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From Apprenticeship to Ownership

Young Maine dairy farmers, Haden Gooch and Katie Gualtieri, are thrilled to be launching a business. Read the article published originally in Graze Magazine.

October 15 2021

Martha Hoffman Kerestes
Graze Magazine

Leeds, Maine — A 350-acre former dairy farm will have cows again, thanks to Haden Gooch and Katie Gualtieri. Just owning the land is something they find hard to wrap their minds around.

“I never thought we could have our own farm,” Haden says.

The road to farm ownership and dairying has been a long one, with years of working on different farms and learning the many facets of raising livestock.

Neither of them grew up on a farm. Haden’s grandfather had a beef operation that he visited but never really worked on. Both Haden and Katie were interested in agriculture, though.

Haden, now 30, and Katie, 27, met when they both worked on a direct-market livestock farm in Virginia that raised a variety of species, but no dairy animals.

They dipped a toe into dairy by purchasing a cow and starting a raw milk business, and that was enough to learn they both enjoyed dairying.

After several years, they moved on from Virginia to Maine, where Haden started as an apprentice with the

Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship (DGA) program and Katie worked at Winter Hill Farm, a dairy farm that produces value-added products like cheese.

“The idea was one of us would get commodity-style training on selling wholesale to a conventional buyer, and one person was going to get value-added training,” Haden explains.

The DGA is a formal training program operating in 15 states that combines on-farm and online classroom training covering topics ranging from pasture management to business planning. Apprentices work alongside
DGA-approved mentors within a structured learning environment on grazing-based dairy farms.

The goal is to provide apprentices with the tools they need to succeed on their own, either as business managers or owners. Each graduate receives certification as a Journey Dairy Grazier, which can be shown to prospective employers and lenders.

Forty-eight apprentices have finished the DGA program, and many have gotten off to successful starts in the dairy business.

Haden’s DGA work was at the Wolfe’s Neck Center for Agriculture and the Environment in Freeport, Maine.

The nonprofit organic dairy hosts several apprentices at a time, which allows them to learn together and help each other.

He started the two-year program in April 2017 and graduated in 2019. Haden stayed at Wolfe’s Neck for another year as a Journey Dairy Grazier, taking more management responsibility.

DGA was path to dairy goal

He says learning the many different aspects of running a dairy through the DGA program was invaluable in helping reach the goal of managing his own dairy.

“It was awesome,” Haden says. “I’d never done any scale of dairy before. In two years you really soak in a lot of information.”

The structured DGA program appealed to him. He was glad for the opportunity to do hands-on learning on the farm as well as attending pasture walks and making connections with extension agents.

“We got to milk the cows, make feed, and learn how to fix things when we broke them, which was a lot of times,” Haden says.

His time with DGA made all the difference for moving into milking cows. “I literally knew nothing about dairy coming in, and coming out it gave us the confidence to start a dairy,” Haden says. “I think (DGA) totally made it possible.”

“Wild ride” to ownership

After Haden’s third year at Wolfe’s Neck, he left to work with Katie on another small farm in central Maine.

Haden had the idea to start a pastured broiler business on the side, raising 7,500 birds in 2020. They started tossing around the idea of buying a farm, and looked at farms for sale that could fit their needs.

A friend told them that Sander-Lou Farm, a 350-acre former dairy with 100 open and 250 wooded acres, was coming on the market. The owners had retired in the 1990s and directed that the land be protected in perpetuity as farmland.

Maine Farmland Trust was lined up to purchase the property and add an easement to ensure the property stayed in farming. MFT put out the word that the property was available, and Haden and Katie saw right away that it could be a good fit.

There were some challenges. MFT was purchasing the farm through its Buy Protect Sell program, which is reserved for special cases. As a nonprofit, MFT is not in the position to hold real estate, so farms purchased under the program are generally resold quickly, often on the same day that MFT closes with the seller.

This meant the Sander-Lou property wasn’t likely to be accessible to people who, like Haden and Katie, lack substantial capital. They were looking at Farm Service Agency beginning farmer loans, which take a long time to line up.

The partners worked with Dirt Capital to see if the investment company could help them. Under the terms of the agreement, Dirt Capital would have owned the farm and rented it to Haden and Katie for the first five years.

But as the conversation progressed and the closing date drew near, they were looking at the numbers and decided not to go through with the deal.

