Sarah and Garin Smith, shown here with their children, Cedar and Reed, own and operate Grassland Farm in Skowhegan. Photo courtesy of Red Door Media.
By Holli Cederholm
Grassland Farm spans roughly 300 acres in Skowhegan, Maine, and as its name implies, more than half the land is open acreage used for rotational grazing and haying to feed Garin and Sarah Smith’s certified organic dairy herd. The Smiths purchased the farm – which also includes 120 acres of woods and a 14-acre homestead site with a farmhouse and tie-stall stanchion barn – from Sarah’s father, Robie Leavitt.
Sarah did not grow up on her father’s organic dairy, and she didn’t consider farming there until after she left Maine to attend school. Sarah and Garin first managed the farm for Leavitt during their summer breaks from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina, where both studied sustainable agriculture. “We both wanted to farm, and my dad had a farm,” says Sarah.
Their first summer on the farm was challenging, as Garin and Sarah recognized they had a different management style than Leavitt. Garin says, “This farm had so much potential to be a wonderful farm.” The Smiths began to move the farm from being organic by default to organic by intention.
The Smiths purchased the farm from Leavitt in 2007. At that time they also began leasing the cows and equipment, with eventual purchase last spring. And they started doing things differently. In the first five years, the Smiths focused on improving what Sarah refers to as the “nuts and bolts” of their farm: the fields and the cows. “We focused on the animals, on doing that right,” says Garin. This led to a focus on grass.
Grassland Farm has diversified its organic dairy to include grass-fed beef. Photo courtesy of Red Door Media.
At Grassland Farm, cows are divided into five groups for independent management: freshened (or milking) heifers; bred heifers and yet to be bred (or yearling) heifers; female calves; bull calves; steers and breeding bulls. Pasture management begins with the milking cows (a mixed herd of Jerseys, Holsteins, Linebacks and Brown Swiss), which require better forage to maintain production levels.
“We start in the spring really intensively grazing on a much smaller acreage,” says Garin. The 40 milking cows are moved to a new 1-1/2- to 2-acre paddock daily.
“Depending on the density of the forage, the milkers go through first and cherry pick, and sometimes the big heifers run behind them to eat more,” says Garin. In this manner Garin manages the herd to maximize palatable pasture and to avoid having to bush-hog. “We don’t force it though,” he says. If the cows aren’t interested in grazing the “waste forage” such as goldenrod, thistle and lambsquarter, they’re moved to different ground and the waste is clipped back.
“A good pasture rotation system has a lot of factors,” Garin explains. The ideal grass at Grassland is 8 to 10 inches high, and is grazed to no lower than 4 inches – after which the recovery time is increased significantly. Typical rest periods, depending on temperature, precipitation and sun, range from 30 to 45 days. Grazing below 4 inches lengthens that window. Garin rotates the cows through the spring field, which can be seen from the front door of the farmhouse, in a loop. The cows are moved onto the same ground three to six times, following periods of re-growth, before more land is entered into the rotation.
In mid-July, Garin adds in 25 acres of second crop – fields that have already been hayed once – soaring at 12 to 14 inches. Haying results in pasture with “super lush clean feed” with minimal weeds. During the summer swelter, Garin focuses on reducing animal stress by letting cows access the shade of the adjacent woods as well as providing their usual ample supply of water. “That’s a comfortable milking cow,” says Garin. “More energy can go into milk production.”
As summer wanes, plant growth slows. Garin calls the challenge of keeping cows well fed on good forage during the onset of fall “the race to the end.” Cows are moved more rapidly and within larger paddocks in fields farther and farther from the farmhouse and barn.
Grassland Farm pastures 300 to 500 Cornish x Rock crosses annually. Pastured broiler chickens raised on spring forage eat half as much grain as those raised in the fall. Photos courtesy of Grassland Farm.
Garin is also striving for responsible pasture management for overall field health. “It is cheaper to harvest a hayfield with a cow than it is with a machine … And it’s better for a field than mowing late in the season.” This year Garin noticed the farm’s management strategies are not only maintaining healthy cows, but also improving the fields. “There is more forage than I can believe is possible.”
Depending on the year, hay (baleage cut on site) is fed to the heifers starting in the second or third week of October. “Once we get to that point, we’re just trying to keep them on fresh grass until it snows,” says Garin.
The other cows – female calves, bull calves, breeding bulls and steers – are on different pasture schedules. Female calves are moved less frequently (usually once a week), as they are fed supplemental grain and hay. “We need a calf to grow as rapidly as possible and get all its nutrients met,” says Garin.
Value-Added Waste Streams
Most of the Smith family’s income comes from organic milk sold in bulk to Organic Valley, but their farm has expanded to include a number of direct-market enterprises: organic mixed vegetables, organic beef, pastured poultry and pork. Diversification started while the farm ownership was in transition from Sarah’s father to the Smiths.
