|Verda Barnes, at age 100, heads a four-generation dairy farm in Albion that is now organic and that provides all of the milk for the Common Kitchen at the Common Ground Country Fair. Verda may be the oldest dairy farmer in Maine. Photo by Marvel Hutchins.
By Nan Brucker
The Common Kitchen staff needs a lot of milk for the meals prepared during the Fair, and all of this milk is donated by Barnes & Barnes Organic Dairy in nearby Albion, which Verda Barnes runs with her son Basil. And Basil’s son Ricky. And Ricky’s children Alan and Ashley, plus Basil’s other granddaughter Brooke. Which makes Verda Barnes, at almost 101 years old (her birthday’s in November), not only the matriarch of this four-generation farm but possibly the oldest dairy farmer in Maine.
The Barnes organic dairy sits high on a ridge off Quaker Hill Road, with broad views across the surrounding valleys. Approaching it along the gravel road, you think you’ve arrived at a small settlement. Several family houses line the road, along with a cluster of barns that house cows, calves and replacement heifers, plus hay and haying equipment.
From Diversity to Dairy
Sitting in front of a cozy woodstove in the original farmhouse one day last winter, kept company by a large but friendly dog and a small but feisty kitten, Verda recalled that the farm didn’t begin as a dairy. At first, they grew everything “from beans to bacon.” Cows were kept mainly to supply the family. She recalled how, during the Depression, every room in the big farmhouse would be filled by family and farmhands. The family had no money to pay wages, but plenty of people in those days were willing to work in exchange for regular meals and a place to stay, Verda said.
The dairy later became the main business of the farm, in the days after Verda married Gardner “Hap” Barnes, the youngest of seven Barnes children. Verda is widowed now, and though she may not be as active in the dairy as before, she still tends a couple of dozen chickens and sells the eggs, which brings her regular visitors.
Barnes & Barnes Dairy has been certified organic for the past three years and sells its milk mainly to the Organic Valley cooperative dairy. The switch to organic wasn’t much of a leap for the family, since the dairy was already “all natural,” as Basil puts it. All of the cow manure goes to enrich the fields and grow hay. They raise their own replacement heifers and sell the surplus calves. The main difference recently has been with grain supplies, which they’re getting from Canada, because they can’t get enough organic grain locally, although Ricky says they’d like to. He explains that finding organic sources for the soy part of the mix is a particular problem, because soy is so important for the protein content the milking heifers need.
|Brooke Barnes, Verda’s great-granddaughter (age 12), feeds this year’s calves. Photo by Marvel Hutchins.
The farm is stocked mainly with Holsteins, and the Barnes family milks 50 to 55 cows in the summer, about half that in the winter. On that same late-winter day that kept Verda close to the woodstove, the new calves had started to arrive, one of them literally “in progress” as Ricky, Basil and Basil’s partner, Marvel, worked in the warm, sweet-smelling barn. The evening milking was in progress. Marvel called the cows by name as she fastened them into their stanchions, accompanied by the thud of bales being pitched down from the mow above, the soft whoosh of the milking equipment and the steady, persistent munching of the cows at their evening feed.
Basil recalls when they put the milk in cans and had to haul it to the end of their dirt road with horses for pickup by the milk trucks. They didn’t go to milk tanks until 1962. The Barneses clearly are proud of their dairy, even though Basil claims that if someone asked him about getting into the dairy business these days, he’s say, “You’re foolish.” But, he says, “if it’s in the blood and you have to do it, you want to go organic.” Otherwise, he says, “they tell you you’re going to get a certain price per hundredweight and three months later, they pull the rug out from under you.” With organic milk, he says “it’s a higher price and it’s a sure price.”
About the author: Nan Brucker and her husband have a small market farm in Albion, Maine, and Nan’s freelance articles have appeared in national publications.