“There were some complicating factors with the type of easement, and also just in the end it wasn’t a very good business deal on our side,” Katie explains.

So their next step was to work with MFT to let them rent the property while pursuing FSA funding. The FSA side required lots of explanations to people unfamiliar with the pastured poultry business that was to at least initially form the bread and butter of the operation.

This began a little more than a year of back and forth with MFT and FSA, and there were many times when things almost fell apart. “There were probably a lot of times we should have folded and quit,” Katie notes.

They stuck with it, and finally made the purchase at the end of May this year. “It was a pretty wild ride,” Haden says.

Combining poultry and dairy

And Mayday Farm was born. The name comes from the spring holiday and cows going out to pasture, along with the SOS call because, as Katie explains, “We must need help if we are starting a dairy farm!”

They’re planning to keep raising 30,000 broilers a year and selling wholesale to Walden Local Meat Company, which works in New England and New York.

They still wanted to milk cows, but didn’t know of a market. Then, shortly after the farm purchase went through, they found one through a DGA connection: Stonyfield was willing to pick up organic milk produced by 40 to 50 cows.

The pastured poultry is a seasonal enterprise (late April through late October), while the milk check will provide a steady income throughout the year. They built mobile poultry houses with automatic feeders to minimize labor, which should provide enough time to do the milking and pasture moves.

Especially with the volatility of today’s dairy world, Haden and Katie appreciate having diversified revenue streams. “I think they make a good pair,” Haden explains.

They further mitigated risks by building into both their dairy and poultry wholesale contracts the ability to sell their own products directly to consumers.

Haden and Katie want to keep the door open to direct marketing dairy products, and they were considering direct sales before reaching the agreement with Stonyfield. But with plenty already on their plate, they were happy the wholesale option happened.

“I think shipping and building a relationship with Stonyfield is the ultimate goal for both of us since being in a creamery (on-farm) isn’t necessarily ideal,” Katie explains. “We like to focus on the cow side a little more, but we do have some wiggle room to do a little bit of value-added on the side.”

In particular, Katie might like to go back to making ice cream in a couple of years, since she enjoyed that in the past.

Getting ready for dairy

In the meantime they were busy this summer raising broilers and preparing the farm for dairy. They hope to be shipping milk by winter.

The previous owners gutted everything when they stopped milking, which is nice since it allows them to build what they want, but challenging since it means having to buy and plan more infrastructure.

There’s an older, original barn and a 1980s-era tiestall facility, both solid. While they contemplated freestalls or a bedded back and a parlor, the timeline and money are both tight. Grant opportunities are available to farmers who are already milking, but not for beginners. So they made the best short-term decision available.

“We came to the conclusion that the easiest and least expensive way to get going is to just put the tiestalls back together with milk lines and piping,” Katie says.

“It seems crazy to put a tiestall back together, but we’ve done the math and the risk calculations for 40 to 50 cows,” Haden adds.

Once they get settled with the cows, they plan to readdress the issue and see what updates make sense in the future.

In season, they plan to have the milking herd graze around 50% of their dry matter intake, supplementing with stored forage (some purchased) and grain. The 100 forage-producing acres will be a bit tight for handling both their targeted herd size and the poultry, so Haden and Katie are eyeing the potential for select timber harvests to open more pasture land. Currently the wooded acres are being used solely for timber production.

Their goal is to find labor, ideally people interested in both sides of the operation. The challenges here are that the farm doesn’t have housing and it is far from where young people usually want to live.

They’ve seen that attracting good labor requires at least one of these attributes.

“With the chickens and the dairy, we can support two full-time employees, which we hope to get so we can have some time off and be refreshed,” Haden explains.

Though the path to this farm has been challenging, Haden and Katie are grateful for the progress they’ve made.

“Having the opportunity to be on this piece of land,” Katie says. “It felt really out of reach, and now it’s a reality. So it feels really good.”

Haden and Katie hope their story can inspire other aspiring farmers. “I think it’ll be cool for young people to see that you can do it,” Haden says. “You just have to be so much more creative then it was when land was cheaper and markets were more accessible.”

Katie adds, “There are resources and there are opportunities, and when it seems daunting, keep working through it.”

Looking ahead, they want to be part of building back the rural community of farmers sharing ideas and friendship, all while improving their land.

And it looks like that has already started. Katie says neighbors have told them, “We can’t wait to see cows back there.”

“It’s really cool to bring a farm back to life,” she adds.

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