For Pearse, much needed change marks end of dairy legacy at historic farm
Hope — On Oct. 4, longtime farmer Chris Pearse bid farewell to 40 of his dairy cows that are destined for new lives in Pennsylvania or Canada.
That moment marked the end of an era for Pearse's farm, which has been in the family since the 1700s, as he ceases milk production.
Few in this small Knox County town can recall when the property on Barnestown Road wasn't a dairy farm but such a time did exist. Prior to the 1940s, the farm's main income was derived from selling apples. There were about 15 species of apple grown on the farm that were put in barrels and then shipped out of Camden Harbor to Portland, Boston, and even England.
But a warm period in the winter of the mid-1930s followed by a hard freeze killed most of the farm's apple trees.That's when operations gradually shifted to milk production by the 1940s.
Since then, passersby have grown accustomed to seeing cows grazing in the fields on either side of the road. That won't change, Pearse said, as he is keeping 37 heifers and three steers. In addition, he said he plans to continue cutting and selling hay, as well as selling firewood.
It's also possible he will raise cows for beef or heifers for other farms.
“We knew this day was coming,” Pearse said Oct. 8. “We just didn't know when.”
The decision, while necessary, isn't an easy one. Pearse has never known a life outside of farming. From the day he graduated high school, Pearse has milked cows, cut hay and performed the myriad other tasks needed to keep the farm running. In 1993, he bought out his uncle's share of the business and then gradually assumed more and more responsibility over the years from his father, William.
“I ran it [the farm] mostly myself for several years with seasonal help for haying,” he said. “Years of wear and tear is catching up with me.”
That “wear and tear” can't be understated. Pearse's day begins at 5:30 a.m., feeding and milking his cows, and doesn't end until about 7 p.m. It's a routine he repeats seven days a week, 365 days a year, regardless of the weather or how he's feeling.
In between the morning and evening milking sessions, Pearse is busy with numerous tasks that can range from fixing fence posts to spreading manure in the fields or unloading a trailer full of sawdust. All of the work requires him to be on his feet or frequently climbing on or off tractors and other pieces of equipment.
“I'm just done,” he said. “It's time for a change.”
The cows also present their own challenges, Pearse notes, as the animals will sometimes react negatively to new situations or smells. Pearse recalled how one of his cows did not respond well to the machine he uses to milk the animals. That cow fell on Pearse twice, pinning him between its 1,000-pound-plus bulk and a post, nearly breaking his leg.
It's not, however, just the physical aspect of dairy farming that played into the decision to sell the milk cows. The business side of dairy farming is a fickle beast, at best, as milk prices can fluctuate wildly. Two years ago, milk prices were at an all-time high, Pearse's wife, Linda, said. But then in January 2015, the price dropped about 30 percent.
And this year?
“The per-gallon price [of milk] this year was the same as in 1974,” Linda said.
Sitting in the kitchen of his farmhouse Oct. 8, Pearse recalled how 30 years ago there were six dairy farms in town not that far from each other. Now, as the only game in town, Pearse has to pay to have a truck pick up his milk because the farm is a significant detour on the driver's route.
Pearse also struggles with finding quality labor that can help take some of the load off his shoulders. While some he has hired seem eager to try their hand at farming, Pearse said the novelty of milking a cow for the first time quickly wears off and it isn't long before he's again advertising for new help.
That cycle has repeated itself far too often, and, quite frankly, Pearse said, he's tired of looking.
With all of those factors at play, the Pearses decided that now was a good time to make a change. The farm will stay in the family; Chris has no interest in selling or leasing the business, and besides, no one could afford to purchase it and ever hope to recover their investment, Linda said.
“It's always a difficult decision but [the farm] takes more work than people realize,” she said. “People love seeing the cows — and that's great — but the work involved is astronomical.”
As he prepares for the next phase of his life, Pearse acknowledged Oct. 8 that seeing his milk cows leave won't be easy, nor will breaking the routine he has repeated for decades. Still, Pearse sees this change as a positive and knows he will eventually adjust, in time, to this new reality.
“Some days, I'm really going to be lost,” Pearse said. “This is all I've done. It's going to be different and I'll miss some of it but I know it's time for a change.”
Courier Publications reporter Ben Holbrook can be reached at 338-3333 or by email firstname.lastname@example.org.