As a youngster on her family’s dairy farm, Sarah Lyons Chase’s life revolved around cows. Despite her love for everything bovine, she never imagined that she would – or even could -- become a farmer. “I always wanted to figure out a way to be close to cows,” she says.
Four years ago Sarah realized her dream. At age 24, she took the reins of Chaseholm Farm, becoming the third generation of the Chase family and the only woman running one of the four cow dairies remaining in Pine Plains.
The farm sits on a road named for the Chase family; the land rolls gently on either side of Chase Road. The setting is storybook idyllic. (The word “holm” comes from the Dutch, meaning island or isolated place or hollow.) At least three driveways run off both sides of the road, each leading to a Chaseholm farm building – farmhouses, barns and the creamery.
When, after a process of trial and error, I arrived at the right place for our interview, I checked out the tiny farm store that oozed with personality. The refrigerator offered cases of Chaseholm Creamery cheeses; the farm’s raw milk shared shelf space with eggs and other farm items. Half hidden in the freezer were Chaseholm beef and pork. I also noticed products from Remedy Herb Farm, which I later discovered is the work of Sarah’s partner Jordan.
On that cool rainy day in early May, I sought shelter in the dairy barn, waiting for Sarah to return from the pasture. She pulled up on an ATV, and then with one of her employees nudged each cow into a stall. They settled in and began munching piles of sorghum Sudan silage topped with molasses. Above each stall placards with names like “Party”and WHAT? in theory identified the occupants, though a few newly acquired cows were complicating matters.
It was pushing mid afternoon when we sat down to lunch in the farmhouse across from the cow barn. A couple of farm employees and a male college friend of Sarah’s live there. share the old farmhouse. Friendly chaos reigned in the large country kitchen, as everyone went about her own business. Ground beef seasoned with wild ramps sizzled on the stove. Fried rice and a generous fresh salad appeared with a plate of Chaseholm cheese. By the time my conversation with Sarah had come to an end, everything in sight had been devoured.
The vanishing dairy sector
The reason farming had seemed a closed option for Sarah was more economic than gender related. As a young girl, she said, “I milked cows on weekends to relieve the hired man and I made hay in the summer with my father.”
At the same time her father hammered home the message that making a go as a dairy farmer had become financially unfeasible. “I remember my dad being paid $14 a hundredweight. I think the reason I didn’t think I could go into dairy is I heard my dad say so many times that it’s not possible.”
The same economic pressure has driven most of the dairy farms in Dutchess County out of business. Harry Baldwin of Clinton Corners estimates that “probably less than 20 dairy farms” are still operating in the county. The former dairy farmer, who drives the area’s cull cow truck, said he tries to keep up with the state of dairy farming locally, such as it is.
Sarah never intended to farm conventionally. First, it wouldn’t be economic. Aligning herself with the new breed of dedicated dairy grazers, she rejects the modern regime of confinement dairying. She shares the belief that it’s hard on cows physiologically; ecologically, it’s less than ideal. And the milk is not as healthy as it might be if the cows ate nothing but natural forages.
“There’s a lot of potential in grass-fed dairy,” she noted. “This, among other reasons, is why I chose to do something different. It almost makes me feel guilty,” she said, given the dire situation that conventional dairy farmers are stuck in and the tremendous price differential between grass-only milk and conventionally produced milk. .
“It’s so sad. I don’t even know how they [other dairy farmers] do it. People are using up their savings.”
Sarah also decided to get the farm certified as organic. She began implementing organic methods in 2013 when she took over the farm. Organic per se isn’t what’s driving her, she explained. It’s her desire “to create a system on the farm that is healthy and regenerative. It’s not like the rules get me excited, but rather that I value what they’re doing, and how they’re providing a way to verify.”
Early immersion in cow culture
Sarah was acculturated to cows from a young age. When she turned 10, her parents presented her with her first cow. “I showed her as a calf and then as a yearling, and when she freshened,” she recalled. She continued showing cows until graduating from high school. Along the way, she won master showman and got to take cows to the state fair in Syracuse.
