June 23, 2011
Built: On an Organic Dairy Farm
Last year I began an occasional series on the built environment – see posts on small cottages, a covered bridge, barn cupolas, a little bridge in the woods– so when I was out photographing farm machinery for my paintings on a beautiful Sunday, I thought I'd write a post on the architecture of one of my favorite farms in northern Vermont. The dominant structure on the farm is a large round barn, dramatic and beautiful. It is always startling to see a building of a shape other than rectangular, and there are several wonderful examples in Vermont. These buildings were popular in the late 19th to early 20th centuries and were seen as labor saving designs: feed was more easily distributed from the center of the building, and waste removed. I am guessing that with more and larger machinery, rectangular barns with central aisles became more efficient, so the round barns were no longer favored.
This is the more usual barn shape, and you can get a glimpse of stanchions for the cows in the dim interior. The French Canadian ancestry of the farmer is shown in the strong green and white design painted on the barn doors. This part of Vermont is very close to Québec, where farm buildings are often painted in vivid blues and greens.
The most modern structure on the farm is a quonset style building, probably inexpensive to erect. It is easy to get in and out of; it stores sand, which is used as bedding for cows. I can think of it as beautiful in its simplicity, and in the way the corrugated metal captures and reflects light.
The very large dark blue silos, Harvestores, can be seen projecting their upright mass on farms around the US, but here in Vermont, they are relics of a recent past and are rarely used because expensive to run. These days most farms use concrete bunkers or huge plastic bags to store silage (chopped corn) or haylage (chopped hay), cheaper and easier to use.
When I saw the farmer bringing the cows in from pasture at midday, I asked him why he was milking at such a strange time; most farms milk twice a day in very early morning and evening, twelve hours apart. Oh, he said, he's not milking, but because his farm had become organic, the cows were required to be on pasture for a certain number of hours a day. Most large dairy farms, and this one is large with 200 milking cows, now keep the animals indoors all day in a freestall barn, a lot less work than pasturing them. I was pleased to learn he'd become organic, a long and difficult process, but worth it for the higher price he gets for bulk organic milk. It's a plus for the farmer, for the land, and for the consumer.