It takes grit to build a farm business from the ground up.
After seven years of moving their cows to various leased properties while renting equipment, Chet and Renee Baker of Albany, Vermont, realized their dream of buying their own farm property in 2019.
“We started from zero. It took us a year to get the loan to buy the place. We were two young people with zero equity other than the cattle,” Renee said.
Hillside Homestead, their 65-cow dairy farm, ships milk to Dairy Farmers of America (DFA). The farm began with 24 calves given to Renee as a bonus in 2012 when she worked as a calf manager at Conant’s Riverside Farms in Richmond. It’s also where she met Chet, and they bonded over their love of farming.
“I couldn’t imagine a better way to live my life,” Renee, who grew up on a dairy farm, said. Yet, the husband-and-wife team are barely hanging on. The farm is often paid below the cost of production due to a national oversupply of milk.
“We are holding on to our pants. It’s milk check to milk check for us,” Baker said.
At the end of 2022, the Bakers received approximately $17.50 for every hundred pounds of milk (cwt.) they shipped to DFA, well below their cost of production of $26.13 cwt.
Grant Supports Opportunity for Better Pay
Hillside Homestead is about 20 minutes from The Cellars at Jasper Hill Farm, a world-renowned maker of artisan cheeses.
As Jasper Hill’s business has grown, so has the demand for Vermont-sourced milk for cheeses made from raw and pasteurized milk. Jasper Hill operates a pasteurized-milk creamery at the Vermont Food Venture Center in Hardwick and a raw milk creamery at Jasper Hill Creamery in Greensboro.
In 2021, the Bakers began shipping about a quarter of their milk to the creamery at the Food Venture Center. This allowed them to receive up to $30 cwt. for pasteurized milk, as designated by Jasper Hill.
The Bakers can become even more profitable if they provide raw milk to Jasper Hill. Though Renee says the cost to make milk for raw milk cheese is higher, in the $30 cwt. range, Jasper Hill will take that into account and pay them an even more premium price.
“It will allow us to market our milk at a price significantly higher than anyone else we can ship to,” Renee said.
In the raw milk model, farmers can only feed cows dry hay rather than fermented feed. In addition, the farm must eliminate risks of listeria contamination. One common source of contamination is sawdust, used for bedding for cows.
“Listeria grows anywhere it is damp,” Renee said. “That means dry sawdust is crucial, and we have no place to store sawdust right now. If it rains, we cover it with a tarp, so we are always taking the risk of contaminating it. Until we can get the sawdust under cover, we don’t have the option of doing raw milk for Jasper Hill.”
To support their shift to producing milk for raw milk cheese, the Bakers received a $70,000 grant from the Working Lands Enterprise Initiative (WLEI) in 2022 to build a storage shed for their sawdust and dry hay.
“Without a grant like this, we would have no options,” Renee said.
The Bakers plan to complete the 40-foot by 80-foot building in early 2023. Jasper Hill plans to increase milk purchases from the Bakers, up to an estimated 75 percent of production in 2023.
A Pilot Farm for the Transition to Raw Milk for Cheese Production
Jasper Hill Creamery recently completed a major creamery expansion and will ramp up raw milk cheese production in the coming years. Founder Mateo Kehler estimates they will need to take on seven new partner farms by 2031 to meet the demand for Jasper Hill’s artisan cheese. The Bakers will be one of the first to shift from pasteurized-milk cheese to raw-milk cheese production.
“We see ourselves as building a model for rural economic survival in an age of globalization,” Kehler said in support of the Hillside Homestead infrastructure expansion. “To do so, we’re building a value-added supply chain from the ground up. Hillside Homestead is a test case for bringing new farms on board and for showing that this partnership can benefit us both.”
Elizabeth Sipple of WLEI says the potential for a ripple effect to other Vermont dairy farms is one reason WLEI chose Hillside Homestead to receive the grant for their new storage facility.
“We hope this project will help other farms realize new possibilities for entering into the value-added raw-milk cheese market,” Sipple said.
A Shift in Production for a Better Quality of Life
Like many dairy farmers, Chet and Renee don’t have any full-time employees. Their only time off is Sunday evenings when they have someone to do their evening milking. When they shift to producing more raw milk for cheese, they say they’ll be able to hire a full-time employee.
“We would love to have an employee so that we could have a day off,” Rene said. “It will improve our quality of life as far as being able to enjoy some hobbies. For me, this is my hobby. But we like doing other things which we haven’t done in years.”
With an employee on board, the Bakers say it will also allow them to focus on growing and improving their business.
“Right now, we are stuck, trying to get through the tough times. We would like to expand the farmstand more, and we don’t have the manpower,” Chet said.
The Baker’s roadside stand includes eggs, milk, and beef from a nearby farm. They hope to add sweet corn, grow their own beef, and make ice cream.
“Our next step is to build a new milkhouse facility. The new milkhouse facility will have a small creamery so we can make our own product to add value, with whatever milk Jasper Hill doesn’t take,” Chet said.
Renee says that further diversifying their farm is a way to ensure food is always made locally in the Northeast Kingdom.
“If we’re here, no matter what, whether there is a pandemic and the grocery store shuts down, there is always food that we can provide. People know where it’s coming from and can feel good about what they buy,” Renee said.