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'Living The Dream': Father-Son Dairy Farmers Keep It Small, Simple In Essex County

Two men standing in front of a red barn
Erica Heilman

With schools and restaurants closed at the beginning of the pandemic, the milk industry lost some of its biggest customers. Independent producer Erica Heilman visited a small farm in Essex County to see how they are faring.

Stephen Russo and his son Stephen Russo run the Russo Farm on Route 102 in Brunswick, which is in Essex County. Stephen Sr.’s been farming this land for over 36 years, and his son has been working on it his whole life and hopes to take it over one day. They have 63 Holsteins, and they milk 30 at any given time. And they’re still milking into pails, which get dumped into holding tanks, and then the milk gets sucked up into lines that take it to the milk house.

I went up to talk with them about how they’re surviving COVID, and why size really does matter.

Here’s Stephen Jr.  

Stephen Russo Jr.: “The bulk tank holds 545 gallons. But it holds 4,800 pounds of milk. So you take the 4,800 pounds of milk, divide it by 100, and then you times that by the milk price, and that’s what you get paid.”  

Me: “What do you have to break to be OK?” 

Stephen Russo Sr.: “It costs $18 a hundred weight to make a hundred weight of milk. So if they pay ya $12, you’re going backwards, ain’t ya? But you’ve gotta be savvy.” 

Me: “And the price now of milk now is…? Or tell me about what happened through COVID to the price of milk.” 

Stephen Sr.: “Well it dropped like a rock. Went down $13. ‘Cause they said all the schools were closed, all the restaurants were closed. You know, pizza joints and stuff. It really put a damper to it. But we don’t spend a lot of money either. That makes a big difference. And we don’t buy a lot of new paint.  

Me: “Paint?” 

Stephen Sr.: “Yeah. New tractors, new equipment. When it’s brand new, you know, don’t it look shiny?... We try to run everything as long as I can. We got a real strict maintenance procedure. The other day I was weed whacking on this bank … and my [weed whacker] head fell off. And that was June 26, 2020. I went up to house and looked in my book to see when I bought it. I bought it June 26, 2000 – 20 years ago.”  

Stephen Jr.: “You gotta keep it simple, and you gotta keep it efficient as possible, so you save in the high spots and hopefully they carry you through the low spots.”  

More from VPR: Farming's COVID Crisis: Specialty Cheese Sales, Milk Prices Plummet

Staying small, efficient

Me: “Buy why do so many people not go that route? Why do so many try to …”  

Stephen Sr.: “They’re keeping up with the Joneses! I had a banker one time said, ‘Steve. Why don’t you build a heifer barn and milk more cows in the barn?’ I said, ‘No. I wanna sell ice cubes to Eskimos. I don’t want another barn to work in. One barn’s enough.’”  

Stephen Jr.: “When you grow your farm too big, you gotta rely on help, and the only efficient way to feed the cow is you gotta chop everything and put it through a mixer wagon.” 

Me: “So every new cow adds new complexity to how you run the business.” 

Stephen Sr.: “Well we breed our cows. So number one, when I get up, I want to look at a pretty cow. Number two, I been breeding them for quite a few years, and I want them to give a lot of milk. So I don’t want to milk over 30 cows. We milked 30 cows this morning, or last night, and we said 4,554 – 4,554 pounds of milk off 30 cows.  

“Some farmers got overextended. They got the big money on milk, and they went out buying things. We don’t buy nothing. There ain’t really too many little farms left – 30-cow farms, in Vermont. Might be. Might have some Amish. They call me Amish sometimes because I milk with buckets and stuff.

“No, they could get overextended. They could pay too much for the real estate, and you know you’re banking on this type of money for your milk check, and all of a sudden you go down, and what are you gonna do? Go borrow more money to keep your farm afloat? That’s a sinking boat.”  

"Living the dream"

Me: “Does some of this have to do with willingness to live this close to the bone?” 

Stephen Jr.: “Yeah, I mean most people don’t want to work seven days a week. Something breaks, your supper will be waiting when you get there. Suppertime isn’t always on a regular basis.”  

Me: “And it’s still worth it to you?” 

Stephen Jr.: “I’ve been doing it for 39 years. No sense in stopping now.”  

Me: “If it is such a grind, why do you keep doing it?” 

Stephen Jr.: “Pride. Heart and soul is into it. I like living off the land. You learn how to be a plumber, electrician, a mechanic, a carpenter, soil agronomist — to which grasses you put in what areas of the fields. You learn to know what the weather’s gonna do. I mean if you sit inside a building all day, you don’t experience nothing really, I don’t think.” 

Stephen Sr.: “I like it ‘cause I raise chickens — I raise meat birds and I raise laying hens, and we sell them, and then we get a pig that’s raised, and we eat that, and all the vegetables come off the land, so really we don’t really want for much.

“We didn’t even worry about toilet paper, we had so many. I mean when people had to go run in the stores and they got all panicky, I had two 23-cubit-feet freezers chock-a-block full – chicken, beef. I bought a beef from my buddy that he had, I bought half of it. That went in the freezer, nice hamburg.

“Oh yeah, we’re just living the dream. You set on the porch and watch the cars go by. But I tell you, I never seen so many New York plates as I did the last two years.”  

More from VPR: A Ride Along With The Sheriff Of Essex County

A course in common sense

Me: “What are you most worried about right now?” 

Stephen Sr.: “Nothing. Just getting up every day and going to work and nobody get sick.”  

Stephen Jr.: “Same.”  

Me: “So things are bad and hard and everything but I don’t know. Things here seem pretty good here, I mean, am I right?”  

Stephen Sr.: “We think positive. We had the milkman, he comes in he says, ‘Everybody’s pissing and moaning Steve, and what are you doing?’ I said, ‘I’m living the dream!’ I mean, you can’t beat yourself up. Just go with it. You look at the cows, they’re doing the best of their ability and it’s not their fault. It’s the people that don’t know how to market the milk. The suits. They need to open up the tie. Let oxygen to the brain so they take the CS course. Common sense.” 

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Erica Heilman produces a podcast called Rumble Strip. Her shows have aired on NPR’s Day to Day, Hearing Voices, SOUNDPRINT, KCRW’s UnFictional, BBC Podcast Radio Hour, CBC Podcast Playlist and on public radio affiliates across the country. Rumble Strip airs monthly on Vermont Public. She lives in East Calais, Vermont.
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