Written by Laura Hardie, New England Dairy Promotion Board
Karie Thompson Atherton, 35, is the seventh generation to grow up on her family’s dairy farm in Berkshire, Vermont and always knew she wanted to continue the tradition of dairy farming.
“There's definitely easier ways to make a living, but none as fulfilling," Atherton said.
Aires Hill Farm is nestled in the rolling hills of Northern Vermont, a majestic mountainous backdrop looks over the 500 acres of farmland that touches the Canadian border to the north. Atherton says she feels a deep sense of responsibility to maintain the land that her ancestors worked before her. That’s why it was so important to her to ensure the farm transitioned ownership smoothly.
"It's hard to bring up the conversation of transitioning the farm but the younger generation needs to know where they’re headed and it's important to have a plan," Atherton said.
When Atherton’s father, Orlyn Thompson, and Uncle, Bryan Thompson, began operations on the farm in 1972 they had 27 Holstein cows on 166 acres. Atherton has worked alongside them her whole life. When it was time for her to take the reins, the team of three were milking 180 cows, six times as many as when the Thompson brothers started.
"You've got to be respectful of what the older generation has accomplished,” Atherton said. “They always knew I was interested and we had talked about it together over time, and so transitioning the farm ended up going smoother than I thought. At the end of the day you work together for the same greater good – to keep the farm moving."
The successful transition of dairy farms to the next generation helps achieve two important goals in Vermont’s Farm to Plate food system plan. First, to ensure dairy farms are a viable and long-term part of the local economy in Vermont. Second, to preserve the agricultural landscape in Vermont so that a new generation of farmers can access land and continue to provide a sustainable source of local food.
Atherton officially took over the day-to-day operations of her family farm in August of 2014 – a date she won’t forget because she was eight months pregnant with her daughter. Today, her father and uncle continue to help out with the crops, mechanical repairs, and are available in a pinch, but she knew she needed more help with the daily chores.
“I’ve had to step back to be more of a manager, and assign other people the work that we used to do. That’s been a hard change," Atherton said. “For this to work seven days a week, I need to be a teacher instead of me saying I can just do it."
The farm now has a team of six employees, most local and a few from Mexico.
“They're part of our family now and we're a part of their family,” Atherton said. “We enjoy working with them and I couldn't do it without them.”
Atherton is happy to be open about the practices on her farm. She says that many farmers aren’t accustomed to sharing how they do business, and that's why she feels the public isn't as informed as they could be about how dairy products are made.
“People want to know where their food comes from,” Atherton said, “by being more vocal, telling our stories and being more transparent people gain trust in dairy. Because of that dairy is being re-introduced as a good thing, especially the protein and natural sugar aspect.”
The farm now has a Facebook page that Atherton manages, with her most recent posts about a calf that she has been tracking since the day it was born. Atherton was worried about possible misperceptions, but says so far people have been positive.
Other changes on the farm are around new water quality regulations that will impact most farms in Vermont.
“We need farms to stay in business because we need to feed people, as the population grows it's important to support farmers through these changes,” Atherton said.
Atherton says the farm has implemented several environmentally friendly practices, like planting cover crops after the corn has been harvested in the fall to keep the soil from eroding.
“It’s a win-win situation for everyone. It helps the farmers because it keeps the nutrients in the soil for the next time we plant corn in the spring, and it helps water quality,” Atherton said.
As Atherton looks to the future, consumer education and managing her farm’s environmental impact will be at the top of her list, but most importantly she’s proud to continue her family’s legacy and be a role model for her daughter as she raises her on the farm.
"I used to carry my daughter on my back until she got too heavy, now we have the playpen, a swing and the changing table down at the barn,” Atherton said. “She's 16 months old and she's never been sick, she started going to the barn with me when she was four days old."
For resources on farm transition planning visit the University of Vermont’s Family Farm Succession webpage or email or call Bob Parsons, UVM Extension agricultural economist (802)-656-2109.