CANAAN — Mike Holt was just 23 when he purchased the farm across from his parent’s place on Hartland Road in Canaan in 1976.

The very next day, he married Betsy Herrin, whose family owned a farm two miles up the road. He added her name to the property title.

For 20 years, they worked as a team, running their dairy farm and raising two children.

But times were changing. Over the years, the price of grain and fuel rose so high that the Holts barely earned enough on milk to cover their costs. College for their kids – or rather college bills for their kids – loomed. Little by little, they sold their herd – some 70 cows and heifers – and they took jobs that would pay the bills: Mike worked on a paper machine at Sappi Fine Paper in Skowhegan; Betsy assisted an orthodontist in Waterville. The dairy herd dwindled and then was gone.

Their kids, Corey, now 37, and Kristin, 35, entered college, finished college and also found work off the farm. Today, Corey works for a beverage company and Kristin is a schoolteacher.

“I think they saw the writing on the wall. They knew if they wanted to pursue their own career, they were going to have to go elsewhere,” Mike Holt said. “If the economics were better… maybe. The farm is theirs if they want it. That window is not closed yet.”

Then, four years ago, the Holts decided the empty nest needed some filling. They picked up a couple of calves to raise and sell. Then they added a couple more.

Today, they are leasing their barn and some equipment to a young farmer from town, the pastor’s son. Between the couple and the young man, the herd has rebounded to 70 head – there’s Stella, Bella, Ella, Stacy, Abby… About 30 of the cows are being milked.

“We have a passion for being here. We have a passion for agriculture,” Betsy Holt said of the turnaround. “We have a passion for this young man to be out here, and want to be out here.”

The young man is Nathaniel Brooks, 25, of Canaan. His father, Kevin Brooks, is pastor at Canaan Calvary Church. Nathaniel Brooks is starting out at about the same age Mike Holt did nearly 40 years ago. Brooks’ uncle, father, grandfather and brother work with him, and his girlfriend often helps with the chores.

“It was the same way with us,” Betsy Holt said. “When we started out – his dad lives across the road, my parents live two miles away and any barns that we built, our parents were here to help us. We couldn’t afford to hire somebody to come and do it, and I don’t know that it’s any different now. It’s a family affair.”

 

If Betsy sees herself and her husband in Nathaniel, he, likewise, sees himself in the Holts. He is working toward his dream of farming and family, just as they once did.

“My dream is to own my own farm at some point in the next 10 to 15 years – that would be my goal, and this is a real good start,” he said. “I’d milk cows and probably continue with the vegetables that I grow. I’d like to be married and have a couple kids, anyway.”

The dairy barn, which houses mostly Holsteins, sits a few yards from the Holts’ farmhouse. Brooks, his brother and grandfather start the afternoon milking about 4 p.m. The Holts often help out at milking time, too. The milk machine hums softly. The cows, their wet noses curiously greeting visitors, moo softly; a plug-in radio plays country music. An old dog named Hunter patrols the yard, and barn cats are curled up on bales of hay stacked two-high along an inside wall. Sunlight and spring breezes splash in from open doors on all sides. Steam rises on the hayfields and pasture. The sliding barn door opens, and the sweet smell of feed hay, pine shavings and fresh manure floats in.

PARTNERS IN LOVE AND WORK

If, to an outsider, afternoon milking looks a picture of tranquility, the Holts reminded a visitor recently that appearances can be deceiving.

“It was all about work then, from sunup to sundown,” said Betsy Holt, who also serves as Canaan’s tax collector and town treasurer.

Betsy Herrin had known Mike Holt since she was a little girl of 8 or so. Their parents were best friends, her mother the bookkeeper at a heavy equipment dealership in Canaan that Mike’s father managed. The Herrins and Holts held shared family gatherings. She and Mike were friends – just farm kids growing up together – until Betsy was a senior in high school. Gradually, Mike became more than the farm boy down the road.

“I figured out that he was the one,” she said. “He was in college at the UMaine ag program. My brother was there at the same time and my future sister-in-law, and I would go up to Bangor and visit every Wednesday night. One thing led to another, and he popped the question.”

Becoming a farm wife at age 19, Betsy said, was simply an extension of growing up on a dairy farm: “I had always been around cows.”

Still it was hard work, the couple agreed.

“We were learning how to be married together. We were learning about a business together. We were learning about being parents together,” Betsy said, “and everything happened like boom, boom, boom.”

The couple shared the workload as well as the decision-making.

“Whatever was needed,” Betsy Holt said. “‘Can you go bale hay?’ Or, ‘Can you go rake hay?’ ‘Sure.’ It was teamwork – it was not one without the other.”

Before coming to any major decision, they would talk it through, reviewing the farm’s business books, mulling over potential equipment purchases, considering whether to build a new barn. If they disagreed, they kept talking until they found common ground. A local equipment dealer quips that he never sold Mike anything before first checking with Betsy.

“It’s a partnership,” she said. “For it to work it has to be that way.”

The Holts bought what they could afford and did all of the work themselves, including cutting trees and sawing them out for lumber for a new barn in 1980.

