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Molly Brook Farm Converts from Conventional to Organic Production
January 22, 2017

Seven generations, one hundred Jersey Cattle, and 565 acres (including 250 of open land). Add in a dedicated husband and wife team and you have the rich history of Molly Brook Farm in Cabot, Vermont.

Myles and Rhonda Goodrich own and operate the farm, named after the meandering Molly Brook that makes its way through Cabot. The picturesque farm has been in the family since 1835 and the Goodrich family was one of the original founders of the Cabot Creamery Cooperative in 1919.

Myles and Rhonda recently teamed up with their local USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office for assistance with a transition from conventional to organic dairying. The transition will include a change from livestock confinement to grazing, which required converting 53-acres of crop fields to hay and pasture.

Rhonda says they first learned about NRCS at a University of Vermont workshop where they met Kevin Kaija, the NRCS Grazing Land Specialist for Vermont. They told him about their plans to switch from corn to pasture and to go organic.  “Kevin told us about the assistance available from NRCS to help us make this transition,” she explained. “We were not aware of the programs and services of NRCS, and that’s what led us to Bruce Howlett,” she added. Bruce is the NRCS Soil Conservationist who has worked with the Goodrich family to help provide them with financial and technical assistance through NRCS’ Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).

Three years ago, Rhonda and Myles purchased the farm from Myles’ aging parents. “The transfer to the next generation allowed us to rethink the management of the farm,” says Rhonda. Their goal was to increase efficiency, remain committed to sustainability, and ensure that they could continue to make a living from the farm. “We had lots of people telling us that the odds were against us because of the low milk prices,” they explained.  “But we continued to plug along and we have made lots of progress,” says Rhonda. Since they purchased the farm, milk production has gone up, reproductive numbers are improving, and they have extra animals to sell. They credit their success to good management, adoption of new and improved technology, perseverance, and a team of resource professionals to help them along the way.

“The Goodrich’s are embarking on a major effort to convert their crop fields to hay and pasture, and to make the switch to certified organic production,” explains Howlett. The farm includes a large crop field, conspicuous from heavily travelled US Route 2 that has been strip-cropped based on an earlier NRCS design. The new view will feature a lush green pasture which will soon be rotationally grazed once vegetation is fully established. “This conservation plan will help Molly Brook Farm switch their farm management from conventional to organic, and also enhance the conservation value of the land by enhancing soil and water quality,” explained Howlett. He also emphasized that the plan is not about repairing a problem, or focusing on one issue, like erosion. “This is a management plan for the whole farm.”

The EQIP conservation plan included planting their corn fields (April-May 2016) with a mix of forage grasses and clovers. They planted hay fields with a different blend under an annual rye nurse crop. The seed mixes were chosen for high quality forage, high productivity and longevity.  To seed the forages, they used a no-till planter from the White River Natural Resources Conservation District (NRCD).  This equipment allowed them to plant all of their crop fields in the narrow window of time available during the spring planting season, and greatly reduced their costs compared with tilling the fields. One of the motivations to stop crop production and convert to pasture is because of the challenge of growing corn at a high elevation. “We are at 1,400 feet (in northern Vermont), so it’s not easy to grow corn,” explains Rhonda.

In addition to converting the corn to grass and pasture, the EQIP plan included installing high-tensile fence to facilitate rotational grazing and to exclude animals from waterways. A customized plan for their rotational grazing system was also created. A pasture watering system will include moveable water troughs, a pipeline, and a new pump to lift water to the elevated field. The dairy cows will move to new grass twice a day through the intensively managed system. And, the three year transition plan enables the Goodrich’s to have time to learn, plan, explore, and research.

Howlett outlined the three essential elements that must be achieved in the Goodrich’s organic transition plan. “They must maintain a good system of preventative medicine since organic-approved treatment options are limited,” he explained. “They must also effectively manage their intensive grazing system, and finally, produce an adequate quality and quantity of feed without fertilizer.” He said that the conversion to organic pasture from corn doesn’t mean more labor. “It’s a different type of labor.” The animals will be moved from field to field which helps prevent overgrazing and can also help reduce the carbon footprint, reduce soil compaction, and improve soil health while also protecting water quality. He also said that you can cut in half the amount of forage you have to store because the cows can feed off the pasture in the warmer months. The conversion to pasture also eliminates the dependency on large and expensive machinery.

Molly Brook Farm is internationally known for their outstanding Jersey Cattle. In fact, the offspring of their cows are so desirable for their quality and quantity of milk, they have been sold as far away as South Africa, Denmark, and Australia.  The Goodrich’s have 100 cows housed in a hoop barn with free stalls that enable them to roam freely. Soon, once the forage plantings are fully established, the cows will graze the newly converted pastures.

In 1998, they installed a walk-through milking parlor which can handle fifty cows an hour. In addition to milking one hundred cows twice a day, they also manage heifers and calves. “Farming is seven days a week,” said Rhonda. While they have some reliable part-time, seasonal assistance, they do most of the work themselves. When asked about taking time off, both of them laughed when Rhonda recalled, “We took the night of our wedding off, and that’s it!” That was twelve years ago. The couple met as a result of their daughters attending school together. Rhonda had no previous farm experience but learned the ropes after she met Myles. With a background in business, her expertise in management and budgeting is essential to the success of the operation.

The Goodrich’s say they have an excellent team to consult as they move to organic production and establish pasture.  And, they are doing their homework. “We called three other milk producers when we started thinking about this transition and we thought about the future of the farm, our grandchildren, and what we wanted,” said Myles.  They said upon meeting Bruce, he was “immediately enthusiastic about our goal, and recognized the importance of keeping the farm viable.” They said his technical knowledge and assistance is very valuable. They also worked closely with Sarah Flack, an Organic Dairy and Livestock Technical Advisor with Vermont’s Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA). “We spent a lot of time doing land base herd assessment, forage production, and making sure there was sufficient pasture to meet organic standards,” she explained. “It’s important to match the right number of cows to the land base.” As a result, the Goodrich’s will reduce the size of their herd to balance management objectives. Sarah believes that the family will be successful with their management plan because of their cattle genetics and good forage quality. “We put together a really great resource team through the NOFA dairy assistance program,” she said.

That team also included Mike Thresher from Morrison’s Custom Feeds and Kyle Thygesen with Stoneyfield Organic. The Goodrich’s say they helped make their goals look real and achievable. “All of these individuals are true professionals, and well respected, and are helping us believe that we can make this work,” they said.

While the Goodrich’s are still early in their organic transition, they are already pleased with their decision. They love what they do, and it shows. The couple names each of their cows, and pays careful attention to their health and condition. They take great pride in the family’s long tradition for excellence and are committed to protecting and improving the resources on their farm. Learn more about Molly Brook Farm and the Goodrich family at mollybrookfarm.com

By: Amy Overstreet, VT NRCS Public Information Officer
Source: USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service-Vermont


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