Sixth-generation farmer has agriculture in his blood
Editor’s note: In this past Monday’s edition we featured a story on a local dairyman who is using a newer technique called no-till farming. Here we present a picture of the farmer himself.
By GAEN MURPHREE
ORWELL — Brad Thomas walks around a field on his Jillian Acres farm off Route 73 West in Orwell, showing some visitors the cover crop he has planted on some of hay fields. Thomas milks cows and farms 465 acres in Orwell and 225 in Rutland County.
Thomases have been farming Vermont soil since before the Civil War, when Brad Thomas’ great-great-great-grandfather first bought land near Rutland. Brad Thomas’ great-great grandfather purchased his first purebred Holstein in 1901.
The family began the Thomas Dairy in 1921, delivering bottles of milk when Thomas’ great-grandfather went house to house in a horse-drawn wagon. Indeed, Thomas Dairy and Monument Farms are the only two remaining bottlers of conventional milk inside Vermont (the other two bottlers are organic milk producers Kimball Brook Farm in North Ferrisburgh and Strafford Creamery in Strafford).
Like his grandfathers before him, Brad Thomas, 52, grew up loving farming and being proud of raising purebred Holsteins.
“When I was young, I couldn’t wait to get out on a tractor and harrow,” said Thomas. “I started driving a tractor when I was really, really young. I remember my mother hollering at my uncle, ‘He’s six years old! He shouldn’t be driving up and down Route 7!’ ”
Twenty-two years ago, as the family business expanded more deeply into the processing, packaging and distributing side of things, Brad Thomas struck out on his own, away from the family dairy, and began farming in Addison County. Today he milks 175 Holsteins and farms on land in Orwell and in Rutland County.
“I grew up around Holstein cattle,” said Thomas. “You don’t see it as much today but when I was growing up and with my grandfather and some of the other older generations there was a prestige that went along with owning purebred Holstein. I guess that was drilled into me at a young age.
“I had a passion for cows — not so much milking them every day because that’s hard work, milking them twice a day, 365 days a year,” he continued. “I’ve done it long enough where I’ve had days and years that you don’t get a day off — and I’m not whining because there’s a lot of farmers out there that don’t get days off. You work when you’re sick, you work when you’re hurt. But I have a lot of fun. I go with my family to a cattle show, and we all show cows and have fun doing it. We don’t have the best cows in the state, but we have really good cows and we’re proud of them.”
A tour of Thomas’ farm reveals a number of farming practices that show Thomas’ insistence on being a good steward of the land.
A back acreage in a partly marshy, partly wooded area with a stream adjacent that eventually flows into the lake is no longer used for pasture. Cattle are now fenced off from this more sensitive area. Diversion ditches from the cow barns go into a vegetated buffer area that absorbs the nutrients.
Several yards downhill from the cow barns is a new, as yet unused, giant manure pit that exceeds state standards, built with cost-sharing and engineering expertise from the Agency of Agriculture and the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Thomas stressed that manure isn’t waste to farmers but a valuable resource necessary to good crop production. The kinds of mismanagement that allow for run-off into the lake also result in farmers losing the benefit of that asset and having to supplement manure with purchased fertilizer or having poorer crop yields.
Thomas is also among the first to try one of state and federal agronomists’ top recommended approaches for reducing farm run-off into Lake Champlain: no-till corn, coupled with cover cropping.
Thomas has also joined the Champlain Valley Farmers Coalition, which operates in partnership with the UVM Extension office. Like a lot of self-employed business owners Thomas likes working solo, but he sees the coalition as a way for farmers to solve problems together.
And while he’s happy with what no-till is doing for his farm, he’s also happy with what it’s doing for the environment.
“I think that no-till is a good practice for water quality,” Thomas said. “And I think for the most part farmers are trying to do the right thing. There’s a lot of other places phosphorus comes from that is polluting the lake, and there’s a lot of finger pointing going on at farmers, but now we’re in the forefront so we need to clean up our act.
“For the most part farmers are stewards of the land, and they want to do things right,” Thomas continued. “I live here. I’m raising my family here. We enjoy the beauty of Vermont as much as they next guy, and we’d like it to be here for future generations.”