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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.”
In 2005, they were looking at a farm located an hour away when the opportunity came up to purchase Aaron's home farm.
“In four months, we went from almost buying a farm an hour away to purchasing the home farm and selling our current farm,” Aaron says. “It was a whirlwind,” Chantale says. “We moved 120 cows and changed schools for the kids.”
A Quick Learner
Chantale works three days a week as a nutritionist at the Newport District of the Vermont Department of Public Health. “Our farm and family are my most important priorities,” she says.
She handles the bookkeeping and is learning QuickBooks, thanks to a joint Vermont Department of Ag and University of Vermont program that provides a consultant to help with the process. “Putting records on the computer saves five hours per week,” she says. “I enter data, but Aaron's strength is financial planning.”
Chantale has made it her goal to improve safety and to reduce worker's comp costs. “The worker's comp paperwork can be daunting,” she says. “But we've had a 10% decrease in rates.”
The Nadeaus participated in the Vermont Farm Safety Pilot Program and were runners-up for the 2009 Governor's Workplace Safety Award. They've recently installed gates around the pit, added metal ramps over the gutters, put in a hanging ladder, and replaced wiring in the barn.
“We supervise our kids,” she says. “But there always are ways to make it safer for them and employees,” she says.
The next step this spring is inviting the fire warden to visit. “There's no cost to completing a farm fire preplan data sheet,” Chantale says. “We need a plan for how we would evacuate the cows.”
The Nadeaus have two employees, Brandon Tanner and Sheena Brown. Sheena grew up on a dairy farm. “We still have our land,” she says. “I miss the cows. I love it here, and I'm learning a lot.”
To Help The Next Generation
Internships, an integral part of McGill University's ag program, play a formative role for beginning farmers. During college, Aaron interned near Quebec. “The family's son was 3 years old when I was there,” he says. “Two years ago, he came to our farm for his internship at McGill. It was great to return the favor.”
Aaron's New Zealand internship following graduation was another valuable experience. “It was interesting to learn their style,” he says.”Working on other dairy farms opens your eyes to new ideas.”
He says that internships gave him a leg up. Now he enjoys being a mentor.
Sheena earned an associate's degree in dairy farm management from Vermont Technical School. “In the future, I'd like to start up my own farm and diversify with beef cattle,” she says. She's considering returning to school for a dairy science degree, or the opportunity to intern at a New Zealand farm.
“The economics of dairy farming are harder now than when we started,” Aaron says. “It's hard to find available land over 100 acres for sale. Someday I'd like to be a banker to the next generation. That would be my retirement.”
Chantale adds, “It's a difficult goal to keep the farm in the family. But it's an honorable profession, and we believe in what we're doing. We hope our kids will be the next ones to keep this dairy tradition alive.”