Hull Family Roots Run Five Generations Deep
By Ruthie Laroche
For the County Courier
Rolling hills, some carpeted with lush grass and others cloaked in mixed forest, spread out on all sides, lush and green with the year's first foliage.
Jen Hull, wife of Matt Hull of Dalestead Farm and Maple, smiles warmly as she surveys the pastoral scene, pointing in the direction of West Enosburg and a church steeple that can't be seen, but that will come into view when the leaves fall.
"That's the church Matt and I got married in," said Jen fondly, "I always love to ride my horses here because I can see the church."
Nine years ago Matt Hull and his father Warren were at work on Dalestead Farm in Enosburg when a veterinarian from Connecticut made her first visit to the barn. That visit was far more important than any of them could have imagined.
"We were married two years after we met and bought the farm three years after that," said Jen.
Jen grew up in Connecticut, and worked on the area’s only dairy farm, completed her eight years of school at Iowa State, and then did an internship at Northwest Veterinary Associates in St. Albans.
After the internship was over she was offered a job at the practice, and in the same year that she and Matt were engaged she became an owner of Northwest Vets.
In October of 2018, the farm will celebrate its 100 -year anniversary. Matt and Jen's relationship may seem like a small drop in the bucket of Hull farming history, but each person and each relationship has helped to shape the farm's story.
Currently, the farm has 740 acres of land and milks 85 cows. Dalestead Farm raises all of their own heifers and replacements and is home to three beautiful horses, a 5,000 tap sugarbush, and plenty of stories and memories.
"We're trying to make it work, milking 85 cows in this economic crisis,” said Jen, “It's challenging, and that's why we have to push for diversity and efficiency.”
As the economy has squeezed the farmers' ability to make a profit off of milk, diversity has become essential and sugaring has proven to be a lifesaver for Dalestead.
Matt has sugared his whole life, beginning with the sale of sap when he was young. Today he heads up a large, state of the art operation.
"We buy a lot of sap and boil about 20,000 taps worth each year. Having the milk income, or loss-depending on the year, and the sugaring income is really the only way we can survive milking the number of cows we do," said Jen.
In another effort to diversify the couple raises registered show cows. With fewer farms in the community, more young people need to look to others for show animals.
"Every year we have kids looking for show animals; this gives us a way to get these animals to the shows with the Dalestead name," Jen explained.
Breeding beautiful and productive animals is something that Matt and Jen both enjoy taking part in.
"I'm the one at Northwest Vets that does the embryo transfer work; I have a really big interest in genetics. When I moved here and met Matt, this herd already had an amazing genetic background. They had been breeding to really good bulls for generations," explained Jen.
"Matt has always liked fancy cows too. Matt does all the mating for the herd, makes the decision on the bulls, and I do the breeding. We have a very beautiful herd of cows," said Jen, "It's nice to work with cows that look healthy, happy, and pretty, but they also have to make milk. Matt always has that in his mind."
Currently, the component market is where the money is. Farmers are paid in each check for the pounds of protein and the pounds of fat in each load of milk.
"The components are keeping us going," Jen said, "butter and cheese are the biggest commodities right now, so the butterfat is worth more."
Dalestead has been in operation since Herman Hull purchased the property in 1918, moving his family from Fairfield to the farm in Enosburg.
Warren recalled that the farm with 350 acres of land, the house, the barn, horses and cows, and the sugaring equipment was purchased by Herman for $8,000, a substantial amount of money at the time.
Ernest, Warren's grandfather, bought the farm, and later, Warren's father Wendell carried on the farming tradition, purchasing the farm from his father.
Wendell, Warren’s father, purchased an adjoining farm, which had been a hen farm, adding the land to the Dalestead Farm.
Wendell raised his family, including Warren, on the farm. Warren went to college, married his wife Mary, and took over the farm himself when the time came.
The Hull family also purchased the Blake Farm, adding that property to their holdings. The Blake Farm's barn houses the Hull heifers, all of which are sweet natured and gentle mannered.
"I can't tell you the number of people that pull into my driveway every spring just to take pictures of the heifers in the barnyard," said Jen.
The milking cows spend their days at the main barn, down the road from the heifer barn.
"All of our cows are registered and have names; we know everyone. Snoopy is the oldest cow in the barn; she's almost 11, and soon to give birth to another baby," said Jen, caressing the head of the barn's matriarch.