“It was pretty special being able to interact with such big animals,” she said.
Beyond the pleasure of working with the cows themselves, Sarah gained a sense of achievement and the benefit of belonging to a supportive community, two things that many people do not find in their youth. She was involved in 4H, Future Farmers of America and Dairy Junior Youth, and alongside her family, with the Eastern New York Holstein Club, known for “cows with exceptional genetics,” she said.
Her parents encouraged her to get an education, never expecting her to come back to the farm. She chose Oberlin, where she majored in Feminist Studies and Religion. To this day, Sarah says she is convinced that the college accepted her because she’s from a dairy farm, apparently for diversity’s sake.
As a student, Sarah missed being around cows. “I actually tried to get a job on a farm but the nearest one was a 700-cow dairy where the cows never went outside.” Land in northern Ohio, where Oberlin is located, is flat, and planted in corn and soy. Sarah felt more at home in the southern part of the state, where she saw how the Amish pasture their cows on the rolling hills.
One generation retires; two children return
When Barry Chase retired from dairy, he and his main employee were milking just over 50 head in two traditional yellow barns. With this manageable number, they could almost satisfy the herd’s appetite with what they grew on the 350 acres of Chaseholm Farm and some rented cropland. Sarah remembered the herd being “pretty healthy” with good milk production.
Every one of Barry’s cows had a name and a pedigree from one of three venerable maternal lines tracing back 13 or 14 generations. This is how the Chases preferred to farm. The sale of registered cows generated about 20 percent of the farm’s income, allowing Barry to keep the herd much smaller than average.
Proud of his milk and looking to increase his returns without expanding or cutting corners, Barry Chase became one of the four earliest members of Hudson Valley Fresh. The small cooperative of dairy farmers formed in 2005 to sell their premium product, distinguished by quality and freshness and by not using recombinant (genetically engineered) Bovine Growth Hormone.
By the time Sarah’s older brother Rory returned to the farm in 2007 to make cheese, Barry had already retired. Rory lived in California for a year, where he worked in filmmaking and pursued an interest in fermented foods by taking cheesemaking classes. Rory returned to Pine Plains and set up his cheese making operation, then called the Amazing Real Live Food Company, just down the road at Ronnybrook Farm.
When Barry Chase sold his herd, rather than give up his outstanding bloodlines, he retained his heifers (the young females) and leased the farm to another dairy farmer named Howard Brooks. At Chaseholm, he milked a mixed herd of cows, belonging to several farmers, including a bunch of Barry’s young cows. The son of dairy farmers, Howard had worked on other dairies, including Chaseholm. He had always wanted to run his own operation.
In 2010 Sarah followed in her brother’s footsteps by coming back to the area after getting her college degree. She chose to live in the small eclectic city of Hudson. She found a job at Oblong Books, where she had worked during high school. She also started going to farmers markets for her brother. Soon she was making cheese with him and before long she took over managing the creamery so he could manage the business as a whole.
Although she was handling milk and milk products, Sarah missed the cows. She picked up some shifts milking cows at Hawthorne Valley Farm. Working at Columbia County’s best-known diversified biodynamic farm connected Sarah to “organic culture” and opened up a new universe for her. As she learned about the local farm and food movement, she became friends with organic vegetable farmers and entrepreneurs and fluent in the language and characteristics of milk produced under different farming regimes – such as organic, pastured, and grass-only.
Sarah had her eye on the farm, but the existing lease put it out of her reach. However, dairy farming wasn’t working out financially for Howard. He was gotten into dairy during a period when the milk price paid to farmers was particularly low. In retrospect, one could wonder how he could have succeeded. After discovering that Howard would not be staying, Sarah moved home from Hudson to demonstrate her commitment to the farm. As 2012 was ending and 2013 beginning, Howard announced that he was ready to leave and asked if she wanted to take over. On March 1, Sarah started running the farm. Luckily someone else had been found to replace her as creamery manager.