“When we moved back to the farm, veggies were an income stream for the second generation on the farm,” says Sarah. Vegetables made sense in several ways: Sarah had experience growing them at Warren Wilson’s educational farm, and the farm had abundant soil fertility from manure. “There is fantastic nutrition coming from the dairy,” says Sarah.
Grassland Farm is first and foremost a dairy farm, but as Sarah and Garin quickly note, a commercial scale dairy yields products other than milk – from manure to bull calves – and value-added doesn’t necessarily mean yogurt or cheese.
Bull calves are another annual byproduct of all dairies, and most dairy farmers send them to auction – as Leavitt did – where they fetch as little as $10 each, with prices rarely exceeding $50. The Smiths take a different approach. They select calves exhibiting the best genetics to rear as breeding bulls for their herd. Others are sold as meat. “We can butcher that cow, sell it as hamburg and make three or four times the profit [as selling it at auction],” says Garin.
Grassland’s beef business started as the farm transitioned between generations. Culling 25 cows that exhibited undesirable genetics improved the dairy herd. “We got a USDA-inspected label to sell beef and started marketing a little bit,” says Sarah.
With continued maintenance of their herd, the number of culls decreased.
“The beef program really started as us consciously realizing we were raising an animal for beef,” says Garin. Grassland is raising three steers this year, which they graze alongside the six breeding bulls of various ages. The Smiths also produce “rose veal” by capitalizing on another of the farm’s waste streams: lower quality milk, which is fed to bull calves not entering the beef program. Garin explains that the rose color results because the calves move more freely than traditional super-confined veal while they grow to the desired 200-pound carcass weight.
Grassland Farm also raises pastured poultry for eggs and meat within the existing rotational grazing system. The 100 Buff Orpington, Black Star and Barred Rock laying hens (moved in a portable coop and ranged within moveable electric fencing) and the 300 to 500 Cornish x Rock broilers (contained in low-to-the-ground wire and wood chicken tractors covered with stainless steel roofing) can graze following the cows or on marginal pasture.
This year they’ve added nine pigs to the mix. “Pigs are my movement to use woodlot to make money other than just through selling wood, and to enhance it at the same time,” says Garin. Pasturing pigs at the wood’s edge keeps the woodlot from sprawling into the field. “We are reclaiming that area and slowly moving the fields into the woods, instead of the woods into the field.”
Managing a diversified farm is challenging, especially on a limited budget. The Smiths have invested largely in their land and livestock during the formative years of their farm, with few improvements to their house and outbuildings. But ultimately, the land dictates Grassland’s agricultural scale. “We’ve been conscious about our growth,” says Sarah. “As a part of being good stewards of the land, we will get to a point where the land can’t handle any more.”
Still they both agree that appropriate infrastructure, rather than their routine of making do with what’s at hand, would allow for a more efficient and manageable system. “If we had upfront chunks of money, we could build our infrastructure to do more,” says Garin.
The Smiths would like to improve or create one infrastructure project per year – such as a root storage facility, a piggery to raise piglets or a barn adequate to overwinter all their cows – and they have a plan for that.
“The Sustainer Share is our idea of a CSA program that would reward us for being diversified,” says Garin. “We hope that people who value small diversified farms can reward some of those farms.”
This comprehensive share is designed to feed a family through an entire year. For a $2,500 investment, members receive enough milk (1 gallon per week), eggs (1 dozen per week), vegetables (weekly pack-outs during the summer and monthly during the winter) and meat (10 chickens, one-half pig and one-quarter steer) to sustain a well-rounded, locally produced diet. Meanwhile, members of the Sustainer Share support a family farm by preventing the farmers from accruing debt as they make capital improvements.
“Debt is what destroys farms,” says Garin.
The Sustainer Share adheres to existing marketing principles at Grassland Farm, which moves most of its vegetables, meat and eggs directly to customers via four farmers’ markets throughout central Maine. Sarah says, “We want a face on our farm.” For her, talking to people about the food that Grassland raises is vital. “It’s a huge opportunity as young, vibrant, educated people revive rural America. This is how we make change in our community and our world.”
To that end, the Smiths are both active in Maine’s organic community. Sarah is a MOFGA board member and Garin is a board members for Maine Organic Milling, an organic feed cooperative that produces organic feed in Maine. Organic Valley recently recognized Sarah and Garin with their “Gen-O Award,” which honors individual young farmers within the cooperative who have demonstrated their commitment to organic farming and preserving the family farm and rural community through leadership, stewardship and innovation.
This passion about food, farming and community also sustains Sarah and Garin as farmers. They are able to manage their farm, while raising their two young children, Cedar and Reed, because of their desire to work hard and their love for farming. “If we weren’t passionate about what we did, we wouldn’t work long hours,” says Garin.
Sarah agrees. “That kind of drive really separates successful farmers. And we consider ourselves successful… for the moment.”
About the author: Holli and her partner, Brian St. Laurent, are MOFGA’s farmers-in-residence. Both are graduates of Unity College.