Caitlin Frame: Real Organic Dairy Farming in Maine

My name is Caitlin Frame and I own and operate the Milkhouse Dairy Farm and Creamery in Monmouth Maine with my partner Andy Smith. I’m really excited to be here with you all today.

Caitlin frame nuzzles a cow nose-to-nose on a snowy winter day

My partner Andy went to college in Maine and I ended up there after going to college in New York State and after a few apprenticeships at veggie farms with family cows and a micro dairy management position where we made a lot of cheese which we liked but didn’t relish the painfully long process of that.

Andy and I ended up at a farm called Two Loons in South China Maine. Two Loons Farm is a certified organic commercial dairy, midsize by Maine standards and it’s owned and operated by Paige Tyson and Spencer Aitel and that’s where we spent three years starting to build The Milkhouse as well as working on Two Loons Farm.

It’s not easy to get into agriculture as a first-generation farmer which is very much what Andy and I both are and there’s no way that we would have been able to be where we are now without the guidance and wisdom of those who’ve been farming for years and generations before us and we were really provided with an incubator space by Paige and Spencer to even be able to launch our business.

So at Two Loons Farm we started making yogurt in a twenty-five gallon pot on a couple propane burners and from one quart of yogurt you get our sorry from one quart of milk you get one quart of yogurt. We liked that one-to-one ratio, the simplicity of making yogurt and the quick return.

Plain whole milk, wild blueberry, and maple yogurt from the Milkhouse in Monmouth, Maine

Pretty soon we had our first product line, our original whole milk yogurt, blueberry yogurt, and plain Greek yogurt which we started selling at local farmers markets and a handful of wholesale accounts. So over the course of being at Two Loons Farm our small processing business grew steadily. We added accounts bought new equipment and then in 2014 we began looking for a permanent home farm for our family business and our animals and in 2015 in August we were milking cows in Monmouth Maine.

Milkhouse Creamery Monmouth Maine Farm Store

Our farm now is located in a little valley on the western edge of Kennebec County. We found the land to be beautiful, nearly 280 acres much of it fairly flat open pasture as well as woodlot and wetlands, kind of sounds like an easy transition and while we did find the land we wanted to be on quickly, you know there was a very many years process of you know continuing to build our little business, writing a business plan, getting a lender.

And in the end too, to purchase this land, we put a conservation easement on it which was bought from us at the time of purchase by Maine Farmland Trust. That greatly reduced the pay price to us and was the only reason that we could access that land at all.

All the food that’s produced on our farm, milk, yogurt, eggs, meat is certified organic or raised as such. We strive to improve the health of our soils, crops, livestock through regenerative, ecologically based farming practices. Principally, on our farm, this means intensive grazing on perennial pastures.

Cows on pasture at the Milkhouse Dairy Farm and Creamery in Monmouth Maine

We want to be adding organic matter, building microbial populations, releasing nutrient reservoirs, generally creating a rich environment where plants can live and thrive stress-free and well-fed.

These practices also lead to nutrient-dense meats and milk with a healthier nutritional profile for the humans that consume it.

I believe pasturing animals in the growing season and giving them lots of outdoor access in the winter should they choose to make use of it, it’s crucial to the health and well-being of animals.

I believe that domesticated animals should be able to act out their natural behaviors.

To me that means first and foremost ample space. Consider this, a confined feeding operation is in itself stressful to animals subject to that ituation and their limited access to fresh air, sunlight, clean bedding and contaminated food make them susceptible to bacterial and viral infections.

I believe animals should have a sort of basic right to the following conditions:

  • fresh pasture
  • air
  • sunlight
  • soil
  • clean food
  • water
  • shelter

To do anything other than let a cow be a cow or a chicken a chicken or pig a pig is to create a problem for us to figure out and to go a little further into a place that feels perhaps a little radical given the number of humans that live on this planet and what kind of food production systems are needed to feed them all, but I think that’s what we’re trying to figure out here.

I will say this: I believe that we ought to extend our attention and care to the full animal dignity of each creature we encounter as well as the full dignity of the land that sustains us.

Newborn calf resting in the grass at the Milkhouse Creamery

To bestow our fondness and love upon what we do is powerful. If we as farmers say we do this endless work for the love of it then we ought to practice love for the land, the animals, the farm systems that we partake in through regenerative agricultural practices.

Our cows average close to 80 to 90 percent dry matter intake from pasture in the growing season, well over the USDA mandate of 30 percent. Not only do we believe this practice is integral to soil health, we believe this is best for the health and well-being of our animals and ultimately what’s healthy for the humans consuming the milk and meat of cows.

