Wind Gate Farm did not get its names for gentle breezes that rustle the maple leaves and set the pasture grasses to swaying. It’s named for the ferocious gusts that will rattle the roof tin until you wonder if it will still be there by morning and cut through you like a blade of ice in winter. Thirty years ago this October, the dairy farm on Knox Ridge was just the place a young couple named Jeff and Penny Stevens was looking to purchase and farm with their children – at the time two daughters, ages 3 years and 9 months.
“That first winter, I thought ‘What have we done?'” said Penny, adding that the old farm house was not well insulated. In January and February, the wind howls non-stop, she said. But they made it work even when others said it wouldn’t.
“Nobody could believe that a free stall barn would stand on Knox Ridge,” said Jeff, referring to the large, open format barn they built for their cows. It’s been there several years now, unmoved.
When they purchased the farm and its 26 milking cows, there was only one small milking barn. Over the years, the family grew, the cows multiplied and the farm was added on to. They now have four grown daughters, three granddaughters with another grandchild due imminently, and they are milking nearly 100 cows. Until recently they milked their cows in tie stalls, but last summer, they added raised milking stanchions or walk up stalls. Their daughter Jennifer calls it “retirement milking”. Rather than having to bend over to milk cows, the cows’ udders are now at a standing level. This summer they will continue to convert more of the old milking barn into this style of parlor, adding more stations for the cows.
Of their four daughters, only one remains on the farm – the youngest, 22-year-old Fran. And while she’s interested in the farm, she’s not yet sure if she wants to make it her life’s work. She also works at a daycare. Their eldest daughter Kim, 33, is a physical education teacher, coach and yoga instructor. Jennifer, 30, is a civil engineer, and Cheryl, 28, is a special education teacher.
“We’re pretty proud of our girls,” Penny said. “They got a good base here. We raised creative, practical problem solvers.” On a farm, you always have to think on your feet. “You learn that there’s not only one way to solve a problem. You have to look at things differently and figure out how to fix them without calling in someone else to fix it.”
“I wanted a vacation,” Jennifer said of her decision not to farm. “There’s no freedom, no vacations. If you do leave the farm, you have to have someone whom you trust implicitly.” She added that whenever her parents did go away and she and her sisters were left to run the farm (when they were old enough), “something major always happened, and that was before cell phones.” Luckily, Jeff’s father, who had been a dairy farmer in New Hampshire, was next door.
“But I’m glad I was raised this way, and it was great to grow up here [Knox]. There are so many farms around here, all my friends were farm kids. Now when I talk to friends, farming is a foreign concept.” She said it was an adjustment to go from a farming life to a career with a desk job. “I went to work Monday through Friday and then I had the weekend off. It was like, ‘What’s this?’ I had to start cutting my fingernails. I had never had to do that before.”
When she went into the male-dominated field of civil engineering, she didn’t feel intimidated or self conscious. “My parents had all daughters. We were all expected to do ‘man’s work’.”
“I don’t miss fencing,” she added. When she was dating her future husband in high school, he became a farmhand by default. “For the first solid year that we were dating, if he wanted to see me after school, he had to come help me milk.”
[captionalign=”aligncenter” ] Jennifer Stevens Jones with her daughter Cami during one of their visits to the family farm.[/caption]
Jennifer now lives in Freeport and brings her daughter Cami to the farm as often as possible. “Hopefully Cami [and her future sibling] will get used to being on the farm. She loves animals as much, if not more, than she does people.”
When she does visit, Jennifer said she doesn’t know the cows like she used to. The family has always been very hands on with their cattle. While the cows go out to pasture, they keep younger heifers in the barn, where they can handle them more. When they do go out to pasture, they will come up to the Stevenses and want to be made of.
“We don’t want to just know our cows from the udder down,” Penny said. “That’s just the way we like to farm. We like to go out into the pasture and walk around and be able to move in among the cows.”
The health and welfare of her dairy cows is obviously a top concern for Penny , but she’s also looking out for some other important critters – worms.
Wind Gate uses no-till methods on their fields, an increasingly popular way of farming that does not disturb the soil. They are not organic, but they use minimal herbicide sprays, Penny said. “The fields don’t look quite as pretty,” she added. “Stuff grows up, but it’s organic matter and it’s feeding the worms, and they feed the soil.”
“Worms mean healthy soil. The more we can do to encourage them, the better,” said Penny, who was honored last year with Waldo County’s first ever Woman Farmer of the Year award. “Just like we keep the animals healthy, we try to keep the land healthy.”