Small farms

Dairy farmer Judy Gifford tends her small herd of Jersey cows at St. Brigid’s Farm in Kent County, Md. 

Jam the cow has decided she feels like getting milked. A handsome Jersey, a breed prized for its high-quality milk, easy calving and all-around smarts, she strolls into a spotless room, about 10 feet by 15 feet.

Here, at Judy Gifford’s dairy farm in Kennedyville, MD, gone are the days of the traditional milking barn with cows in rows, laboriously hooked up by the farmer to milking machinery.

The metallic arm of the Lely Astronaut robotic milker glides beneath Jam, washing and air drying her udder as an array of lasers and sensors align “intelligent” suctions to her 4 teats. The robot extracts milk in a manner most comfortable to Jam, sensing her flow. Simultaneously, it delivers to a trough below her muzzle a ration customized for each cow.

Payback for the $100,000 investment in the Lely Astronaut will be about 10 years (reduced energy, higher milk quality and production), Judy estimates.

But payback wasn’t the real issue for Judy and husband, veterinarian Bob Fry. Two decades of traditional milking had eroded Judy’s shoulders to the point she wasn’t going to be able to continue their little dairy, 60 cows grazing on about 60 acres of pasture.

“Small is beautiful” is an environmental dictum, but staying profitable while remaining small in farming is tough. Judy’s last day off? “I remember it well … June of 2019.”

Judy and Bob’s place, called St. Brigid’s Farm, is what you’d wish for the future of agriculture, which covers approximately 25% of the land in the Chesapeake region and is the Bay’s largest source of water pollution.

Their permanent pasture, rippling with a green sheen of springtime growth in the April breeze and morning sun, uses far less fertilizer and retains soil, nutrients and water far better than the grain fields that were here 25 years ago.

Spongelike soil like theirs can sequester larger amounts of carbon, significantly reduce runoff that leads to flooding and reduce damage from droughts by replenishing groundwater.

All of this is becoming more critical as climate change ushers in an era of more intense wet and dry periods, says a 2017 survey of emerging agricultural research by the Union of Concerned Scientists: “Turning Soils into Sponges.”

As with everything to do with farming, doing it well is more complicated than most of us can appreciate. When I was growing up in the 1950s, it seemed idyllic to see dairy cows lounging all day down by the streams.

At St. Brigid’s, Jam and her cohorts are fenced out of waterways to prevent them from eroding the banks and polluting the water. And they are kept on the move, constantly, much as wild grazers have always done out of fear of predators.

Rotational grazing, it’s called, involves moving Judy’s dairy herd daily from pasture to pasture, using flexible fencing, and it’s a big part of her job. It promotes healthier pastures, healthier cows and a healthier Chesapeake.

And that’s just the quantifiable end of places like St. Brigid’s. There is a pent-up demand among young Americans to reconnect with the land through small, sustainable agriculture, say groups like Future Harvest and the Pennsylvania Association of Sustainable Agriculture.

That’s hard in modern agriculture, where a just a tiny percent of the population feeds all of us. Judy’s farm was a typical size for Kent County in the 1990s. Now it’s at the “low end of small,” she said.

So much of our agricultural research and government subsidies, like insurance against crop damage, are better designed to benefit big farms. The answer may not be to put an end to that so much as extend it to people who are willing to farm sustainably on the smaller acreage they can afford to buy.

Judy says of the trend to larger dairy farms: “I don’t know if you give up anything tangible like water quality. But there’s more to the ecology of farming than that. The economic system rewards simplicity and uniformity. It doesn’t reward hedgerows and beaver dams, and being creative.”

It also doesn’t reward the “Field to Fork” dinners that St. Brigid’s hosted for many years, community gatherings that raised thousands of dollars for local schools and fire departments.

St. Brigid’s also sells steaks and roasts and chops from the male cows that often have little value for dairy operations. St. Brigid’s has worked with local chefs and direct delivery to consumers to make meat a profit center.

Meat, especially red meat, has gotten a bad name in the environmental community and even more so among consumers worried about health, the impact of cows on climate change, and pollution from manure. But meat is about a quarter of St. Brigid’s income — and critical to survival.

The real issue may be one of scale. Eating red meat in moderation is not going to harm most peoples’ health, nor is there undue environmental impact from incorporating small numbers of animals into a farm. Conversely, industrial-scale meat production and a burger-a-day habit have real downsides.

St. Brigid’s is meeting Judy’s 3 goals: environmental sustainability, economic sustainability and being a community asset. But is it sustainable beyond the ownership of Judy and Bob, ages 64 and 69 respectively?

“[The land will] stay in farming, we’ve made sure of that,” she said, “but we think we’re the end generation … our kids, and probably our grandkids, don’t want the lifestyle.”

One might hope someone else would want it. But could they afford to buy St. Brigid’s? That might depend on how much they could make from a small, great-for-the-Bay, great-for-Kent-County, great-for-the-planet operation.

And that’s what really needs to change: How much we’re willing to pay for food raised in such ways and how much we’re able to redefine agriculture in broader terms than just food production —or, for that matter, just water quality.

Tom Horton, a Bay Journal columnist, has written many articles and books about the Chesapeake Bay. He currently teaches writing and environmental topics at Salisbury University. o

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