July 8, 2015
By Warren Johnston
While growing up in urban New Jersey, Lindsay Harris dreamed of being a farmer.
“When I was young, I was always the happiest when I was with animals or out in the woods,” Harris said recently while checking on the herd of Guernsey cows pastured on the 191-acre Tunbridge farm that she and her partner, Evan Reiss, own.
“Now, I’m living the dream.”
But Harris is not naive. She knows that to keep the dream going for themselves and their two young children, she and Reiss face a long road that traverses too little sleep, not enough money and exhausting hours of physically demanding work.
They’ve done it before on a farm they rented in Hinesburg, Vt., and built it into a successful business with hundreds of customers buying their raw milk and raw dairy products.
“We wanted to own our own place,” Harris said, and they bought their farm on Bicknell Hill Road a couple of years ago, beautiful hilly land that was first cleared in 1790 with a house that dates from a few years later and a huge, aging barn. They named it Mountain Home Farm, and got to work.
They built the new certified dairy and milking parlor in the garage across the road from the house, and every evening and morning, they lead their 10 milkers into the facility, sometimes delaying an occasional vehicle that passes as the cows make their way.
Harris is 40. She has a degree in biology and worked for the state of Vermont a number of years, trying to clean up the water in Lake Champlain, before getting into farming. She and Reiss did their research before starting construction on the dairy, but they didn’t count on the extra $60,000 it would take to make their milking, processing and packaging facility “legal” in the eyes of the USDA.
“Small farmers have to play by the same rule book as huge dairy operations. It doesn’t make sense, and it really makes it difficult for small farmers to make it,” Harris said.
From the start, Harris and Reiss wanted to do thing correctly, to leave as small a footprint as possible, as well as produce superior products.
“We have a different business plan than a conventional dairy. We think a lot about being as natural as possible. We treat our animals with respect and protect things that are in the public good — air and water. … Our cows and pigs are 100 percent grass-fed, and we graze them where there is not a danger of runoff, rotating them to a different pasture every 12 hours,” Harris said, noting that if they can make the “restorative agriculture” business model work, it might become more widely used by small farmers as well as large operations.
“We’re a single-source operation. Everything is grown, produced and packaged here.”
Initially, they made butter and buttermilk to sell — products for which Guernsey milk is well-suited because it has a higher fat content — and gave the skim milk to the pigs. Because of the process they use to separate the cream from the milk, the skim milk retains about 2 or 3 percent butterfat.
The pigs were loving it, but the farm was wasting a valuable product, Harris said.
So Harris and Reiss started making ricotta with the skim milk. “The cheese is fresh and delicious with a rich flavor,” and the pigs still get the whey.
The butter is churned from cultured cream — creme fraiche or European style — which gives it a slight tang. The buttermilk also has a similar tang and a rich, buttery taste.
Therein lies t he struggle between feeding the world and feeding the world well. Large factory farms receive government subsidies, but “small farmers who are practicing restorative agriculture and trying to improve the health of the community and the natural system, don’t receive any subsidies. We’re all poor, and we’re all competing with commercial agriculture. It’s not a level playing field,” Harris said.
“I want people to be thinking about where their food comes from and what they’re paying for. You’re paying for better quality, clean air and water. You’re paying for a public benefit.”
Mountain Home butter, ricotta cheese and buttermilk are available in the Upper Valley at the South Royalton Market and the Chef’s Market in Randolph.
Harris suggests trying the ricotta with fresh tomatoes or making a creamy spread with olive oil as well as the traditional use in lasagna or for stuffing pasta shells.
“I make a really good cheesecake with it too.”