking at adding more dairy products down the road.
“Things should be more stable for MOOMilk, and for us now,” Laura said.
MOOMilk started with eight farms, picked up two more, and then when things were at their worst, they were down to just four. But one farm came back and new farms have joined as the brand has grown, so they are now at 12 farms.
Each lactating cow on the Chases’ farm produces 6-7 gallons of milk per day. A milk truck picks up their milk every two and a half days, and in addition to going into MOOMilk, it is also used by an organic cheese maker, an organic ice cream maker in New York, and a yogurt company in New Hampshire.
All the cows but 17 black and white Holsteins, four Jerseys and two brown Swiss are red and white Holsteins on the Chases’ farm.
“I’ve always loved red and white cattle,” Vaughn said. “Ever since I was a little kid.”
His father’s herd was black and white Holsteins, but there were a few red and white carriers. Laura said Jerseys were added to the herd 15 to 20 years ago to bring up the butterfat of the farm’s milk, but they are letting those numbers fall off. The Brown Swiss are there because the couple’s daughter wanted to show the breed at the fairs in the summer. But the breed was a little cost prohibitive.
“I told her I can’t afford to buy you a Brown Swiss, but I can make you one,” said Vaughn, who does all the artificial insemination on the farm. A heifer calf would need to be 7/8 Brown Swiss (or three generations) to be considered purebred, so he bred one of his cows to a Brown Swiss bull and carried on from there.
The Chases have four children. Their oldest son Lewis works full time on the farm; daughter April has an off the farm day job but helps with the Sunday morning chores; Brooke is a sophomore in high school but works for them after school and on weekends; and their youngest son is 9-year-old Cole who also helps whichever parent he’s with, in the barn and around the farm. The Chases also employ their nephew, Hunter, full time on the farm.
“It would be really hard to run a farm without family,” Vaughn said.