Just Milkin’ It | The Udder Side of the Dairy Industry

Nestled amidst the wildflowers and tall grass of Mace Chasm Road, a nearly two-century-old farmhouse rests on green pastures. Just over the horizon, Lake Champlain glistens elegantly.

(DoNorth/Mike Herring)

Nestled amidst the wildflowers and tall grass of Mace Chasm Road, a nearly two-century-old farmhouse rests on green pastures. Just over the horizon, Lake Champlain glistens elegantly. In the field, cows graze peacefully and birds chatter overhead. It’s a bucolic scene plucked directly from a folk song.

Ashlee Kleinhammer and Steven Googin sit on the farmhouse porch while their dog, Gus, and a little black-and-white cat wander around the yard. Just by looking at them, they seem like a couple that has been farming their entire lives, and that all of this has come easily to them. But, that’s not necessarily the case.

Kleinhammer is originally from Morro Bay, California, and Googin hails from Cazenovia, New York. They now find themselves in Keeseville, New York, running and owning the North Country Creamery together. It’s a road that neither of them had foreseen taking until college; they hadn’t met each other yet, but individually, they found a passion and followed it to where they are today.

Growing up, they were both exposed to some level of farming by their families. Googin’s parents were homesteaders in their spare time.

“I was looking at what my parents were doing, as homesteaders. They raised most of their own food at home…That strongly influenced how I wanted to get into farming,” he says.

Kleinhammer’s father spent his summers growing up on a diversified family farm, which specialized in everything from dairy to vegetables.

It wasn’t until college that either of them made a conscious choice to pursue farming on their own.

“I did make a wooden cow when I was in seventh grade,” Kleinhammer says. “So, we’ll say there’s some foreshadowing there.”

Several friends had mentioned to Kleinhammer and Googin that the previous owners of the creamery had been wanting to sell the farm for a while.

“There’s a dairy (farm),” they said. “It’s already ready.”

Kleinhammer wasn’t sure if she was ready to become a farm owner.

“I didn’t think I really wanted to own anything. I thought lease maybe, but managing other people’s operations sounded a lot more comfortable,” she says.

The more she thought about it, the more it seemed like too good an opportunity to pass up.

It was a great convenience that they didn’t have to “farm shop.” The Open Space Institute (OSI), a non-profit organization, stepped in with the help of the Klipper Family Fund to purchase the land from the previous owners, Sam and Denise Hendren. The OSI then placed an easement on the land. The easement means that this farmland is now protected; it can never be broken up and sold off, and it must always remain agricultural.

The OSI then leased the North Country Creamery to Googin and Kleinhammer for four years before the couple had to decide whether or not to take out a mortgage and officially purchase the land.

“We got to start our business for four years, see if it worked and see if we liked it,”  Kleinhammer says.

Kleinhammer will be the first to admit that when it came to difficulties they faced in becoming farm owners, “there were lots.” Being a dairy farmer is more involved than just waking up at the crack of dawn.

“It’s one thing to like to milk cows, and it’s another thing to want to talk to the insurance agent,” Kleinhammer says. Kleinhammer and Googin hadn’t had much experience with processing dairy and soon found there were other obstacles they’d confront along the way: “learning the ins-and-outs of running a business,” such as balancing the books and making sure everything runs as smoothly as possible.

Kleinhammer and Googin founded a local Young Farmer’s Coalition chapter called The Adirondack Farmer’s Coalition. They work closely with small farms hoping to gain a better understanding of the trials and tribulations they face. The ultimate goal is to figure out ways in which these small farms can be better supported by their local and federal government.

One major campaign that the Farmer’s Coalition works on is forgiving student loan debt — a struggle Googin knows all too well.

“So, if you choose to go into farming after college, you can have your student loans forgiven as if you’re going into the police force or becoming a nurse,” Googin says. This campaign aims to get the government to recognize farming as a public service.

Farming isn’t all about difficulties.  When Kleinhammer and Googin speak about their favorite aspects of small scale farming, they both heavily stress the idea of “community.”

“The community engagement that comes with this kind of farming where we’re dealing directly with the consumer, especially in this day and age where folks want to be closer to their food source, we get to meet a lot of wonderful people” says Googin. It’s not only about connecting with the surrounding community, the farm has become a community itself.

“I love watching our employees support and work with each other through all the challenges and rewards that come with farming and working together,” Kleinhammer says.

The 2012 United States Census of Agriculture cites that the average age of the American farmer is 58-years-old, which is reaching retirement age. Kleinhammer and Googin feel it’s very important that more young people become interested and involved with small local farms.

Over the next five years, countless acres of farmland are going to change hands – either passed down to or purchased by other farmers. Less ideally, the land will be broken up and developed.

“We need to lower the age of the farmer,” Googin says.

“We are here as a resource, and we would like to work with other farms and organizations,” he says. “Understand what the people there need and want, and understand how your farm can fit into the community and be a part of it in a way that is meaningful.”

Kleinhammer and Googin advise young farmers everywhere to “start slow.”

Issue 10: Winter/Spring 2018

0 comments Show discussion Hide discussion

Add a comment

More in Champlain Taste