"In the summer the cows come in from the fields to be milked, enjoy some corn, make their way to the holding area, play with the brush, and take their turn in the parlor. When they are done they can go back outside or they can come and eat corn. When the grass quality decreases we start feeding them wrapped round bales so they have good forage," said Jen, “the milking is more labor intensive in the winter when the cows don’t go out to pasture.”
Most of the herd is made up of black and white Holsteins, but there are a number of cows on the farm that are a deep red color. These registered Holsteins are some of the favorites.
"I love the deep red color and we have sought it out and bred for it,” said Jen, “I was told when I brought the first red cow home that I'd make Matt's grandfather roll over in his grave."
Having no house near the main barn poses a challenge for the Hull's, but they've overcome that obstacle by using cameras. The cameras help the family keep track of everything from calving to sugaring.
The Hull family has not been adverse to the use of technology over the generations.
"I remember being little," said Warren, "my father was the first one to have a tractor on this farm in 1948. He bought a brand new John Deere A with a set of plows for $1800."
He remembers the hay loader that was put behind a wagon and loaded the loose hay into the wagon.
"We'd take it to the barn, hook a horse on a rope to pull the pulleys, and the horse would slide the hay along the track to the barn," said Warren.
Originally, the main barn was across the road beside the farmhouse. When the 'new' barn was built on the opposite side of the road, the thrifty farmer brought beams from the old to build the new.
Hand-hewn timbers can be found in the 1919 barn, and the pegs and notches from the old building can also be clearly seen.
When Warren was a child the farm milked about 45 cows. He remembers the big metal tub with a small compressor that cooled the water and kept the 'night milk' cool until the morning.
"Farmers never cooled the morning milk," said Warren, “the morning milk went right to the creamery in Enosburg.”
Warren's father drove the milk cans to the creamery himself at times, loading them into his own truck.
"I used to ride with him," Warren explained, "the creamery had this little conveyor; you put your cans on that and it conveyed it up into the building. The people working would dump the cans, wash them, and the cans would come back onto the truck and away you'd go."
Warren also remembers the old milk house on the farm, complete with a platform for the milk truck to leave the empty cans for refilling.
"We didn't have hot water in the barn back then, so in the milk house, we had a little electric heater especially made to heat a pail of hot water. You'd put a milk pail on there with water in it, heat it, and have hot water to heat your milkers. You'd have a strainer you'd put on top of the milk can and a strainer pad. When you finished milking you'd dump the milk through the strainer and hope you didn't run the can over," said Warren, "if you run the can over, you're losing money."
The first parlor was built in 1958, replacing the old milk house, when Warren's father developed Farmer's Lung and the creameries began to move away from milk cans.
Knowing that he'd make a recovery, Wendell added a bulk tank and a parlor. While others did the feeding, Wendell did the milking, avoiding the dust that made him sick.
Wendell's parlor was one of the first parlors in the area, and Warren remembers that many people came to see the new four stall parlor.
"A lot of farmers around milked 10 to 20 cows; we laughed because we were milking up to 35 or 40. When I was a kid I remember thinking about how they were getting rid of all the small farms because those farms wouldn't put in a tank," said Warren.
Warren spoke about how the family has seen hard times over the years, and one way or another they have kept the farm going.
"I can remember my father would cut his own logs, sell logs, and firewood,” said Warren.
Warren explained that many of the kitchens at that time were equipped with stoves that took limb wood.
"We would cut and cut that stuff," said Warren, "My father would sell the wood for $60 a cord and we'd all be out there sawing and sawing on the circular saw."
Wendell also sold grain for a company called Moon Feeds out of New York and he sugared until the equipment went bad.
"I remember my father canning syrup in the shed behind the house for $3 to $4 a gallon. Our milk checks were $3.50 per hundred in the fifties when I was in elementary school," said Warren.
"I can remember Grammy and Grandpa talking about how the only way they could pay their taxes was with limb wood and chicken eggs," said Matt.
Regardless of the decade, small farms have always had to hurdles to jump in order to survive. Matt noted that things are similar today with the Required Agricultural Practices associated with water quality.
"We're losing some of the small farms because of all the RAP water quality changes that have to be made. Many can’t come up with the cash flow," said Matt.
