by Tamara Scully
Dairy farming is a family affair. When an improperly installed milking system almost drove Will Kennedy’s Vermont dairy out of business, the family refused to fold, and re-evaluated their priorities. A return back to Connecticut, where Kennedy’s brother was milking cows, gave them the opportunity to begin again.
Kennedy’s children and wife Allyson weren’t ready to give up the farming life, even after a fire destroyed the Connecticut milking house and parlor three years later. These events simply added to the family’s determination to continue to dairy. Kennedy’s father, Bob, is retired from Genex, and came from a line of dairy farmers. But they no longer could function as a conventional dairy farm.
“We decided to all keep working, at least part-time (on the farm), although it would support one person full-time, to give everyone a chance to stay involved, so it can be a two- and possibly a three- generation enterprise,” he said of the family’s plans.
With everyone in the extended family involved in the farm: maintaining equipment; marketing products; transporting cattle; or day-to-day work, they are now well on their way to building back the dream of family farming. Daughter Amanda, who lives and works off-farm, promoting the family’s and other locally-grown foods in a Boston local foods restaurant, was the driving force behind the new farm business: veal.
“We converted the conventional barn back to stanchions and pens, and started raising veal,” Kennedy said. “The milking cows only come in to feed the calves and use the old freestall barn for shelter in the winter.”
“We rotationally graze the cows from the last week of April until the end of November, weather permitting. We try to pasture from 8-10 inches in height down to four inches, and are committed to keeping them on pasture, one hundred percent, as long as we can,” Kennedy said. Some years, they forgo a second cutting of hay in order to graze.
The dairy has 22 acres for hay, plus another 11 acres set aside as permanent pasture. No corn is grown anymore, as they converted all the land to grass. They practice conservation, reducing their use of chemical fertilizers through manure stockpiling and spreading only in the fall to reduce runoff and nutrient loss.
While they own the cattle — a mixed herd of Holsteins and Linebacks — and the equipment, the Kennedys rent Cream Hill Farm from the Gold family. The Golds have owned the property since the 1700s, and it was once the site of the Cream Hill Agricultural School, which was established in 1845.
“We naturally use our own bull calves, but also buy another 60 plus calves from other small family farms in the area,” Kennedy said. They slaughter every week year-round, so an ongoing supply of young stock is critical. The veal calves are raised until three and half or four months of age, when they reach the optimal size for restaurant needs, and when the calves would require hay, pasture or grain to continue growing in a healthy manner. Changing the diet, Kennedy said, would “change the meat drastically.”
Calves born on the farm stay with their mothers for four or five weeks. At that time, they are moved into pens in the barn. Younger calves stay indoors in pens for about two months. After that, they are moved to a group pen with yard access.
The dairy cows are milked exclusively by the veal calves. The cows graze, coming into the pens at milking time. The cows are herded to the barn twice a day, where they nurse the calves. The calves also receive a bit of hay supplementation, particularly in cold weather, to aid in digestion. They have access to water, too, but stay on milk until slaughter.
“We raise the calves on whole milk they drink directly from the cows,” Kennedy said. “We feel this gives us the ideal calf, with the ideal fat cover, that makes our meat stand out.”
Marketing and Sales
Inherent in raising livestock for meat, but perhaps most notably in raising veal calves, is overcoming the stigma attached with industrial meat production. Educating consumers of the humane, non-cruel practices which many, if not most, small family farmers use to raise their animals is one of the challengers faced by all small livestock farmers selling on the direct market.
“My wife and daughter were adamant from the beginning that we shouldn’t wait to defend it (the farm’s production practices). We should proudly display who we are and why we believe in what we are doing,” Kennedy said.
Customers rave about the pink meat, which Kennedy explains is due to the sunlight and exercise the calves receive. Aside from the color, he believes that “the growing program and the real milk helps keep the texture better, and the tenderness comparable to confined veal.”
The family delivers to six or seven restaurants on a weekly basis, and three more that run veal specials regularly. They also sell to two area farm stands.
“We really need these wholesale customers to survive,” Kennedy said. In a circular relationship, they initially found their wholesale customer through four farmers markets, which they view “as more a marketing event than income stream.” Now, they find many of their direct-market retail customers through the restaurants.
The farmers markets, although time-consuming, helped to build their brand name and to build relationships. Trust, particularly in veal production, is crucial, Kennedy said. The veal sales have grown from offering only halves, to the sale of USDA retail cuts, both to chefs and the retail customer, as well as primal cuts to the restaurants.
A wealthy New York City clientele, in the area on weekends, has kept the veal trade viable. Being able to sell retail to customers who can afford the higher pricing of veal has allowed the farm to supply a “wholesale market that can afford local products.” The balance between this consumer pricing allows the farm to offer to restaurants, enables some local establishments for whom veal would otherwise be cost-prohibitive, to purchase the meat.
“We’ve tried about every way we could to market our veal,” Kennedy said. “The success of Cream Hill Veal has come about not only because of the concerted efforts of our whole family, but the support of our landlords, our friends and neighbors, and a loyal group of customers.”
He is proud of his family’s ability to grow a new, under-represented market.