Rebecca Brown, who goes by Becky, is the director of Wolfe’s Neck Farm’s new Organic Dairy Program, an 18-month training program for wannabe dairy farmers. We called her up as she was busy contemplating the purchase of cows and the acquisition of the first class of four students, who are due to arrive by early summer. We discussed cows, the demand for organic milk and how many dogs it takes to do the work of seven people.

DAIRY DILEMMA: Maine is losing dairy farms every year; the low price on milk makes it very hard to stay in business. And dairy farmers are aging out of the business. But Brown points to the increasing demand for organic milk as a key area of growth. (Sales of organic milk were around $5 billion in 2014, according to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, about double what they were in 2005.) Wolfe’s Neck’s new program is being funded by a grant from Danone Ecosystem Fund and Stonyfield. It’s a little different from say, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association’s Journeyperson program, because all the students will live at the Freeport demonstration farm. “It’s kind of like an incubator farm,” Brown said.

GETTING THE JOB: How does one get a job running what amounts to a dairy school? “I was just minding my own business one day and I got a phone call from Dave Herring (the executive director of Wolfe’s Neck Farm),” Brown said. The job “really was the culmination of all my experiences,” she said. “I couldn’t pass it up.”

VINEYARD VINES: But she did have to give up a gig on Martha’s Vineyard to come to Maine. She grew up on the Vineyard, on a farm that included cows, and was thrilled to return there five years ago to run a dairy farm. But after a year-long bout with insomnia, she came to the conclusion that the farm’s solar-generated electricity was making her sick and moved on, starting a grazing company. Shuffling goats around to clear property and beat back undesirables like poison ivy was great, except in the winter. “To feed those bloody goats every winter cost me an extra $5K,” she said.

ADMISSION: How does one get into this program? Wolfe’s Neck is doing outreach nationwide. “We are basically talking to everybody and anybody that has some affiliation with farming,” she said. As for what they want in a student, “we’re hoping for people that have milked a cow before and that have some dairy experience,” Brown said. But the requirements are few. “As long as they are 18 years or older,” she said. The deadline for applications for the first class is June 1.

COW CURRICULUM: The focus of the program will be on milk production itself. The plan, Brown said, is to set up the next generation of dairy farmers and have them run a successful business. “If they want to run an organic dairy farm, totally cool,” Brown said. “No restrictions after they graduate. They don’t have to replicate what we do.” The students overlap in batches of four, so after the second class comes in at the beginning of the next growing season, there will always be eight studying at Wolfe’s Neck at any given time. “It’s a full-time thing,” she said. “So this is their job. They get paid to learn.”


FELLOWSHIP: Students will live in farm housing and work as much as they want, for a fair market wage (“$10 an hour or something”). The way the program has been put together “is wild from my perspective,” Brown said. How so? When she was trying to learn her trade, she traveled widely – including working on farms in New Zealand – looking for experts who could teach her how to be a better dairy farmer. “It took me like 15 years and a lot of money to do that,” she said. “And these trainees are being offered that on a silver plate.”

AHEAD OF THE TREND: Her 15-year course of study left her with deep convictions about organic farming. “Biological farming is where it is at,” she said. “Focusing on the soil as the way to all health – human health, cow health, plant health – it all goes back to the soil. It’s like a trendy buzzword now, but not when I started.”

LET’S GO TO THE DOGS TONIGHT: One of the lessons she picked up in New Zealand was that border collies make livestock management vastly easier. “Every single farmer has a dog and it is just not a thing around here.” She has two in training, Razz and Zeb, but the jury is still out on whether they’ll be used on the new herd at Wolfe’s Neck. “Dogs haven’t historically been here before,” she said. “And they have to prove themselves to the board members on the farm.”

MILK AND COLLIES: Can the dogs persuade? Brown thinks so. In the field, “one dog is worth like seven people,” she said. If the board approves, Brown may breed her dogs, which could lead to the trainees having pups of their own to work. Sign us up.

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