Cows like being outside and can seemingly display enthusiasm, true enthusiasm over fresh grass. They’re not content to be enclosed or stand on concrete for the entirety of their lives.

This is a video of our turnout. Funny you know the excitement definitely diminishes over the season. You know they’re just like a little more chill about it later but sometimes you know they’re really psyched for a fresh paddock when they start galloping.

Dairy farming in New England is challenging in that our growing season is a short six months. We do some bale grazing on pasture in the fall to replenish worn out areas of pasture hay land by adding organic material and allowing the dormant seeds in the hay to take root, but after the cold really clamps down our farm seems to shrink dramatically in size and to really integrate the winter housing into our farm system we use a bedded pack barn.

Caitlin Frame feeds her cows from hay bales in the winter barn

So this is dairy farming in New England in the winter. That’s frozen water. This is our bedded pack barn the dairy herd side and then the center of the barn with the dairy herd on the left and the heifer, young stock heifer steers on the right. So the dairy herd side is roto-tilled daily and fresh wood shavings or chopped mulch hay or straw is added. As an actively composting system, the pack material is very warm. Over the course of the winter the pack material builds up.

We rarely have foot and leg issues that you know we’ve seen in free-stall barns that you know cows scraping themselves on concrete etc. Comfortable cows that have little environmental stress have less issues with illness and make more milk. Our bedded pack system ties into our farm’s goal of being regenerative. The compost that results from the bedded pack barn system is more stable and it makes for a more nutrient-dense high organic matter feed for the soil richly populated with microbes.

So in addition to our cows we raise laying hens and also feeder pigs that we buy in from neighboring farms whose practices we feel in line with. We do buy organic grain in for our animals. We tend to stay on the very low end of the grain rations spectrum and that of course is the ource of fertility but we also feed any of the dairy byproducts from the creamery into the pigs. That’s skim milk, whey, and sometimes whole milk that would otherwise be a waste product is transformed into high quality pork.

The other big part of the Milkhouse is our on-farm creamery which we started in 2012 at Two Loons Farm.

When we moved to Monmouth in addition to wanting to continue the yogurt and bottled milk part of our business we also signed a contract with Horizon that explicitly allowed us to use our milk for our creamery business. The remainder of our milk would be sold to Horizon. The contract we signed specified a maximum amount of milk we could produce and there were some loose expectations around a minimum amount in our bulk tank on pickup days but otherwise we could use as much milk as we needed for our creamery.

Caitlin Frame and children at the Milkhouse in Monmouth, Maine

In our creamery we make yogurt, bottle raw milk, and make eggnog in the months of November and December. Yogurt is one of those foods that can be highly processed made with lots of sugar or thickeners or it can be incredibly simple. When you start with good clean milk high in fat and protein you can make yogurt simply with milk, probiotic bacteria, heat, and time. That’s all you need. You don’t need skim milk powder or carrageenan or any other strange sounding thickener xanthan gum.

Our yogurt is of the two ingredient variety, fresh organic whole milk and probiotic bacteria. Our flavored yogurts are made with maple syrup and Maine wild blueberries. The maple syrup is also from Maine we buy from other small producers. It’s a simple, nourishing, and delicious staple food. It’s also truly representative of the Maine milk-shed and like our own very local milk-shed.

Our cows are raised and sustained by the land of our farm where they produce an abundance of rich milk and we, along with all that good bacteria, magic that milk into yogurt which is both an incredibly simple and complex conclusion to a process that begins with sunlight, soil, water, grass, and cows.

For years we’ve sold our yogurt mainly to natural food stores, coops, and a handful of cafes and restaurants slowly adding a counter with the seasons and years. Over the past two years we’ve added a number of independent grocery stores, 10 Hannaford supermarkets, four school districts, three colleges.

We have also been selling bulk milk to our neighbor and co-farmers at Grace Pond Farm on a neighbor farm. They use a transport tank on the back of their pickup truck to bring milk from our farm to a couple different cheese makers in a neighboring town. Both of the cheese makers that Grace Pond Farm sells our milk to have turned to us after larger dairy farms who wanted to maintain their contracts with Organic Valley or Horizon stopped selling them the small amounts of milk that they were buying so we are happy to be able to continue to provide these other small businesses with the raw product they need to make their local cheese.