“We jumped in,” chimed in Jordan Schmidt, Sarah’s partner. The couple lives in a yurt on the farm. They tied the knot on June 25.
For the first six months, Sarah worked alone, without employees. Later Dayna, a friend who had been working at Hawthorne Valley Farm, became the first full time employee. Along the way, there have been some welcome surprises, like the young woman who came for a tour of the farm, wanting to work at Chaseholm for a month, but she ended up staying for two years.
Sarah has assembled an all-female farm crew of “cow grrrls.” Sage, now in her second year at Chaseholm, worked on a vegetable farm that milked a cow for the crew. Lindsay, who also had worked at Hawthorne Valley, started as a volunteer. In spring and fall she would come to the farm on her days off to milk cows, and when Sarah went on vacation two winters ago, Lindsay kindly looked after them.
Family support has been pivotal. The first year, her father made all her crops because she didn’t have a team yet. Then, when she went on summer break, her mother, Rosemary Lyons, an English professor at Columbia Greene Community College, stepped in to do the morning milking five days a week. “It was awesome,” Sarah said. Her mother also helps with haymaking, raking the hay with a tractor after it’s been mowed.
But free labor is far from the most significant way that her parents have contributed to Sarah’s nascent enterprise. Sarah runs ideas by her father. She also had him accompany her when she picked out cows from another farm. What she especially values is how both her mother and father are sharing their wealth of experience. “There’s so much information within them that I’m trying to learn. It’s amazing,” she remarked.
However, transmitting knowledge accumulated over a lifetime is a slow process. For instance, whenever something breaks, her parents share their insights to help her avoid or minimize such a situation in the future. “I probably wouldn’t have listened if I hadn’t had the problem,” Sarah observed.
The transition to grass fed
For cash flow, from the moment she took over the farm, Sarah needed lactating cows. She began with a mix of cows, a few purchased from Howard plus a dozen belonging to her father.
From the day she started, Sarah was engaged in planning big changes. She envisioned farming with a pasture-based system in which the cows got most of their sustenance from grazing and the rest from hay. She also was partial to organic practices, though economics would force her to purchase conventional feed at the onset.
To maximize the benefits of an all grass system, frequent pasture rotation is required. The farmer typically moves the cows go a new paddock twice a day, after each milking. Lightweight, portable electric fencing allows set up of small temporary enclosures in a matter of minutes. Managing pasture in this manner bring a host of benefits. Pasture isn’t overgrazed so grass production and quality improves. Manure gets distributed better so the soil fertility improves. And cows, being by nature grazing animals, enjoy better health and longevity.
There was a snag. The cows would have to acclimate to the new production system, and that proved difficult. Some cows are a better fit for a pasture system than others, but Sarah did not have the luxury to figure out which were which when she took charge of the dairy. Contrary to expectations, she was surprised that her Holsteins have done better on a grass system than some of the Jerseys. While Jerseys tend to be good grazers, she said the breed is also known for milking off body fat.
In many of the smaller traditional dairy farms, cows go out on pasture during the growing season, but get most of their calories from feeds like corn silage and corn meal. When Sarah switched to an all grass system, the change caused some animals to experience health and reproductive challenges. The herd developed hoof problems. Not only was it hard to get them bred, but the cows also had trouble staying pregnant. Several died.
Jordan, who’s a nutritional therapist and herb and vegetable grower, has a theory about what happened. She thinks that the cows got sick when the props that kept them going were removed, “because the underlying issues hadn’t been addressed.” It’s as if a chronically ill person’s medications were taken away, without their undergoing any deeper form of healing.
Sarah and her cow girls selected the cows that seemed to be the best on grass. The upshot is we are now creating a herd that can thrive in our system,” said Sarah. Besides careful cow selection, they’re also trying to raise more resilient calves by feeding them milk for at least six months. (Conventional farmers generally feed calves milk – or frequently just a processed milk replacement product – for a much shorter period of time.)
Continued In Part two