I first met Jake and Karen Fairbairn, owners of Lazy Crazy Acres Farm & Creamery in Arkville, New York, at the Cornell Agribusiness conference last fall, when I was lucky enough to be seated next to them and hear about their new venture into gelato (and taste every delicious flavor -- my favorite had local honey in it). I was intrigued by the logistics of this endeavor, like the incredible expense of a freezer truck and the constraints to getting their product to the New York City markets, and how they have twelve sinks just to meet the NY state requirements. I asked Karen to share more about her life as a dairy farmer as well as the challenges with organic certification, and her recommendation to add “American Farming” to public school curriculum. I'm in.
What motivates you to devote your life to growing food/raising animals? Did you have a different career prior to farming?
Farming is in Jake’s blood. Both his maternal and paternal sides have been farming these mountains for over 150 years. He went away to college but every summer, back at home on the farm, he realized there was nothing he wanted to do more than farm. So he went to the University of Wisconsin to study and then interned on some great, radical grazing farms in Vermont. I worked year round directing privately-owned sleep away camps. I'd spent time on alpaca and goat farms and had grown up at a horseback riding camp but knew nothing about dairy until our first date – which was in the milking parlor! We are just both very passionate about these animals, this land, good food and keeping farms in America rockin' and rollin'.
Can you describe a typical day in the life on your farm?
Nope. There is no typical. We don’t get up before the sunrise like most dairy farmers do. I can tell you that much! We care for the livestock. We make gelato (crack eggs, measure/bake/prep ingredients, pasteurize, package, etc) and bottle milk. We put wholesale orders together and get our food trailer prepped. We go to farm markets and events. We do lots of paperwork and dishes and farm chores. We try very hard to lift our chins up and notice how incredibly beautiful our pastures, bovines and farmland are.
How did you get access to your land? Do you own or lease?
We are super duper lucky in the fact that we inherited 106 acres. Also, we have use of Jake’s parents farm which is one mile up the valley and is 150 acres.
How would you describe your local food community? Is there strong support for small family farmers? Do you have relationships with neighboring farmers?
We have a great, supportive second home community who purchase quite a bit. Our year round population is in pretty rough economical shape and so it’s hard for folks to spend much on a luxury item like gelato. They do when they can and they buy a bunch of our cream line milk, though. Our year round, local community is proud of us and they let us know through their kind words and continued cheerleading!
What convinced you to opt out of organic certification? Do you think the organic label is valuable? Where does your philosophy of growing food/raising animals fit in the wide range of production practices?
We are not certified organic but do operate almost fully organically. We make all our own fertilizer through compost, never use pesticides, make our hay on the farm and are an intensively managed grazing farm.
Certified Organic is not all rainbows and awesomeness. Organic practices should be used but if I have a calf who chews a wood fence post, gets an infection in her mouth and the homeopathic remedies haven’t worked – then by golly I will give her an antibiotic. She won’t be making milk for years!
“Organic” has been a very tough issue for us because we find that organic practices are great but that guidelines for USDA Certified Organic are a little hard for us to swallow. We find that consumers think they are doing the right thing by purchasing “certified organic” but when we share some the realities of that certification for the farmers/animals then they understand it’s often better to just know the farmer and know about their farming practices. Certified Organic is not all rainbows and awesomeness. Organic practices should be used but if I have a calf who chews a wood fence post, gets an infection in her mouth and the homeopathic remedies haven’t worked – then by golly I will give her an antibiotic. She won’t be making milk for years! Most people would give their child an antibiotic. I'm not giving up a calf whose mom and grandma I have on the farm just because a certification says I have to. However, organic is the catch phrase and often it seems like we may have to become certified to help our bottom line. So QUICK! Let’s educate people before we have to get certified!
What do you think is the best way to market your products (CSA, farmers' market, on-site sales, etc)? Do you have to travel far?
We have to go far. We are doing five farm markets each week this upcoming season. Four are between an hour and an hour and a half away. We have been selling wholesale to a handful of stores but delivering frozen gelato is tough. We've signed on with a distributor who will begin picking us up in a month – that will make a difference, we hope. We would prefer to sell wholesale and on-farm but that may be years away as the money to be made on-site is not as profitable as schlepping to farm markets because of our remote location.
