Of Farms and Fables combines the efforts of professional and non-professional artists by engaging artists in farm work and farm workers in storytelling and acting. The result will be an original performance in October of 2011 which will engage performers and audience in dialogue about local agriculture, farming, and the future of small family farms in Maine.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Kay-Ben, March 2010 (Jennie)

Just back from a very full (as always) visit to Kay-Ben Farm. I was attended this time by Cheryl (Advisory Board) and Claire (Company Manager). We met Becky up at the house and she walked us over to visit the heifers. She and Eddie are just back from a trip to Frederick, Maryland for "March Madness", and this has nothing to do with basketball. While attending a large sale of purebred heifers that takes place every two years, Becky and Eddie visited a number of dairy farms in Virginia and Maryland and purchased a heifer for their son Eben to show on the 4-H competition circuit this summer.

The heifers were happy to see us. One in particular, Kiss, who was larger and older than all the rest, actively displayed her outgoing personality. She licked our jackets and pushed her companions out of her way to get a better look at us.

Continuing our tour, we had a look at the show calves in the barn and the dry cows downstairs. The dry cows are at least 7 months into their 9 month pregnancies; we learned that one particularly statuesque expectant cow weighs approximately 2,000 pounds! These ladies were relaxing in the comfort of the barn, munching piles of hay, being pregnant.

We moved outside to visit the new calves. These range from two days to six weeks old and they live in individual hutches in front of the barn. We learned from Becky that the hutch technology is relatively new on their farm; they had always kept their calves in the barn, and resisted making a switch to hutches for some time. After moving the calves outside, however, they found that them to be healthier and happier. The number of deaths they see each season dropped from 7 % to 1%.

It was in the midst of this conversation that we met Eddie - Becky's husband, whose grandfather purchased Kay-Ben Farm in 1916. With Eddie we discussed some of the challenges facing dairy farmers in Maine these days. Competing with large-scale industrial dairy farms out of state is impossible. With the advances that have been made in transportation and technology, and the differences in quantity produced, milk from New York is delivered to Maine packing plants faster than Eddie's - when his milk only has to travel ten miles. Eddie explained that he had to diversify his business in order to stay afloat. The income from breeding and his new compost business far outweigh that of his dairy operations. The number of dairy farms in Maine has decreased to a third of what it was when his father took over the farm, and if his children were to take the farm from him, the number would be half of what it is now.

We traveled into the milk barn and met the milk cows arranged in families, a ten year-old cow positioned between her first two calves and her sister. On the way in, we learned about different feeds, smelling the difference between corn silage and fermented hay. The Bensons grow their own corn and hay, and also purchase blended feeds that have added nutrients - I had a hard time keeping up with all of the information about proteins, fats, fiber, and the plenitude of vitamins in brewers grains. I am always astonished by the complexity of the science that permeates the Bensons' daily lives, by how extensive their knowledge is. Through all of this overwhelming complexity, I leave with the sense that much of what Becky and Eddie do every day is to strive for, or to facilitate, balance.

This is true not only in maintaining the health and productivity of their herd, or in encouraging the successful breeding of their award-winning Holsteins; a need for balance plays a role in the third arm of their business as well. In producing "Surf and Turf Compost" they balance cow manure with waste from nearby harbors, and combine the result with yard waste from municipal dumps and food waste from local restaurants. A business they say they "fell into", the compost is in high demand. There is a market to support further growth, but Eddie is not sure they can manage a larger compost business, considering all of the other work that they are doing.

It is always a treat to visit Kay-Ben Farm, to step into this rich world both familiar and foreign. I was very glad to meet Eddie, to hear about the compost (I hadn't seen the dump trucks!), and to understand just a little bit more about cows than I did on my last visit.