So we were notified in January 2018, a little over a year ago, that we would cease to have an outlet for milk with Horizon starting 6 months from then, so at the end of July 2018. That was a huge blow to our morale and for a few weeks there our situation felt pretty desperate.

Even if Stonyfield or Organic Valley had been signing contracts with new farms at the current pay price for organic milk we had no wish to give up our processing business and ship only bulk milk. Our only option was to use more of our milk to make yogurt and then find a way to sell that yogurt.

I don’t want to minimize the struggle it took to feel like we wouldn’t have to sell the cows but as it was in the wake of our contract termination we were uniquely positioned with a branded farmstead product that we thought we had a market for.

When we started milking cows in 2015 organic milk prices were at record highs and now in 2018 and 19 the organic and conventional milk market is flooded and prices have plummeted. We were one of six of 15 farms in Maine who’ve been shipping milk to Horizon to lose our contracts and just one of hundreds probably thousands of organic and conventional farms across the country to lose contracts in waves of terminations starting at the end of 2017 and continuing through to the present.

Dairy farms contribute in a huge way to rural economies keeping all farm support systems thriving. According to a 2004 report by the Maine Dairy Industry Association, the total economic impact of the dairy industry on the state of Maine amounts to $570 million in business sales and 4,000 jobs generating nearly 150 million in earnings for Maine citizens. This report was updated in 2012 and those numbers stayed consistent and this economic analysis can be extended to rural economies throughout the country, but especially in the Northeast and Upper Midwest where dairy farming has been the heart of the farm economy for over a hundred years.

Dairy farms command large tracts of land that in part define the rural character of Maine and other states. These lands are invaluable for their many ecosystem services that benefit humans and animals alike and biodiversity overall. As small family dairy farms die, so too do rural communities.

The consolidation of industry has had dramatic impacts on communities throughout the country. Some of the most severely impacted are farming communities. Take for example poultry and pork production where what was once produced on tens of thousands of independent farms throughout the country is now controlled by a small handful of multinational corporations that contract terms with growers that eliminate their autonomy as farmers, let alone their ability to make a living.

Organic dairy has resisted this consolidation and style of industry but now seems poised to suffer a similar fate as family scale farms are losing their contracts, declaring bankruptcy, and selling their herds at an alarming rate.

We are rapidly headed towards a world where the vast majority of milk is produced on a handful of massive confinement operations owned by processors and big-box retailers themselves. It would seem that the regulations outlined by the NOP would prevent this trend in the organic sector providing a safe haven for independent family farmers.

This should be especially true of the Pasture Rule which besides ensuring product quality and animal welfare would cap the ultimate size any operation could reach. After all, as any dairy farmer would know, cows can’t spend all day walking to grass and still produce milk. However we live in a time when so many organic standards are not being enforced and the organic milk market is flooded with milk from confinement operations that are organic in name only.

There has been a great failure on the part of the NOSB to uphold standards but consumers also will have a definitive role in this process of whether or not family-scale farms will continue to exist.

When consumers say they want organic, do they want the cheapest possible store-brand milk that originated 3,000 miles away as ultra-pasteurized and has an expiration date of three months from now and a nutritional profile that looks exactly like conventional milk, or does the consumer want organic milk from family scale farms and from companies and individual farms that have integrity and that are part of communities from reputable dairy farms whose cows live healthy long lives and produce high-quality nutritious milk because they are actually able to walk themselves to grass that grows out of healthy soil that provides the majority of their feed intake?

It’s our job to illustrate the different farming practices and draw the comparison between the two worlds that will result from the different types of Agriculture we choose to support.

We at the Milkhouse remain committed to regenerative organic agriculture as is in line with the Real Organic Project standards and we stand in solidarity with the other pilot farmers and the future farms that are part of this program. Standards that include a higher dry matter intake from pasture, a strict origin of livestock standard, and higher standards for animal welfare and soil management to name a few.

Farming has this great possibility to be like magic making if you know we can all stand back and look at it with that ah that Linley talked about. It’s pretty wild that we’re grass farming and these lovely peaceful animals make milk out of that grass and we make this very nutrient-dense nourishing food for people out of that milk.

It’s a privilege to provide to what is now thousands of people the food that we make. Every one of those interactions is meaningful. It’s our grass grown in our soil that is feeding that many people and in the process we’re improving our soils so that the land of our farm may continue to be a source of nourishment for our community for generations.

Just imagine this process replicated over many thousands of farms throughout the country bringing this meaningful exchange and nourishing food to thousands more people, hundreds of thousands, millions maybe, and it is a beautiful vision to be sure.