We were in love!" That's how Beth Hodge describes how she and her sister, Courtney, felt when they bought five calves. It was 1989, and the sisters were in high school. The idea was simple: raise some heifers as 4-H projects, and then sell them after they calved. However, once they spent some time with their new animals, they couldn't imagine ever living without them.
"Before we knew it, five became 50, and then 100, and so on," said Hodge, an active member of the New England Farmers Union (NEFU).
Today Hodge, Courtney and their parents run Echo Farm, Inc., located in Hinsdale, N.H. The farm is home to 100 Milking Shorthorns and Jerseys, and about 80 young stock. The animals enjoy 36 acres of pasture and dine on locally grown feed. Hodge runs the dairy operations, and Courtney manages their value-added business, Echo Farm Puddings.
Love certainly influences how the Hodge sisters manage their farm.
"We have always treated our cows with respect and kindness," said Hodge. "Our barns were designed with bedded packs that are more comfortable for cows. We minimize stress by not overcrowding. All of our groups of cows, from weaned calves on, have access to the outdoors. And we spend time training our employees, as well as the youth leasing show calves, [how] to move cows carefully and limit their stress when working with them."
Practicing respect and kindness is also good for Echo Farm's operational efficiency.
"Our philosophy and breeding program focus on keeping the cows in the herd and productive for many years. Our first priority is the well-being of the animals. We strive to keep improving our methods and the management of the herd so that we minimize disease and stress on the cows. The average age of our dairy cows is over six years, and we have had cows continue to be productive for 15 years or more. Breeding for good-quality udders and correct feet and legs is important, but so are the animal welfare practices," explained Hodge.
She said the biggest challenges for Echo Farm are marketing and the need to make the product appealing to retailers, who see lots of products competing or shelf space. The products also have to appeal to consumers, who are increasingly concerned about animal welfare. By becoming the first dairy operation to be certified humane by Humane Farm Animal Care, Echo Farm found an effective marketing strategy.
The farm initially pursued the humane certification in response to consumer concern about rBST, a synthetic version of bovine growth hormone used by some farmers to boost milk production. Consumer concern focuses on rBST's impact on cow health and the associated increase in antibiotic use. The humane certification assured customers that Echo Farm did not administer rBST to its cattle, and showed that the owners were willing to go the extra mile for animal welfare.
Hodge liked the premise of the humane certification program: customers could use the power of their pocketbook to influence animal well-being. The species-specific regulations were relatively easy for Echo Farm to put in place, requiring just a few tweaks to what they were already doing. Putting together the Animal Health Plan - a large part of the certification process - required Hodge to really think about emergencies. What would she do if the well went down? How would they handle a suffering cow?
"We feel that becoming certified humane made us look at our facilities from an animal's perspective, and it made us manage our herd more effectively," said Hodge.
Humane certification continues to be an important selling point with consumers. Hodge believes that customers are increasingly curious about animal treatment and are skeptical about what they are told.
"Being able to talk about how we are third-party certified is important to allaying consumer fears," she added. And the humane certification makes Echo Farm's products unique.
"Having a certified humane designation means that we are one step ahead of our competitors in the marketplace," said Hodge. "Farming on 36 acres, we don't have the ability to meet organic requirements, nor were we sure that we wanted to. Being certified humane has allowed us to be unique," she explained.
The designation has also helped Echo Farm access chains like Whole Foods, and in turn that helps them get onto other store shelves. Whole Foods has a five-step system for meat producers that will likely be expanded to egg and dairy in the near future. Costco and Whole Foods are starting to audit suppliers' practices to address consumer concern about animal treatment.
The Hodge sisters' love extends beyond their animals to the entire New England agriculture community. Hodge makes time to advocate for the interests of New England producers. She is active with NEFU and traveled to Washington, D.C., last September during the farm bill debate.
"Our elected officials and legislators hear from lobbyists and people with an agenda every day. I think it's important to show up and make sure that the stories the public and our elected officials hear about New England agriculture and animal welfare are our stories," said Hodge. She brings authenticity and policy knowledge. She can effectively communicate how laws and regulations will impact Echo Farm and New England.
"We love the New England agriculture community. We love working together as a family to grow a business. And we love teaching 4-H kids," said Hodge. If you stop by Echo Farm almost any August day, you will see kids working with their 4-H calves, getting ready for the agricultural fairs. It's no surprise that nearly all of Echo Farm's employees are former 4-H'ers.
Love is good business - advocating for New England producers, developing loyal employees, raising long-lived cattle and providing a unique product. When you try Echo Farm Pudding, you will taste the love too.
Membership in NEFU supports the advocacy efforts of passionate New England producers like Hodge. Please visit http://www.newenglandfarmersunion.org and become a member.
Sarah Andrysiak is a communications consultant for New England Farmers Union.