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Dharma Lea ~ The Van Amburgh Family
Sharon Springs, New York Maple Hill Farmers since 2010
Meet my kindred spirit, Phyllis Van Amburgh. How many people can you say that about in a lifetime? Not too many. The first time I met Phyllis I felt as if we had known one another forever. We were essentially living the same life—only about an hour apart. She and her husband were not born into a farm family. Neither of them had any farm experience before they just up and decided that this was the kind of life they wanted. In the years that followed the economy crash of 2008, Paul and Phyllis were doing everything they could to keep themselves, their five children and their farm afloat. Their families thought they were nuts.
In comparison, neither Tim nor I had grown up on a farm. We had no farming experience and had too, decided, that we wanted to bring up our (then 4, now 5) children on a farm. In the years following 2008, we were not only struggling, we were on the brink of financial disaster. Tim had quit his off-farm job and we had started a creamery—our family most certainly thought we were nuts. But our little creamery started to grow, and we needed more milk than our 60 cows could supply. We began to talk to Paul and Phyllis about the possibility of buying their milk. This might not sound like a big deal—but this is a ginormous, big deal. Dairy farmers sell their milk in bulk to companies—or cooperatives—that send a big tanker truck to the farm, usually every day or every other day.
You are signed up with one co-op or another—and this typically does not change very often. In fact, it changes almost never. In the organic milk world, which company you sign up with can even become a little competitive. Are you going to sign with Horizon? Organic Valley? How much are they paying for the milk and how do they treat their farmers? You are not allowed to sell some of your milk to one company and some to another—or at least that was the norm in 2010. To leave your co-operative would be a big deal—and a big, scary deal at that—because what if things didn’t work out with your new girlfriend? Would the old one take you back?
Well, we were the new girlfriend….and a strange one at that. We were a brand new company—only a little more than a year old. Why would anyone risk alienating their co-op to begin selling milk to company that was not only NOT well-established but even struggling?! We were open with Paul and Phyllis about the situation we were in—heck, Phyllis and I swapped stories of desperation and I even passed along my nursing bras to her the first time we met (now that’s a kindred spirit!). Too much information? Maybe—but I’m trying to get across the comfort level we felt with these people right from the start. Tim and Paul found a fast friendship and would spend long periods of time on phone analyzing everything from the current state of the grass to the current state of the economy. Well, in the end, they did decide to leave their co-op and begin shipping milk to us...little, tiny Maple Hill Creamery. We did not even have a milk truck to pick up their milk, so we would bring it over in old fashioned stainless steel milk cans. There are many people along the way that we can point to and say, “Without this person...or without that person, there would be no Maple Hill Creamery,” but this could not be more true than with the VanAmburgs. If they had not been willing to take the risk of joining us, there is no reason why anyone else may have followed. (Youngest daughter Ruby pictured at left with, coincidentally, a Maple Hill sticker on the window and a “No Farms No Food” bumper sticker below it. I think, for us, the stickers could have read,“No Dharma Lea—No Maple Hill—No Yogurt!”)
And these people make some serious milk. The last time I visited them, Phyllis could not wait to show me...wait for it...the grass. Yes, the grass. Tim and I were grass-fed dairy farmers for years, read about grass and went to conferences about grass—but I can honestly say I have never seen anyone as excited about grass as Phyllis VanAmburgh. She studies it like a scientist and how and why the cows choose to eat different lengths of it, different densities of it—you name it. She milks the cows and moves them from paddock to paddock oftentimes 3 times per day to make sure they are going to have the opportunity to eat the best grass and the most grass. This is a tricky business, and one she and Paul are constantly perfecting. Both Paul and Phyllis are passionate about the state of the grass, and the genetics that their cows pass on from one generation to the next. They have paid such close attention to how individual cows thrive on their grass-only diet, that they have quickly and effectively created a VanAmburgh cow variety that is known to grass-fed farmers far and wide. In addition, Paul and Phyllis were recently chosen from over 90 applicants to be a “Savory Hub” for the Savory Institute, which aims, as just one of its goals, to restore one fifth of the grassland worldwide. Paul and Phyllis’ farm will serve as a learning center for farmers and be a “best practices” example of holistic, ecological management. Although they do everything as a team, Phyllis is the official Savory Institute representative, and Paul has agreed to become our official Maple Hill Farmer liaison. We could not be more happy. It all ties together. Paul and Phyllis hope to become the leading example of grass-based dairy farming in the United States. How lucky we are to have them as a Maple Hill farm.
And with all the amazing things that I could say about these two people, I have not even mentioned the most important part of who Paul and Phyllis are—their kids! They homeschool their five children: Grace, Vince, Maggy, Oliver and Ruby. All of them, together, are working the farm virtually every minute of the day. Like most farm kids, they have free reign of the farm. They go everywhere and anywhere, right behind Phyllis or right next to Paul—or totally on their own, taking care of Elvis, the old white horse; Clover and Lucky the goats; Kate, Blue and Cricket, the giant, gentle draft horses; or doing chores for the cows.
Their kids are just nice human beings. They are smart. They are kind. They are amazingly capable and independent. They are calm, and not surprisingly, so are the cows, We lived with cows for almost ten years. We had a handful that were especially social and seemed to enjoy human attention, but for the most part, in our experience, the cows were wary of us and would spook easily. They were certainly not like pets. There is definitely a different feeling I have in and amongst the VanAmburg’s cows as I take their photos and the kids weave in and around them. The cows are used to the kids being there, and behave as such. Many of them stand and gratefully accept a passing ear stroke or head rub. I have to say this is true on so many of our Maple Hill Farms. The farms are small enough that people and cows have a relationship. All of our farmers can talk about their cows (who are usually named, in addition to having a number) and can tell funny stories about their antics and their individual personalities. As quoted from Paul and Phyllis’ own farm website: “Our mission is to create groups of animals in a healthy pasture based ecosystem that produces food that allows for optimal human health.”
All in all, we owe a huge debt of gratitude to this amazing farm family. They took a chance on us when we were really small and things were bad—really bad for all of us—and somehow, it has all worked out.
Written and photographed by Laura Joseph
Top family photo by Jeremy Merriam
Laura and her husband, Tim, were the original Maple Hill farmers beginning in 2004,
and founded the creamery with Pete and Julia Meck in 2009.