by Tony Kitsos, University of Vermont Extension
If there is one word that can be used to describe Jimmy and Sara Ackermann, it’s resilient.
Although only in their mid-thirties, these hard-working Hardwick dairy farmers have the same dogged work ethic of generations of old-time New England farmers, something that was not lost on the judging committee for this year’s Vermont Dairy Farm of the Year award. Neither was their commitment to sustainability and making decisions to ‘right-size’ their operation to fit both their farm and family goals.
The award, which was first handed out in 1962, is a coveted one that signals that the recipient is an exemplary dairy farm, one worth taking notice of for its outstanding herd, quality milk production, enviable pastures and commitment to dairying. It is presented annually by University of Vermont Extension and the Vermont Dairy Industry Association in cooperation with the New England Green Pastures Program to a farm that epitomizes overall dairying excellence.
While the Ackermanns might argue that for them, dairying is simply a way of life, evidence that they are well deserving of this award is everywhere. They currently milk 60 to 65 Holsteins, which consistently average 70 pounds of milk a day year-round, for a rolling herd average of 22,600 pounds. Their butterfat is 4.1 percent and protein, 3.1 to 3.2 percent.
They’ve been operating Ackermann Dairy, a 120-head organic dairy farm, for 16 years, including nine at their current location, a hillside farm with 100 tillable acres. They rent another 200 acres in Hardwick and Cabot so are able to grow enough grass to supply all their own forage needs, and sometimes have surplus to sell. They get four cuts of hay most years, yielding an average of three tons per acre of haylage.
According to Jason Johnson, farm relationship manager with Stonyfield Organic who nominated farm, the Ackermanns are “a farm family that does it all right. Excellent milk quality, cow comfort, dairy promotion, sustainability.”
The judges agreed, noting that “Sarah and Jimmy have taken this traditional Vermont hillside farm and brought it back to life with each improvement they make. The work they did to their manure handling and grazing systems shows their strong commitment to water quality and management efficiency. Their total and continued commitment to being a successful dairy is on full display here each and every day.”
The farm has always been an organic operation, a decision that was made for a number of reasons.
“In 2007, when we started farming, organic milk was more profitable, paying a higher and steadier price than conventional milk,” Jimmy explains. “But that was not our only reason for going organic. It’s a more holistic way of treating cows and enables us to be better stewards of the land.
“Being organic makes us better farmers,” he believes. “As organic farmers we need to be more proactive, keeping a closer eye on our cows and knowing who will be sick before she is sick.”
They started out shipping their milk to Horizon Organic, but when that company was bought out and they lost their market, they were initially at a loss for what to do.
“Jimmy and I spent endless hours on the phone, meeting with others, weighing our options.” Sara says. “Should we just get out? Should we just downsize and bottle all our own? The stress of not knowing made us want to give up, cut corners. We couldn’t see a positive outcome to any of this. But in farming, the minute you cut corners, it’s a race to the bottom.
“We had someone come look at our cows with the possibility of selling out,” she continues, acknowledging that the idea of selling the herd brought tears to her eyes. “I couldn’t bear the thought of someone else milking Greta or Mercedes. Or how about the twins, Serina and Ballerina? Or Carly who aborted as a first-calf heifer, but we gave her a shot, and now she’s in her fourth lactation?”
Enter Stonyfield Organic, headquartered in Londonderry, New Hampshire.
Although the Ackermanns had been in conversation with Johnson for a few years, Stonyfield had no availability to take on more producers in their direct supply at the time. That all changed in 2022.
“When I heard they lost their milk market and needed a home, this was the first farm I approached as we made a commitment to take on eight additional farms in Vermont that had lost contracts in the late summer of 2022,” Johnson says. “Dare I say, no regrets here. Jimmy and Sara produce gold quality milk for Stonyfield. In less than a year, they have earned the number one spot for milk quality in our supply at least six times, and I’m sure there are many more on the horizon.”
The dairy farmers currently milk twice daily in a tie-stall barn with four units but plan to switch to robotic milkers in the next year or two, purchasing used equipment from Lely.
“Our goal has always been robotics,” Sara says, “but it does not make financial sense to spend that kind of money for new equipment. For the bank to loan you money, they want you to add more cows to pay for it. Each robotic milking machine can handle 60 cows, so the bank would want us to increase to 120 milkers.”
They ran the numbers and instead will grow their milking herd to 80, a size that falls within their goals to stay sustainable and on budget. They’ll breed for teat length and square, even udders, characteristics that work better for robotic milkers.
The farmers raise all their own replacements, breeding their heifers to calve at 24 months with cows bred back at 60 days fresh. Calves are fed colostrum within a few hours of birth, then water at three days. They get calf starter and dry hay at one week old, then waste milk for two months.
“They are that much farther ahead when we wean them at two months,” Sara says.
Cows are fed a total mixed ration of silage and dry hay. They pasture their animals at night in warmer weather, bringing them in during the day, the opposite of what most farmers do.