Can you tell us about your the ongoing challenges you face as a dairy farmer?
We had to sell our milking herd in March of 2009 when the economy crashed.
We had to sell our milking herd in March of 2009 when the economy crashed. We were selling milk on the commodity market and were receiving $10 per 100 lbs of milk. We had no health insurance, my appendix ruptured in the summer of 2008 and our medical bill was exactly what our milk check was for the year.
We were selling milk on the commodity market and were receiving $10 per 100 lbs of milk. We had no health insurance, my appendix ruptured in the summer of 2008 and our medical bill was exactly what our milk check was for the year.
We just couldn’t make it work. We were so sad. In 2010 we found out New York (state) was approving a micro-dairy system, so we jumped on the paperwork and had one installed in June 2011. We turned our milkhouse into the creamery and have kept our milk cows at our friend’s farm. We've kept the young stock on our farm. This month we will finally be bringing our girls back home to milk! It’s so incredibly obvious that America has messed up the dairy world immensely. Who can afford to buy a farm? A herd of cows? Equipment? Dairy farmers have to have one family member working off the farm and/or get really radical and go forth and conquer with an on-farm value added venture.
What is your opinion on the growing new farmer movement? What is your advice for people who want to become farmers?
We think it’s great! We also think it’s very romanticized and that folks should absolutely go spend at least six months (minimum!) working on a farm before making a decision. We're looking for a farm apprentice couple right now… so come work with us!
What kinds of institutional support would be helpful (research, better distribution networks? Infrastructure for small-scale processing? Tech tools to help communicate with CSA members and/or the public, crop record-keeping, farm finances…)?
There needs to be better communication between all the governing agencies. We had a really hard time getting certified to go “cow to cone” and ended up with TWELVE sinks just to please both Ag & Markets and the Department of Health. We have one stove where we can make an apple cobbler to go in gelato but cannot take the cobbler from said stove and serve it a la mode on a plate to a customer as it’s in a space that is only governed by one agency. So we have a second stove, 20 feet away, for a la mode cobblers. The laws need to be changed. It is easier to get approval to make gelato using prepasteurized eggs in a bag and strawberry slop in a bucket then it is to use hand cracked, farm fresh eggs and fresh picked strawberries. It’s all about commodity and large scale and the laws need to be more accommodating.
Most people in the US aren’t directly involved in agriculture and their connection to food is what they buy in the grocery store. What do you think the general public should know about farming and sustainable food?
We think American Farming should be a part of every school curriculum in every grade level. We think there should be fieldtrips and gardens at schools. We think every school should have farmers come to the school to meet the families. We have to start educating families and young people. We have to show the economics of what percentages of our household incomes used to go to groceries and what our budgets look like now. Then show them how many farms we've lost in their communities over the past 50 years alone.
What does your farm produce in a year?
Home Farm Acres: 106 : 60 in pasture and 46 in forest.
We grow grass, graze cows and heifers and make hay. This year we will have approximately 25 heifers, six steers and four milk cows on our farm. They are Jerseys and Crosses.
We'll have six pigs in our bedded pack barn where they'll help compost the 8,000 square feet of winter barn space before heading outdoors. We'll be increasing to 60 hens that move around behind the grazing bovine herd.
We've started a permaculture forest garden of berries and nuts which, when mature, will go into our gelato,
We're experimenting with wheat and barley as well. Some of these projects are being headed up by friends who want to farm but don’t have the land… and we do! So, we're sharing!
We chose Jersey cows because of their size, great personalities and high butterfat. Oh, and they're pretty.
What are your future plans for growth of the farm?
We want to continue to diversify and give friends the opportunity to develop farm ventures on our property. We're growing the wholesale end of our gelato business and hoping that we'll be able to spend more time on the farm with folks coming out to enjoy this beautiful space, awesome animals and our delicious gelato! First and foremost, we are farmers. We make a great dairy product to support our farming addiction.