by Sally Colby
Jake Harris knew he wanted to farm, but he also knew that going to college would be an important part of his career planning.
Harris is a recent graduate of the University of New Hampshire (UNH), where he studied agriculture. “They have a nice program as far as dairy, horticulture and general agriculture,” he said. “The Thompson School of Applied Science has a hands-on program, so I could take a wide variety of classes in my major, which is integrated agriculture management. I could combine courses to have the kind of experience I wanted.”
Integrated Agricultural Management is a new field of study at UNH, and Harris is in the second graduating class of that major. The major addresses the diverse nature of New England farms, and is ideal for those who want to get into agriculture but don’t have a specific goal in mind.
Unlike many ag graduates, Harris had a farm to return to. Today, he’s back at the Dayton, Maine farm his great-grandfather started in the 1940s as a dairy farm. “Dairy has been the mainstay of the business,” said Harris, “but in the mid 1980s, we started to diversify with vegetables and cross country skiing and other ag enterprises that would allow the business to be transferred to the next generation. My grandparents had six sons and knew that some might want to return to the farm. They wanted to create an environment in which the sons could return if they wanted to and still make a living.”
The dairy farm is the mainstay of the business, and the 30 to 40 cow-herd has remained profitable because the Harrises started processing milk in glass bottles. “In the mid 1990s, it became clear that we had to do something,” said Harris. “It was becoming more and more difficult to make money with 40 cows. We had the option of getting bigger or trying something completely new.”
At the same time, Smiling Hill Farm in Westbrook, Maine, planned to construct a bottling plant and wanted to bottle milk from other dairies, including Harris’s, to make the bottling plant viable. Milk is picked up twice a week, processed at Smiling Hill and returned to the farm to sell. Harris says milk is sold at the on-farm retail store, several local stores, a farmers market and through home delivery.
“People love the glass bottles,” said Harris. “It’s a huge draw. People like the nostalgia of glass.”
The dairy herd is primarily Holsteins, with some Jerseys and crossbreds.
The Harrises sell more milk in summer, so they aim for calving dates that will optimize production during the busy season. “We have to think about that with breeding,” said Harris. “If I have a lot of cows calving at once, I might have to hold off breeding a cow to get the timing right. That lets us time the replacements so we have heifers when we need them.” Depending on milk sales, production can also be influenced by changing the cow diet so the Harrises don’t have to purchase or sell milk to balance everything out.
Harris, his father and one employee handle the milking so it’s consistent for the cows. Cows are milked twice a day in a tie-stall barn, then turned out for grazing. “It gives me a chance to know each cow on an individual basis,” said Harris. “My dad and I do almost all of the milking, feeding, paddock rotations for grazing. It really helps having just a few people and lets us have a lot of control over individual cows.”
Young stock are raised on pasture with temporary fencing and laneways to pastures. “We put a lot of time and effort into our fences over the past few years,” said Harris. “We try to make the rotations easier and make the operation more efficient. Rotational grazing works well for us — we have a lot of land that makes nice pasture and it helps cut down on feed cost and labor.”
Harris Farms’ variety of commodities helps maintain steady revenue. The 65-head beef herd supplies meat, maple trees are tapped for syrup and vegetables are grown for the fresh market. “We have pumpkins in the fall, and have cross-country skiing.
The vegetable enterprise started when his father and his brothers sold cucumbers from a picnic table in the mid 1980s. “We started going to the farmers’ market in the late 1980s,” said Harris. “We had a small stand, and when we built our farm store in 1996, it grew a lot.” The farm also offers a prepaid CSA, which customers prepay for in spring then shop for whatever they want throughout the season. Harris says customers appreciate the convenience of having an account to purchase whatever they want when they visit the farm store.
“We do a huge business in sweet corn,” said Harris, who plants about 20 acres of sweet corn each spring. “We try to have a constant supply from July through first week of October. We use row covers so we can get early corn — it adds a week or more to the season.” While some late tomatoes are grown outside, three hoop houses are dedicated to tomatoes, which are a huge part of the vegetable business.
As far as promoting the farm, Harris says social media is helpful. “Social media is a great way to reach out to a broad audience and tell people what’s going on,” he said. “We can talk about the farm and our products. When we have the first sweet corn, I can post that, and people will come in to buy some. Or I can post pictures of the cows — that’s what people like to see. I love sharing the farm with people.”
Harris recalls his time in college, when he was encouraged to look at different methods of doing things. “It gave me a look at some completely different methods of farming,” said Harris. “I compared that to what we do, and I can make changes based on my personal experiences.” It’s important to keep an open mind, and question everything you do — maybe you’ll learn something and discover something new.”
Farming through experience and education
by Sally Colby