“It’s more work to get them in for morning milking,” Jimmy admits, “but it’s more comfortable for them outside at night, cooler with fewer flies.”
But to understand what makes this an exemplary farm, deserving of being named the 2023 Vermont Dairy Farm of the Year, one has to go back to the beginning.
The Ackermann Dairy story began in 2007 with a $150,000 bank loan, which Jimmy and his younger brother, Ian, used to buy 60 certified organic dairy cows. A rebuilding herd, Jimmy calls it.
The brothers had been partners in a lawn care business when they decided that they wanted to milk cows. They didn’t need to venture far to get their start as their grandparents, Al and Betty Ackermann, owned a 300-acre farm in Cabot. Although they had sold their cows years before, it was still a working farm as they rented their barn to another dairy farmer. He was ready to call it quits, so the timing was right.
Ian left after a few years to start a maple sugaring operation, leaving Jimmy to run the farm by himself. It was a challenging time for the 25-year-old farmer as the days were long and finances tight.
But fate intervened, and after Sara lost her job a few months later, she joined her husband on the farm full-time. Although she grew up on a small Jersey dairy in South Albany, Vermont, being a dairy farmer was not her career goal. Instead she earned a business management degree.
But as Johnson points out, she easily made the transition from boardroom to cow barn and never looked back.
When their plan to purchase the grandparents’ farm did not work out, they decided to look for another farm in the area. After attending an open house in 2014 at a farm in Hardwick that was conserved by the Vermont Land Trust, they decided to purchase the property.
Buying this farm appealed to the Ackermanns, not only because it was more affordable, but also for knowing that the land could never be developed. It was not an organic operation, however, adding a few more hoops to jump through before they could farm at the new location.
The pastureland qualified for immediate transition to organic, but the cropland did not. So while they were able to move their herd, they spent the next three years hauling organic feed from leased fields in Cabot. During this transition period, they hayed the pastures at the new farm, selling the hay to neighboring conventional farms.
“Jimmy and Sara were and are in the dairy business for the long haul,” Johnson notes. “Since the move to Hardwick, they have had their foot on the gas, making upgrades, improvements and plans.”
With the help of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, they put in a manure pit within a year after they moved to the new location. They also received two Northeast Dairy Business Innovation Center grants, one for a sawdust storage shed and the second for organic milk storage upgrades.
Future plans include building a new freestall barn with separate areas for the calves, cows and heifers to house them all under one roof. Although it will be built on the footprint of the existing 1940s-era barn, its design will allow for enhanced cow comfort, something that Jimmy stresses is critical to the health and contentment of the cows, which in turn, results in higher milk production.
Sara adds, “Our animals come first every day. They are fed before family and put away.” This attention to detail and cow comfort, along with pride in what they do, all contribute to their overall success.
For many years, the Ackermanns diversified their operation, tapping 2,200 maple trees for syrup, cutting and selling firewood and hiring out for excavating and tractor-related jobs. After Jimmy’s dad passed away three years ago at a young age, they decided to focus just on dairying for a better work-life balance and to spend more time with their daughters, Allie, 10, and Andee, 8.
Jimmy and Sara’s solid work ethic is not lost on their daughters, who help with barn chores and moving the cows to pasture. In addition, Allie is learning how to milk, fix fence and push up feed, among other tasks.
In early July when flood waters isolated the town and decimated many businesses, the girls decided to open a lemonade stand. It was an idea that they had proposed to their mom in the past, who nixed the idea, believing that their location on a dirt road outside the town’s main drag would not attract enough customers. She was concerned that they would be disappointed.
But with impassable roads and a nearby bridge taken out by rising waters, traffic was detoured up their road. The girls raised $700 in two days, which they donated to the House of Pizza, the family’s regular Friday night take-out place, which had been damaged by the floods.
This commitment to hard work also extends to their part-time employees, which include two teenage sisters and a married couple who handle the evening milkings.
“We have extremely good help,” Sara says. “We found people that try really hard for us, recognizing the importance of milk quality and animal care.” They also have never had a problem finding extra help for haying and other projects, which speaks to the respect they have garnered from the local farming community.
“If you are looking for success in the future of sustainable dairy farming in Vermont, Jimmy and Sara embody the ideal of remaining right-sized, raising a family and promoting their product with today’s dairy innovations at hand,” Johnson says. “They never back down from a challenge, a goal set or a bump in the road. Twenty years from now I fully expect them to be figuring out how to successfully transition this slice of Vermont to the next generation of successful dairy farmers.”
The Ackermanns will be honored at an awards banquet at Eastern States Exposition in West Springfield, Massachusetts, on September 15, along with the Green Pastures program winners from the other New England states. Past recipients also are invited to attend the banquet, which celebrates the Green Pastures program’s 75th anniversary.
Other finalists for this year’s award, listed alphabetically, were Liberty Hill Farm (Kennett Family), Rochester; Lucky Hill Farms (Henry and Jennifer McReynolds), Danville; and Skyline Holsteins (Sheena Brown), Derby.