Paying it forward
The secluded county road off Route 111 leads through a wooded landscape punctuated by gently rolling green pastures. It's easy to see how the verdant splendor of this countryside 5 miles from Canada earns the distinction of being part of Vermont's Northeast Kingdom.
A visit to the four-generation Top Notch Holstein Farm near Derby finds Aaron and Chantale Nadeau focused on the hay season's finale and the daily rhythms of dairy farming and family life.
The Nadeaus and their three children — Owen, 11, Madeleine, 9, and Emma, 8 — live .75 mile from the dairy operation on the home farm where Aaron grew up. His parents, Dale and Clara, supplement their retirement by producing 900 gallons of maple syrup from the farm's sugar bush.
They currently milk 145 cows with a total herd of 320. Forage is the major crop on their 650 acres; 300 acres are chopped into haylage and stored in silage bags. “We had four cuttings this year,” Aaron says. “It was excellent quality, thanks to lots of sun and adequate rain.”
The herd is fed a total mixed rations daily and milked in a double-10 parallel parlor attached to a free stall barn built in 2003. The rolling herd average is 23,000 pounds. The Nadeaus use AI and raise their own replacement stock. They contract to buy corn silage.
Heifer calves are weaned at 6 to 8 weeks and pastured at 9 months to 1 year. “We keep the dry cows close by in the old barn; it's our maternity ward,” Chantale says.
Owen, Madeleine, and Emma help clean the barn, feed the heifers and 4-H calves, and tend to their 4-H pigs.
Their milk is shipped to St. Albans Co-op Creamery. The Nadeaus are one of 100 farms accepted into the Caring Dairy program, founded by Vermont-based Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream. One of the Nadeaus' sustainability goals is a conversion to a rotational-grazing pasture system.
“When we moved here, we came from a rotational-grazed herd to a confined herd,” Aaron says. “Converting takes time and money, but we're getting closer.”
Aaron and Chantale met at McGill University in Montreal. She grew up in Toronto, and her nutritional science major was part of the college of agricultural and environmental sciences at McGill.
“I had never met people in agriculture before I went there,” she says.
One of those people was Aaron. “I always planned to farm,” he says. “I remember as a kid I didn't always like the work, but I guess I had something in me to farm.”
Following graduation from McGill in 1994, Aaron spent nine months on a 400-head New Zealand dairy farm, while Chantale earned a master's degree in nutrition and early brain development.
They married in 1996, and Chantale used a work visa and green card until she was granted citizenship. “We married on Canada's Thanksgiving Day,” she says. “It wasn't hard to convince Canadian family and friends to visit Vermont in October.”
During the first nine years, they farmed a stone's throw away across the valley. “It was a good start-up, but we outgrew it,” Aaron says. “It was too close to town, and we rented 10-acre parcels from six landlords. We wanted something permanent.”