jersey cows at Howmars Farm in Vermont

How Innovation and Technical Assistance is Building Resiliency on an Organic Dairy 

by Kiera Ebeling, Agricultural Development Specialist at Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets

Nestled in Franklin, Vermont, Howmars Farm milks between forty-five and fifty jerseys.

Jon Gates runs the farm with his son, Noah. As an organic dairy since 1997, Jon and Noah are continuously making improvements to maintain the highest quality milk and forage possible. 

In early 2023, Howmars Farm joined a Dairy Technical Assistance Cohort focused on forage improvement. Led by Dr. Heather Darby and supported by a diverse team of agronomists, animal nutritionists, grazing experts, and farm financial experts, the cohort focused on building forage plans and assessing those plans across all levels of farm management.   

Building on past work with TA providers Heather Darby and Sarah Flack, Jon focused on non-lethal beaver mitigation to manage the water table in their pastures, expand options to increase grass density and pH levels, and no till seeding. Through the help of networking with his cohort, Jon put in a competitive application for the NE-DBIC Dairy Farm Innovation & Alternative Management Grant to implement changes to their grazing system to improve forage productivity and quality. 

Sarah Flack speaking about pasture improvement at Howmars Farm during a UVM field day.
Man standing in front of a red grain drill
No-till grain drill demonstration at Howmars Farm during a UVM field day.

While improving pasture quality is a long-term process, the Dairy Farm Innovation Grant has helped Howmars’ Farm achieve a larger scope of their goal to “produce the best forage and highest quality milk” than they would have been able to without extra funding.

As a small farm, they’re competing for services and pricing with larger operations that have bigger economies of scale, and this funding gives a meaningful boost to their pasture and forage improvement timeline.  Jon notes that he is “careful on money spent to get the highest quality.”

In practice, this means that Howmars brings in commercial operators for baling and other equipment needs, helping keep overhead costs low and focusing more attention on the aspects of running the farm that directly give rise to high quality milk. Jon believes that he is more resilient through networking in the community and looking locally for solutions. 

For Howmars, regional resiliency in dairy is all about focusing on quality, strong community connections, and local processing. 

Keeping all aspects of their milk local is important to them. “Bottled in Barre, you can’t get more local than that,” Jon says of where their milk is shipped. “It’s a benefit of being Organic. We like that our milk is processed in the state and region.”

Resiliency Through Generations 

Jon Gates’ grandparents, Hugh and Martha Towle, bought the farm in 1943. Jon’s parents, Howard and Mary, took it over in 1967 until Jon and his wife, Karen, started working with them. Growing up at Howmars, Jon didn’t think he wanted to farm, and he left to pursue a degree in Forestry. After school, he came back to the farm to work and figure out his next steps. In doing so, he learned so much more than before about operating the farm and decided to stay.  

When his sons were in school, Jon led field trips on the farm.  Being his own boss was something he highlighted to the kids while showing them Howmars.  Now Jon’s son, Noah, helps to run the farm. Noah is diversifying the business by growing potatoes and operating a small sawmill. A major focus in their operations is ensuring the viability of the farm for generations to come, for not only Noah, but to lead by example for other farms transitioning farm management.  

Resiliency is the ability to adapt to, overcome, and grow from changes without being beholden to the way things were. As they innovate their dairy and diversify their overall operation, Howmars Farm is an example of resiliency across generations. 

Photo credit: featured photo of jersey cows courtesy of Howmars Farm Facebook page.

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