Horizon Organic’s annual National Quality Award is given to one farm each year for consistently providing the best quality milk to the company. This year’s winners were John and Janine Putnam of Thistle Hill Farm in Pomfret, VT. After a visit to their farm and milking parlor, it’s easy to see why they were the recipients.
The long driveway to the farmstead is almost exactly what you’d imagine when picturing a Vermont dairy farm. The trees line the road and driveway and the large, stately milking barn with a connected bulk tank room greets you. And far off to the left is a beautiful cheese house, where the farm’s famous Tarentaise alpine style cheese is made.
Janine and John started Thistle Hill Farm in 1995, choosing to raise their cows organically from the start and to become certified before the term “organic” was trendy. For about five years, they sold their milk to a small, local producer in Vermont before it was bought by Horizon Organic. Since then, Thistle Hill has continued to provide milk to Horizon in the winter months when the farm’s artisanal cheese operation has drawn to a close for the season. The milk is picked up at the farm and brought to a processing plant in New York.
With the help of their two sons Andrew and Ian, John and Janine care for 20 milking Jerseys who produce 700 pounds of milk per day. It’s clear that Thistle Hill’s cows are well loved and cared for; each calf is raised alongside its mother until weening, while their organic status means they’re out on pasture for as long as the season allows.
The Putnams own 25 acres of their own pasture right at the farm and lease 39 more off site. Gazing at her cows in the field, Janine remarked that there is competition for good agricultural land in Pomfret and they are always looking for opportunities to acquire more.
It’s not until you step into the dairy barn that it becomes clear why Thistle Hill Farm was chosen for the National Quality Award. With the aisles free of manure and debris, extremely fresh bedding and virtually no flies, it could be shown as an example of what a milking parlor should look like.
Standing next to the industrial-sized fan blowing towards the cows, Janine joked about how promptly manure is removed from the parlor with a gutter cleaner and deposited under the floor to be composted. The cows contentedly munched on their grain while Ian began milking.
As Ian emptied the surge bucket milker into a pail, Janine rushed over to bring it to the bulk tank where it’s dumped once more. “It goes a lot faster when we have two people working a milking.” Ian said. He then, zig-zagging through the aisle, explained that the order in which the cows are milked is always changing, depending on their individual health and cleanliness of milk. This is to keep the milker as clean as possible during milking as well as to prevent the spreading of bacteria from cow to cow.
Perhaps the Putnams’ value in cleanliness comes from their 15 years of cheese making, which takes an extraordinary amount of attention to detail. Their Tarentaise is an aged, raw milk cheese of the French Alpine style. Made in a traditional copper vat, the cheese is influenced by the cow’s diet, exhibiting a “smooth, subtle nut flavor and complex finish.” Each cheese round sits for five months in the cheese cave, being turned and scrubbed at least twice a week before it’s ready to be eaten.