April 14, 2024


Veteran Baby Makers

Amid mud season, a once-mired family farm discovers a viable road forward

A maple-sap tank truck sits on a muddy road at Brattleboro’s Robb Family Farm. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

Fifth-generation Vermont farmer Charles Robb Jr. was chainsawing a beech tree in 2004 when a flyaway branch shattered every bone in his nose, jaw, eye sockets and cheeks.

“They figured it hit low enough that it just collapsed my face,” says the man everyone calls Charlie. “They said if it hit another inch higher, it might have been a different story.”

But that didn’t hurt anything like what came next.

The 56-year-old head of Brattleboro’s Robb Family Farm — started by his great-great-grandparents at the turn of the 20th century — recalls winter melting into spring a decade ago when he calculated annual corn-seed costs to feed his dairy cows.

Shoppers pay up to $4 for a gallon of milk, but those who produce it receive a lesser fixed amount — as little as a third of the retail price. Robb couldn’t find his checkbook buried deep under a mess of bills. But he knew his income wouldn’t cover two-dozen 50-pound bags of seed, let alone a 33% hike in grain and 50% spike in diesel fuel.

Robb had risen every day of his adult life before dawn, milked 50 Holsteins at 5:45 in the morning and 4:45 at night, all the while tending to barns, fan belts and fences before falling into bed by 9, physically and financially spent.

The only thing harder: Giving it up.

“I always figured I’d farm — I just always liked it,” he says. “I don’t know how to explain it. It’s a … disease?”

One, in this case, with a cure more excruciating than Robb’s eight-hour facial surgery. To save their property, the family sold its milk cows in 2011 in hopes of pursuing a second life tapping maple trees for syrup.

“It’s like a death in the family,” Robb’s father, Charles Sr., said as he prodded the resisting herd onto a sales truck.

“We haven’t died,” Robb’s sister, Mary, replied in polite defiance.

Caught between low margins and high maintenance, the family was left with the same question faced by fellow Vermont dairy farmers whose ranks have dropped from 16,700 in 1900 to fewer than 600 today: Is sacrificing the past the only way to secure the future?

“The Vermont brand is cows and hillsides,” said Robb’s mother, Helen, echoing a recent report by the state Commission on the Future of Vermont Agriculture. “But that comes with a cost.”

This spring, the Robbs are back in the thick of mud season. But through a combination of grit and grace, they’re no longer stuck for an answer.

Charles Robb Jr. with his parents, Helen and Charles Robb Sr. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

A history horse-powered by hooves

Onetime local author Rudyard Kipling won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907, the year Robb’s great-great-grandparents bought a Brattleboro farm a mile and a half up the dirt Ames Hill Road with hopes it would serve as their retirement pasture.

The family has worked there ever since.

Vermonters who sheared as many as a million sheep a year during a “wool craze” of the 1800s were stampeding to dairy in the early 1900s. Back then, the old adage wasn’t quite true: The state had more people (343,641) than cows (199,603). But the arrival of gas-powered tractors, rural electricity and refrigerated railcars was allowing any agrarian with gumption to milk a healthy profit.

Robb’s great-great-grandparents Thomas and Christine, launching a long tradition of family enterprise, not only tended cows but also put horses on a treadmill to power a butter churn.

Great-grandfather Isaac built a farmhouse with local timber and his own hands in 1914.

Grandfather Hermon, switching from Jerseys to Guernseys, delivered the family’s first glass bottle — in a Model T Ford — in 1933.

Father Charles Sr. and mother Helen, moving to Holsteins, sold their product to a processor who poured it into plastic jugs when they took over in 1973.

For all the change, the farm remains the stuff of a Sabra Field print: white barns framed by 360 acres of green fields, red maples and, when the sun’s out, endless blue sky.

Charles Jr., born in 1965, entered the picture early. Most children want bikes. He got a calf. As a teenager, he could milk the herd almost single-handedly before school and once again after baseball practice. But as he was finishing his senior year of high school in 1983, his parents surprised him with talk of selling.

Back then, the nation’s farmers were producing so much milk, the federal government charged them for storing the surplus. Robb’s parents almost accepted a buyout offer to help stem the glut, only to opt for their teenage son’s counterproposal to assume control himself.

