Innovation nets Fosters a national farm honor

MIDDLEBURY — Foster Brothers Farm Inc. is seeing its already solid reputation grow exponentially, thanks to a national award it received recently.
The Middlebury dairy farm — also home to Vermont Natural Ag Products (VNAP) — was recently named “2019 Innovative Dairy Farmer of the Year,” a distinction conferred annually by the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) and Dairy Herd Management Magazine.
Foster Brothers is the first New England farm to be so honored.
“I was really honored by (the award), to receive it on behalf of our group,” Robert Foster said during a March 7 interview. “It’s humbling, and something we will have to live up to.”
The distinction follows on the heels of another award. Last October UVM’s Grossman School of Business recognized the farm and VNAP as an “Outstanding Vermont Legacy Family Enterprise.”
OFFICIALS AT FOSTER Brothers Farm Inc. proudly display the “2019 Innovative Dairy Farmer of the Year” award the Middlebury business recently won. It is the first New England farm to earn the distinction. Pictured, from left, are Heather Foster-Provencher, Robert Foster, Tricia Foster and Jessy Norris.
Independent photo/John S. McCright
It was George and Luella Chaffee who founded the Foster Brothers Farm during the 1930s. Their grandsons Howard, Ben, and George and their spouses demonstrated their commitment in the operation by building a new barn after a devastating fire in 1957.
That pride and commitment was continued by future generations of the family, who have painstakingly updated the farm’s equipment with cutting edge technology combined with a renewable energy ethos to keep the operation viable at a time when agriculture is again battling low milk prices and other economic challenges.
For example: A year ago, the Fosters unveiled their new barn dubbed the “Cow Palace,” in which 475 bovines are serviced by eight robotic milkers, free-stall water beds, rubber mats and brushes in a climate-controlled, well-ventilated environment. A crucial component of the new barn is an information technology system that spans the whole operation (click here to read that story).
The family’s hard work and dedication hasn’t been limited to dairy activities.
Foster Brothers Farm during the early 1980s became the first agricultural enterprise in Vermont to install a methane digester — technology that converts cow manure into energy. And the Fosters took their “green energy” efforts a step further in 1992, when they established Vermont Natural Ag Products, a producer and marketer of soil products derived from composted manure and other agricultural residuals, such as food waste.
Vermont Natural Ag Products uses manure solids and food waste from area sources to make its “MOO DOO” line of organic composts, along with potting soils, topsoils and other products. Foster estimated the spin-off company produces around 750,000 bags of compost products per year, supplied to wholesalers and mom-and-pop retailers.
“The last six years have been profitable,” he said.
ROBERT FOSTER STANDS with a milk truck at his Middlebury farm. Below, infrared sensors line up the robotic mechanism that will automatically milk her. New technology at Foster Brothers Farm lets cows get milk whenever they wish.
Independent photos/John S. McCright
And that’s in large part because the farm’s investments in technology have been paying off. For example, they’ve been able harness energy from their compost piles to provide heat and hot water for the building in which the compost is bagged. The Fosters also have equipment that extracts moisture from the air and injects that air into compost piles to allow the substance to mature more quickly than conventional turning. That means compost can be produced more quickly and therefore in greater quantity, which, of course, means more revenues.
On a tour of the operations, Foster pointed out a specialized vehicle with big tires and high clearance that travels astride rows of composting material and aerates it faster than traditional turning methods.
“It was the second one in the United States,” Foster noted.
He also pointed out a specially equipped tractor-trailer used to haul pallets of bagged MOO DOO. A conveyor belt on the floor of the trailer means that forklift operators can set the pallets on the end of the rig, where they will be automatically pulled to the front of the trailer — thus reducing the need for manpower and making loading operations run quicker and more efficiently.
The farm now employs 22 full- and part-time workers, some of them family members.
State and local officials have long been aware of the Foster farm’s history as an agricultural leader. But Ed Townley, CEO and president of Cabot Creamery Co-op, decided last year the rest of the country should learn about — and reward — the Fosters’ achievements.
So Townley nominated the Fosters for the “2019 Innovative Dairy Farmer of the Year” award.
In addition to support materials, Townley provided judges with the following quote to “Dairy Herd Management Magazine” regarding the Fosters:
“Foster Brothers Farms recognized decades ago that sustainable farming is paramount to survival. The family-run operation understands no one truly owns the land — they just borrow it and pass it on. That is why good stewardship is critical. As Foster says, ‘If you take care of the land, it will take care of you.’”
The Fosters learned in December they had won the award. They were sworn to secrecy until the official presentation, which took place on Jan. 21 at a conference in Florida.
Judges took into account the wide range of Foster Bothers Farm’s innovations over the years, including:
•Its experimentation with no-till and minimum till practices, beginning in 2011. The family that year also started using cover crops.
•Using GPS for soil sampling and herbicide applications.
•Its development of a self-built “roller system” to minimize the use of herbicide. The front, tractor-mounted roller knocks down cover crop so a no-till planter can penetrate the thick plant mass, thus reducing the need for pesticides.
“The ‘same old, same old’ isn’t going to work anymore,” Foster said.
The Vermont House and Senate recently passed a resolution congratulating Foster Brothers Farm on its award. Resolution sponsors included Reps. Harvey Smith. R-New Haven; Terry Norris, I-Shoreham; Robin Scheu, D-Middlebury, and Amy Sheldon, D-Middlebury. State Sens. Christopher Bray, D-New Haven, and Ruth Hardy, D-Middlebury, advanced the resolution in the Senate.
Smith, a longtime farmer and a leader of the Addison County agricultural community, spearheaded the resolution. He’s known the Fosters for decades and seen them make advances in the industry that others are now emulating.
“It’s absolutely incredible and fantastic,” he said of the national recognition for the Fosters. “It’s well-deserved and well-earned by the Foster family.”
Hardy is a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee.
“During this time when there seems to be so much bad news for dairy farming, it’s great to be able to celebrate the success and innovation of the Foster Brothers Farm,” she said. “Their farm and family have been an important part of our community for decades, and I’m thrilled to see them honored nationally for their good work.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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