“Money was always an issue. The priority was always the grain bill had to be paid,” she said. “That was the first bill that got paid, and it always got paid on time. That was a commitment that we had made together. We ate a lot of macaroni and cheese and hot dogs, because there wasn’t a lot of money.”

But their families were always there to offer a hand, pitching in with the farm work, lending equipment, easing the stress of farm life. After all, their parents and grandparents had farmed for generations before them. Betsy’s mother and mother-in-law taught her how to run the farm and the household. From them, she learned to keep a steady supply of pie or cookies on the kitchen counter, baked in the Ideal Maine cookstove that Mike Holt’s grandparents bought in the 1920s and that is the centerpiece of the Betsy and Mike’s kitchen to this day.

That’s the way it had always been, Betsy said. Long, hard days sweetened by pie.

And always, there was the work ethic.

“Two weeks before our oldest one was born I was harrowing out here in the field,” Betsy said. “There wasn’t anybody else to do it – it was, ‘I can do that.’ It’s different if you’ve never done it and then you go and do it, instead of always having done it and continuing to do it.”

For the first 12 years, the young family never took a vacation or even spent a night at a hotel.

Still, the Holts said they wouldn’t change anything.

“I would want to do it the same way, as long as he was by my side,” Betsy said. “I don’t know any other way.” 

TEXTS FROM THE MILK INSPECTOR

The hard work remains, but life on the farm has changed. Finding seasonal help, for one, is more of a challenge.

“They’re not knocking on the door and saying, ‘Hey, I need a job for the summer, will you hire me?’” Betsy Holt said.

Mike Holt remembers when kids on bicycles stopped by the farm looking for work. “Nowadays, the work ethic just seems to have stepped down,” he said. “So many kids are expecting things, not necessarily having to work for them. Not all of them, but some of them. Now we have to go searching for summer help.”

Nathaniel Brooks, the Holts add, breaks the mold. Betsy compares Brooks to her husband. They have much the same character, just 40 years removed, she said. “They’re parallel. Their work ethics, I think, are parallel.”

Another change the Holts noted is the presence of a highly trained dairy nutritionists who scrutinize the cows’ feed formula. “It’s like a human nutritionist, but it’s for cows,” Mike Holt explained. “It’s all figured into the price of grain. The nutritionist will keep the formulas in check. If these cows are starting to drop in production, she wants to know why.”

No surprise, computers and cellphones have changed farm life too (what haven’t they changed?).

“Anybody and everybody,” Mike Holt said, “whether it’s somebody for breeding for semen, a milk inspector, somebody from the grain company – whoever – they all have a phone now, and if you ask them a question they don’t know the answer to, they’ll get on their phone to call the home base.”

Brooks has milk sample readings emailed or texted directly to his cellphone, they say. What once took two or three days now takes place in real time.

Mike Holt remains staunchly old school. “I use the old standby – the phone on the wall,” he said. “And if it takes a couple of days, so be it.”

That said, he and Betsy did use the Internet when they first went looking for a young would-be farmer to mentor. Maine Farm Land Trust came up in a Google search. In the end, though, they didn’t need the Trust. They connected with Brooks the old-fashioned way. 

SHARED VISION

Betsy met Brooks when he was a boy of 12, a kid getting fitted for braces at the orthodontist’s office where she worked. Two years ago, Brooks signed on for his five-year lease. After the time is up, both parties to the agreement hope that he’ll have enough livestock, equipment and know-how to start his own dairy farm.

So far, the agreement is working well.

“I don’t think we could have picked anybody any better to have the same vision as what we have,” Betsy Holt said. Although it’s a business relationship, it goes deeper, she says. When Brooks’ grandfather, David Goodridge, had a serious heart attack bringing in hay at the farm a couple of years ago, Betsy gave Brooks a long hug. Goodridge, 76, survived. Betsy calls him Pa Pa now.

Brooks has been around cows since he was 3, about as long as he can remember. Come summer, his family runs a farm stand on U.S. Route 2, selling sweet corn and pumpkins. Such diversification is a key to success for dairy farms today, the young man said.

“I’ve had great-grandparents on both sides that have farmed, so I guess it’s in my blood,” Brooks said. “I couldn’t be happy working inside. I like being outdoors. I enjoy animals. I enjoy working the ground in the summertime. I can’t see myself doing anything else.”

After 40 years in and out of dairy farming, Mike Holt takes the long view. “It’s just not a real lucrative business. That’s why farms aren’t coming into business, they’re going out,” he said. In 1975, one year before Mike and Betsy Holt began farming, there were 1,200 dairy farms in Maine, according to data supplied by the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. Last year, there was less than one-quarter that number, just 287 dairy farms around the state.

“It’s possible for him (Brooks) to make a living,” Mike Holt continued. “Will he ever get rich? Unless things change drastically, no. Doing it this way, helping him along, he’ll know at the end of five years – ‘is this really want I want to do?’”

Two years in, it looks like the answer is “yes.” And assuming the best, that in three more years Brooks can establish himself on his own farm just as mentor and mentee have hoped and planned, Mike and his wife say they’ll look for another young fellow – to keep the cycle going.

Contact Doug Harlow at 612-2367 or at:

dharlow@centralmaine.com

Twitter: @Doug_Harlow