This summer Dalestead Farm is working to come into compliance with the RAP's set by the state. The Hulls are investing in a manure storage facility called a slurry store that will require a tremendous output of finances and time.
All the runoff from the barnyard and the parlor will be captured and diverted, ensuring better water quality for the surrounding area.
"We've had to ask ourselves if we should do it, and why do we do it for what we get," said Matt, "but we are going to do the right thing."
The Hulls have made investments in the past to help with water quality by entering into the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) which limited the access that the cows on the farm had to water crossings and waterways.
A bridge was built over the protected brook near the farmyard and fences were added to protect allocated brook crossings. In most places, the cows have a 25 to 50-foot buffer that keeps them away from the water.
At the time the Hulls entered the program their farm was the first and largest CREP project in the state of Vermont. Photos of the CREP project at Dalestead can be seen in Montpelier.
A new barn for manure storage will also be added to the heifer barn as well, making the farm fully compliant.
Matt noted that the slurry store project does have some upside. He explained that the solid manure has had to be hauled out of the barn all winter with a tractor, twice a day and it has had to be used immediately in the spring. With the cows out to pasture, the farm has a manure deficit later in the summer.
"The nutrient management is going to be huge, and I look forward to that. To have the ability to store the manure and have it to use at my fingertips to properly use the nutrients, to be able to spread when we want to not when we have to, will be a help," said Matt.
The Hulls are concerned that their milk check will dwindle even more while the project is underway.
"It will affect our business, because it will require a change in the cow's routine," and according to Jen, cows do not like change.
All of these changes and all of the sacrifices that the couple has made over the last two years seem to have little reward at times, but not all success comes overnight, and not all value can be measured in dollars.
"We wouldn't be doing this if we didn't love it and we didn't have it in his blood. It's what this family has been--from the struggles, the financial aspect of things, 14 hours a day, 7 days a week, sometimes to not make any money--you wouldn't do this if you didn't love it," said Jen.
"It's job security," said Matt with a chuckle, "You never run out of anything to do."
The sugar house is part of the pride and joy of Dalestead Farm, and it gives a needed boost when money is tight.
Joey Bransfield is Matt's primary help with the sugaring, and Matt described him as his 'rock.'
"Joey does a lot of boiling; I've done it my whole life, and I'm always here, but it takes somebody to wash tanks, watch the RO, and unload the trucks, and I have to bounce," said Matt, "Joey's been with us for three years, and without him I'd be in trouble."
Excellent help has made a world of difference for Dalestead Farm.
"Our employees are just as dedicated to his place as we are," said Jen, “The three of them make things so much easier."
Brooke Parent and Brendan Wadsworth help carry the load of the farm work, while Joey spends most of his time with the sugaring during the spring.
Brendan does the heavy equipment work in the summer, trucks sap in the spring, does barn chores in the winter, and serves as the farm's mechanic.
"Brendan can fix anything; he's phenomenal," said Matt, "the employees we have, we are so lucky to have them."
Jen's job as a veterinarian allows her to keep a finger on the heartbeat of the Franklin County community.
"It is a tough time right now with three bad years in a row," said Jen, "I'm seeing it on every farm whether they milk 800 or 80. Everybody is going through it.”
The decision to build the slurry store and invest more money into the farm wasn’t an easy one, but Matt and Jen have committed to farm the land.
"If you look at a hundred years and you look at the good and the bad," said Matt, "you can't liquidate over a 36-month downturn. You muddle through it. In 2014 milk was $26 a hundred, which wasn't that long ago."
The day that Jen stepped foot in the Dalestead barn may seem like decades ago at times, but she and Matt remain deeply committed to each other and the farm.
"We make a very good team," said Jen, "There aren't a lot of husbands and wives who can work well together, and that's one thing we can do. We make amazing business partners. It's how our brains work; we fill in each other's gaps."
"This is all I've ever done," said Matt, of the farm and the sugaring.
Rain clouds gathered as the spring sky turned dark; noises from the barn carried on a stiff breeze, filling the cool air.
"Matt and I met nine years ago this week," said Jen, noting the date of the interview.
"You remember that, huh?" said Matt with a chuckle, as the two stood in the barnyard.
Perhaps the things of greatest value at Dalestead Farm and Maple are the relationships that form the warp and weft of one hundred years of living off the land.