A feature article in our 2022 Late Summer issue written by Kathleen O’Keefe.
It can be a winding road that eventually gets us to where we want to be in life, and that’s been true for Chet and Renee Baker of Hillside Homestead Farm in Albany, VT. Now living out their dream of owning and operating their own dairy farm, it took a number of years and many creative strategies to get there.
It’s what might be considered a ‘classic’ Vermont dairy farm, purchased in December 2019. The Bakers milk 50 cows, mainly Registered Holsteins that carry their Grand-Hill prefix, but also have all the dairy breeds represented on the farm. They own almost 200 acres and rent another 170 acres, on which they grow their crops and forage. Much of the rest is utilized in their rotational grazing program in the summer, when the cows stay in during the day and go out on pasture at night.
Chet and Renee handle most of the work on the farm, splitting up the chores pretty equally. Renee handles the milking, calf care, breeding and medical treatments, while Chet takes charge of the crops, feeding, heifer barn care and milking barn chores. A couple of very part-time helpers cover chores when the couple take cattle to a show or when they need extra help with haying. They have someone that milks every Sunday night so the couple can enjoy at least one sit down meal together each week, but aside from that, the Bakers are carrying their own load on the farm.
That comes naturally to both of them. Renee grew up on her family’s farm in Holland, VT – nestled right next to the Quebec border. Her parents, Dale and Clara Nadeau, farmed for more than 40 years and raised a family of five while developing their Ned-Acres Holstein herd, and Renee cultivated her love of cows and agriculture there as a child. Chet grew up in Underhill, VT, in the Burlington area, near his grandparent’s farm where he spent time there alongside his cousins growing up. His dad is an IBA dealer/distributor, so the family always had close roots to the dairy industry.
They met in 2010 while they were both working at a commercial dairy, Conant’s Riverside Farm in Richmond, VT. Once they started dating and when the relationship got serious, they started to dream about their future and their goals. Renee had really missed registered cows, and she talked to the farm owners about possibly moving on. They asked her to stay for one more year, and offered her either a cash bonus or ownership of two calves a month for her last year. When Chet and Renee moved on from Riverside Farm, they had 24 calves, which were the seedstock to start their own herd.
Prior to the job at Riverside Farm, Renee had earned degrees in dairy farm management at Vermont Technical College and Animal Science from the University of Vermont. She had worked at other establishments following her schooling, including Cowtown Holsteins in Derby, VT in the days when they showed Elletta Skybuck Lucy to Grand Champion honors at World Dairy Expo in 2007. That love of showing continues, and Renee still likes to get a string out to several local and regional shows each year.
They’re quick to credit the people that helped them on their journey. “I feel like there are so many mentors, that I can’t possibly mention them all. First and foremost my father, Dale Nadeau. I lost my dad last year, and miss his suggestions and ideas terribly. He taught me that the cows come first. He taught me to focus on the things that really matter, like quality feed, cow comfort, and cow health. He reminded me about profitability. It’s fun to have nice cows, but if they don’t help pay the bills, you might need to re-think if they should stay. Another huge mentor for me was Dr. Cal Blessing at Vermont Technical College. He was by far the best teacher I’ve ever had. He made learning easy and made things really sink in. I learned so much about animal health and treatment from him, hoof trimming, breeding, cow comfort and animal husbandry,” praises Renee.
Though their own breeding program is in relatively early days, their philosophy is pretty defined. “We breed cows to be functionally correct and hopefully last a long time. We do enjoy showing, so we do emphasize breeding high-type more on some particular cow families. We are still a pretty young farm as far as our own breeding goes, but we’ve had several young cows with our prefix go Very Good on their first classification. One in particular that we are excited about is Grand-Hill Isnt She Lovely, a Warrior granddaughter of Elmbridge FM Loveable-Red EX-94 4E. She is, to date, the highest scoring two-year-old for us at VG-88,” notes Renee.
When looking to add to a potential female to the herd, it won’t surprise you that they like the proven performance in a purebred pedigree. “We love good cow families, ones with great sires behind them, and females that have high scores. We really don’t have specific criteria, but animals we look at need to have a good pedigree, good classifications, and most anything we buy now is a cow that is going to produce show offspring,” Renee elaborates.
They own and care for a number of head in partnership, and several of those animals have distinguished themselves in the show ring. Desperle Regina Aftershock EX-94, owned with Tim and Sarah Putnam, was Reserve Grand Champion at the 2019 New England Summer. This year, her sister, Desperle Goldwyn Rosey VG-88, owned with Edmond Petit, also was named Reserve Grand Champion of the same show.
A young cow co-bred with Edmond Petit, born and raised at Hillside Homestead – Mapleside Tatoo Connie VG-86-CAN – was purchased by Ferme Jacobs last November and she went on to place 8th in the Milking Yearling class at the Canadian National Holstein Show. Another eye-catcher owned with Edmond is Intense Awesome Pam-Red-ET EX-90, who was 2nd senior 3-year-old at the Canadian National Red & White Show in 2021.
It’s a great group to build from for the Bakers. They are still building and improving the herd, but rarely walk away from the chance to merchandise and animal or two. Renee explains how they keep their herd in front of potential buyers. “We do consign to sales – a lot of small sales for colleges or ag programs. We use social media with results of cow shows. We just started doing a little bit of print advertising last year in magazines, and we’ve been showing since the start of our farming career – it definitely is a great way to show people your best cattle.”
In classic self-reliant New England-style, the Bakers have diversified a bit with their operation. In 2021, they opened the doors to a small farm stand on their property offering raw milk, local cheeses, locally-produced dairy products, hand made soap from their milk, Amish baked goods, and more. In her spare time (!), Renee enjoys making barn quilts that are 100% hand made and painted that she also offers for sale.
It took a lot of hard work, a lot of steps, and a lot of planning, including renting a farm for five years before they could buy their own piece of paradise, but Chet and Renee Baker prove that the dream to become successful dairy producers can still be done!