Milk bottles on a windowsill bear the Robb family name. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

‘I remember the hit’

The Future Farmer of America graduated to marry his high school sweetheart, Karen, father a son and daughter and get to work milking at sunrise and sunset, haying in the heat and chainsawing firewood in the cold. Two days after Christmas 2004, a beech tree struck back.

“I remember the hit,” Robb says of the branch that snapped like a catapult. “I tried to figure out what truck just ran me over.”

The limb, smacking Robb’s face with the force of a baseball bat, shattered seemingly everything in his head except his brain. The fact his mind was intact became clear when, his vision impaired by profuse bleeding, he steered his tractor by memory an icy half-mile out of the woods. Reaching the family homestead, he stumbled past the front porch so he could collapse in the back shed.

That way, Robb reasoned, “I wouldn’t leave blood on my mom’s floor.”

Robb was rushed to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in New Hampshire. Today, when medical students there hear the scenario — chainsaw accident, shattered skull, profuse bleeding — they share the same conclusion: no chance for survival. But that didn’t stop neurologists and plastic surgeons from fusing his fractured bones together with seven titanium implants during an eight-hour operation.

“I told the doctors, ‘Make me look like Brad Pitt,’” Robb recalls. “I came out of surgery and my wife said, ‘You look more like Rocky Balboa.’”

Yet, by the time the family farm celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2007, Robb was back to his old routine — albeit wearing a hockey helmet when he chainsawed.

Robb Family Farm milked about 50 Holsteins until 2011. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

‘90 hours a week and it’s still not enough’

Vermont’s annual milk production has doubled from about 150 million gallons at the end of World War II to more than 300 million gallons today, even though the number of dairy farms has plummeted 95% in the same period, from 14,660 to fewer than 600.

Roller-coaster compensation is one reason for the drop. The price of milk, both wholesale and retail, fluctuates as madly and mysteriously as the cost of gasoline due to a calculus-like combination of supply, demand and the action and inaction of processors and federal regulators.

In 2002, the Robbs received less than $1 a gallon for their milk — the same price they got in the 1970s — even though it cost them an estimated $1.55 to produce it.

In 2004, a ban on Canadian cattle and cutbacks on cow growth hormones made their product more precious. Reaping as much as $1.90 a gallon, the Robbs did the unthinkable — they paid their bills.

In 2006, the price nosedived again to $1 a gallon, only to plunge further to a decade low during the “dairy crash” of 2009.

Rising from bed April 1, 2011, Robb faced three options.

One, he could keep milking his small herd and eventually drain the farm’s assets.

Two, he could double his number of cows to match bigger rivals with at least 100. But to do so, he’d have to hire help (a chore in itself, as many farms are turning to migrant workers who face problems with immigration paperwork). He’d also need more of everything else — starting with money he didn’t have.

Or, three, he could sell his herd and aim to harvest cash crops such as maple syrup and hay — joining a rising number of peers creating what Vermont leaders are calling a 21st-century “working landscape” of farming, forestry and production of everything from meat to solar and wind energy.

“If I could get paid a good price for my milk, I’d stay in business in a heartbeat,” Robb thought in 2011. “But I’m up to 90 hours a week and it’s still not enough.”

Charles Robb Jr. prods a reluctant cow onto a sales truck Aug. 4, 2011. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

‘It was coming and we knew it’

In the darkness of that April Fools’ Day a decade ago, Robb trudged to the barn and began the morning milking. An hour and a half later, he slipped into his parents’ kitchen for breakfast. His mother and father dropped their forks as their son, picking up the phone, canceled his seed order.

The subsequent silence explained everything. It was interrupted only by the sound of a chair leaving the table, two work boots fleeing to the barn and three people fighting back tears.

“It was coming and we knew it, but …” Robb recalls.

“It was a rough morning,” his father says.

But it was nothing compared to Aug. 4, 2011, when the barn radio wailed the country song “Don’t You Wanna Stay” before a truck carried off the cows to a bigger farm.

“It’s the end of an era,” said Robb’s mother, Helen.

In more ways than one. For the first time since Vermont began milking cows for profit more than a century earlier, the state’s number of dairy farms had dropped below 1,000.

“I don’t know if I’ll miss the milking,” Robb said, “but I’ll miss my animals.”

“You spend two to three hours twice a day with them,” his mother commiserated. “That’s more than a lot of people spend with their kids.”

