Strafford Organic Creamery Keeps On In Vermont's Troubled Dairy Industry
Earl Ransom is, according to agricultural census data, part of a tiny demographic group: He's a black dairy farmer in Vermont.
“My work experience, what I do every day, is pretty much the same as every other dairy farmer in the state of Vermont: I get up in the morning, milk cows, feed cows, clean the barn, haul manure, chop feed, make round bales, all that stuff,” he said. “My cultural experience is so different from every other dairy farmer than I’ve met in Vermont – I can have those work conversations about farming stuff, but everything else is different.”
Conversations between dairy farmers often center on the relative virtues of various breeds. Some like the high-producing Holsteins, while others are die-hard aficionados of doe-eyed Jerseys, whose milk has more protein and butterfat than their bigger, black and white cousins.
For Ransom’s money, nothing beats a Guernsey cow. He said they’re intelligent and personable, and their rich, tasty milk is perfect for ice cream.
“I like selling milk, but I love selling ice cream,” he said. Then he paused to talk to one of his cows: “Hi, Guinevere, you’re just going to smell his back, aren’t you?”
"My work experience, what I do every day, is pretty much the same as every other dairy farmer in the state of Vermont... My cultural experience is so different." — Earl Ransom
As a large bovine nose nuzzled this reporter's back, Ransom explained the herd’s pecking order.
“This is Arabus right here, she’s kind of the boss cow at this point,” he said, pointing to a large tan and white creature quietly munching her feed. “Betty, this one next to her, is like, kind of second in command. And you can tell, because the other cows are all staying out of her zone. Because if she’s eating and someone else comes near her, she will push them away.”
Despite a little jostling at mealtime, the 65 Guernseys at the Strafford Organic Creamery at Rockbottom Farm are the picture of contentment during their morning feeding.
This second-generation, 6oo-acre hill farm is a bit of an anomaly in today’s dairy economy: It’s actually successful, even as dairy farms all over country struggle to survive. Vermont lost about 140 dairy farms over the last two years according to the state's agency of agriculture.
Yet over two decades, Rockbottom Farm has built a solid business and loyal fan base. It controls its own production by packaging milk in glass bottles for sale at food co-ops and stores all over Vermont and into New Hampshire.
Ransom said the key to success is the milk from those prized Guernseys.
"As a dairy farmer, I always wanted my milk to taste better than whatever else was available out there. And I really believe that the Guernsey cow makes incredible milk." — Earl Ransom
“As a dairy farmer, I always wanted my milk to taste better than whatever else was available out there,” he said. “And I really believe that the Guernsey cow makes incredible milk. I mean, the flavor, the consistency, the mouth-feel of the milk, is just unlike anything else you can get out there.”
Ransom and his wife Amy Huyffer divide the labor. She runs the creamery while he handles much of the farm side of the operation. He said they began bottling milk both out of pride in their product, and the hope that it would prove more lucrative than selling their milk to an organic co-op.
It turns out the margins are decent, but not great.
“I would say I probably don't make any more money now than if I would I had just milked cows and shipped to an organic processor, because it's a lot more work,” Ransom said. “But it has enabled us to stay on the farm, to be here, instead of having to get another job somewhere else — which if we were milking even 75 cows, it would be pretty hard to make money and not be living on depreciation.”
Ransom faces all the usual challenges as other farmers: The weather, the need to keep his herd healthy, plus a constant drive to be more efficient and keep his costs down. Like other farmers, he needs to know his numbers, his machinery, and the right combination of feed.
But then there’s Ransom's experience in that tiny demographic group. According to 2017 U.S. Department of Agriculture census data, there were three black dairy farmers in all of Vermont.
“Nobody expects to see a black guy milking cows or driving a tractor,” he said.
Because of his skin color, Ransom said he's often seen as the outsider, the other, even as he works in the most quintessential of Vermont occupations.
Ransom was born on this hill farm, which started as a commune in the early 1960s. His father began milking cows after the commune evolved into a working farm. And when Ransom moved back home a few years after college, he first raised beef cows, and then bought his own herd of milkers.
So, except for the Abenaki, Ransom is as much a native Vermonter as the most rock-ribbed Yankee farmer. But that’s not how many people see it.
“It’s constant. It never ends,” he said. “I think it’s probably at least once a month and usually more often that someone will show up, a salesman, seed salesman, machinery or something, and I’ll be outside working and they’re like, ‘We need to talk to your boss.’ And I’m like: ‘I am the boss, you know, that’s me’. And that conversation goes a couple of different ways, you know, I’m used to it now.”
Ebonie Alexander, executive director of the Black Family Land Trust based in Durham, North Carolina, said she’s not surprised by Ransom’s experience.
"This is America," she said. "There are macro-aggressions, micro-aggressions and just blatant racism exhibited every day."
"Nobody expects to see a black guy milking cows or driving a tractor." — Earl Ransom
Alexander said it’s important to preserve the heritage of black-owned farms, as farmland provides a measure of equity for people who historically never owned the land they worked.
“It is critical that we continue, as African Americans, to hold on to the land that we have, and then begin to grow the number of acres of land that we have,” she said.
Lydia Clemmons with the Clemmons Family Farm in Charlotte is trying to do just that and preserve the farm that her parents bought in 1962. According to the 2017 census data, 36 of the 6,808 farms of all types in Vermont are owned by African Americans or co-owned by African Americans and somebody of a different race. A little less than half — 17 farms — are owned by black people alone.
"What kind of equity is that?” Clemmons asked. "Now the Clemmons Family Farm is one of the larger farms, we’re 148 acres. We have a mission to promote African American culture and heritage and the arts and cultures of the African diaspora. And to use the farm as a way to bring people together across differences of race and culture.”
You get the sense talking to Earl Ransom that he doesn’t see that it’s necessarily his job to educate others about racism, or what it’s like to live as a person of color in Vermont.
But sometimes, he has to, like when a neighbor wanted to hunt bear on his property last fall. Ransom initially told the neighbor the land wasn’t posted, so feel free. Then he realized this was the guy down the road who flew a Confederate flag.
"It is critical that we continue, as African Americans, to hold on to the land that we have, and then begin to grow the number of acres of land that we have." — Ebonie Alexander, Black Family Land Trust
“And I sent a message back and said, ‘You’re not welcome on my property ever for any reason,” Ransom recalled. “He said, ‘Can I ask why?’ And I said, 'It’s because you have a Confederate flag hanging in front of your trailer.' And he was horribly offended that I would be offended that he had a Confederate flag. I’m like, well, your lack of understanding there is exactly the reason why I don’t want you on my property.”
Like other dairy farmers, Ransom is now looking at the future, where to invest and how to boost his margins by getting more out of the combinations of cows, pasture, and human labor.
“Efficiency is really the name of the game, not maximum production per cow, but efficiency, production per acre, per person,” he said.
But despite the industry’s troubles, Ransom said he’s hopeful about dairy in Vermont.
“In some ways, it’s like watching something circling the drain, because there’s not a lot of young people getting into it,” he said. “But, in spite of all of that, I remain optimistic. I think there’s a place in American agriculture for Vermont dairy, as long as we can maintain integrity and identity.”
Ransom and his wife have four boys, and one, perhaps two of them, are interested in farming. So the gentle Guernsey cow and the identity of Rockbottom Farm may be linked to this land well into the future.
February is Black History Month, and all this week, VPR is featuring black entrepreneurs and business owners across Vermont. We'll meet a dairy farmer, a bar owner, a dentist and the owner of an executive search firm.