NORRIDGEWOCK — As Hilton Farms embraces new technology, its owners have been recognized with an award given each year to a Maine dairy farm.

Jim and Liz Hilton say they are honored that their Norridgewock farm is this year’s Green Pastures Award winner. The award is given to one dairy farm from each New England state at the Big E – the Eastern States Exhibition – which is billed as the largest fair in the Northeast and took place in September.

“I’d say it’s an honor to get it,” Liz Hilton said in an interview at the farm this week.

Jim Hilton, 61, noted that the couple were up against several other good candidates from Maine. He speculated that the farm won the award partly because of its use of technology to monitor its cows.

“Really, it’s a recognition saying this is a farm that has gone and put in the effort to do things right,” said Julie-Marie Bickford, the executive director of the Maine Dairy Industry Association.

Jim Hilton’s parents, Frank and Shirley, who both died in the past year, were running the farm in 1969 when it first received the Green Pastures Award.

“I’d like it if my dad was still alive to see it, because it was really a big thing when my mom and dad got it,” Hilton said, noting that there were thousands of dairy farms in Maine at the time, compared to hundreds now.

“Agriculture has changed a lot in the last 65 years,” Hilton said. His father and grandfather started with roughly 40 dairy cows in 1954, and the Hilton Farms herd has grown to over 200 today.

The Hiltons have turned to several different forms of software that allow them to more easily keep track of their cows’ feed, milk production and health. The newest technology on the farm, a Dutch software product called Cow Manager, uses sensors pinned on each dairy cow’s ear to help identify health problems and illness. The sensor constantly assesses an animal’s head movements, which can indicate whether a cow is healthy.

Hilton can access the herd data on his computer and his phone, receiving alerts when a cow is potentially sick or ready to breed.

“I could be in New York and monitor my herd,” Hilton said with a chuckle.

The system allows the farmers to take a more proactive approach to their animals’ health and deal with problems before they worsen. “When a cow gets off her feet, that’s a big problem to handle,” Hilton said.

The internet-dependent software is possible on the farm only because the Hiltons are able to connect to a Hussey Communications tower in New Sharon.

“They’re being monitored 24 hours a day with this system, and it’s saved us a lot of time,” Hilton said, also pointing to other newer measures on the farm, including energy-efficient LED lights, a variable-speed vacuum pump in the milking system, and a plate cooler that cools the milk before it reaches the farm’s bulk tank.

After decades in the industry, Hilton sees challenges for new dairy farmers in particular, calling the current business atmosphere “kind of an economic struggle or a balancing act right now.”

He said a neighboring farmer has been having trouble finding someone to buy his business.

“Twenty years ago, there would have been people lined up at his door,” Hilton said.

He hopes that the recently announced trade agreement among the U.S., Canada and Mexico can give a boost to dairy farmers by opening more export opportunities.

“Milk has been going to waste, just because it doesn’t have a home,” Hilton said.

While Bickford still was sifting through the details of the trade agreement as of Tuesday, she said that expanding the potential for U.S. dairy exports into Canada is “exactly what we’re hoping” for.

She said the agreement “might give a boost on the price” of domestic milk and provide more certainty to U.S. dairy farmers.

Regardless of what happens with international trade discussions or the price of milk, Hilton seems confident about at least one thing: He’ll probably be returning to the Big E next year.

He had never been to the event until this fall, when the family accepted the Green Pastures Award.

“But I think I’m going to go back,” he said with a smile.

Matt Junker can be contacted at 861-9253 or at:

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