For a moment, the farm was so quiet you could hear maple leaves flutter in the breeze. But soon Robb was making noise, hammering in nearly five times more tree taps for syrup, sharpening blades to cut hay and reseeding the cornfields to raise grass-fed beef cattle.

The Robb Family Farm sugarhouse is located on Brattleboro’s Ames Hill Road. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

‘This could be something good’

Such diversification is part of a trend: Although the number of Vermont dairy operations has dropped 60% over the past quarter-century, the count of all farms remains about 7,000.

That shift is bringing more balance to a state that, with dairy once accounting for nearly 80% of agricultural sales, is the nation’s most dependent on a single commodity.

“I’m excited about the switch,” Charles Jr. said upon starting it a decade ago. “The scary part is not having that milk check.”

“But we didn’t have it anyway,” his mother added with a laugh.

Over the years since, the farm has seen its old milk-price seesaw replaced by a new swing set of ups and downs. Consider just before Thanksgiving 2016, when the family website received an inquiry from People magazine.

“This could be something good,” Robb thought.

His sisters Laurie, Mary and Betsy, aware of phishing scams, countered it could be something bad.

Two weeks later, family members turned to page 90 of the Dec. 5 issue and found Brooke Shields — a celebrity they’ve never met — recommending a $14.95 pint of their syrup as the perfect holiday gift. Within 24 hours, the farm received so many orders it sold out the last of its supply by the time it started tapping again.

Then came the Covid-19 pandemic, forcing the Robbs to close their sugarhouse and store to visitors. As cash flow turned to a trickle, Robb’s sister Laurie mentioned Harvest Hosts, an online community that connects travelers in recreational vehicles with unique camping sites nationwide.

“Might be something you want to look into,” Laurie told her mother, Helen.

The Robbs now allow RVs to park overnight, bringing them an additional 125 customers a year.

“We found another revenue stream we never knew existed,” Helen says today. “It saved us.”

Charles Robb Jr. (in blue sweatshirt) and his father, Charles Sr. (in tan coat),wait for their sugarhouse evaporator to heat. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

‘The best decision we ever made’

Covid-19 counts were melting this February when the sugaring season began to heat up. Robb stoked his wood-fired boiler just after Valentine’s Day — the earliest ever at a farm where his grandparents, who toiled before the term “climate change,” didn’t start until March Town Meeting.

As Robb fueled the flames, the Commission on the Future of Vermont Agriculture issued a new report noting that, although dairy still generates about 70% of the state’s farm sales and uses 80% of its working land, “diversified agricultural operations are on the rise.”

“Small towns cannot thrive without economic opportunity or without the innovation that agricultural and food businesses bring to our rural landscapes,” the report found. “And, unless Vermont farm families can earn a sustainable living from their open productive agricultural land, it becomes a target for development, is chiseled off and sold, or becomes overgrown and under-utilized.”

That’s not a worry for the Robbs, who again are making money. The sap ran so strongly the first week of spring, family and friends gathered around the boiler one recent night in anticipation of reaching a new annual record of more than 1,000 gallons of finished syrup.

The goal wasn’t greeted by pyrotechnics, just a few stray embers floating like fireflies as everyone raised sample cups for a toast.

The eldest Robbs, Charles Sr. and Helen — who boast seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild — sipped especially discreetly. The couple, married 58 years this July, had switched out syrup for blackberry brandy, they confessed.

Helen’s nephew, neighboring fellow farmer Ross Thurber, pieces moments like these into poems. His recently published collection, “Pioneer Species,” features one titled “Easter Blues”:

… We have suffered enough.

I climb the mountain to find a clearing.

Across the valley, the worsted

hills of New Hampshire are hung

indigo and wait to dry out.

I would like to start again

back at dawn. Look east.

Remember you are rising too,

and stop searching

for the living among the dead.

As steam rose from the sugarhouse, Charlie momentarily exhaled memories of selling cows, struggling to fix taps and sawing branches like the one that struck nearly two decades ago.

“The maples won’t run unless you clear out all your hemlocks and hardwood — they need the sunlight to get the flow of sap going,” he explained. “It was tough seeing the cows go, but it was the best decision we ever made. Instead of bleeding to death, we’ll try to change the direction so we can stay here.”

The family likens it to driving a dirt road that, after months of frost, has melted into mud. Past tracks have grown into present ruts. But steer a different course and the path, though shifting, is still there.

Charles Robb Sr. holds a bottle of the family’s maple syrup. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

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