Maintaining a family farm through generations requires more than just hard work and a love of farming. Economy of size often dictates success, but there are small craft farming families who have managed to stay alive. One of these families is the Boydens in Cambridge, Vermont.
Like others, they started with a few dairy cows. Over four generations, they have expanded their farming operation to include a wide range of products and services that have required imagination, risk taking, optimism, a keen awareness of niche markets and the ability to pull the plug on enterprises that just don’t measure up to the dream.
Fredrick and Phila Boyden purchased the Lamoille Valley farm in 1914 from the Gates family. They loaded their horse-drawn wagon and, along with their nine children, drove their 28 head of dairy cows 20 miles from their home in Georgia, Vermont, to the farm in Cambridge. According to family lore, one reason they bought the place was that the farmhouse had a dining room big enough for the entire family to eat meals together. The other feature that attracted them to this piece of land was its location along the Lamoille River.
Most of their fields are located on the flood plain with loamy soil perfect for growing corn and hay. For the first 20 years, Fredrick and his sons Sterns and Winfred milked cows, separated and sold the cream and used the whey to feed pigs raised on the farm. They bought their first tractor in 1922, a 1919 international 8 – it was only 16-horsepower and ran on kerosene. They sold raw milk in cans to local creameries and eventually updated their operation in 1952 from using milk cans to bulk tanks.
Fred assumes the reins
Winfred’s son Fred was naturally drawn to the family farm and became a partner with his father and his Uncle Sterns in the ’60s. When Sterns and Winfred died in the ’70s, Fred continued working the farm with the help of his entire family – wife Diancy, sons Mark and David and daughter Stephanie. By then the operation had grown to 200 heads of cattle, 140 of them milkers. While Diancy helped out whenever and wherever she could, she fondly remembers her mother-in-law once telling her, “Don’t ever milk!” Once you agreed to that, all was lost, she said. Fred and Diancy relied on their kids to do farm chores and all three pitched in. However, Diancy was also keen for them to get college degrees, which they all did.
Read more: America’s aging farmers
Mark returned from the College of Agriculture at the University of Vermont in the late ’80s and worked beside his father planting, haying, running a small maple operation, keeping the dairy cows milked and pursuing a few of his own agricultural hunches. A few of his experimental crops included a half acre of sunflowers and a half acre of popcorn. Neither one proved profitable.
Mark had a few good years of growing edible beans and devoted 170 acres to them until the flood of 1995 rolled into town. Mark said, “That was a once-in-every-500-years flood.” What he and his wife, Lauri, quickly discovered is that edible beans “don’t like having wet feet.” They recovered from that flood only to be hit by another one of the same magnitude two years later. Mark recalled firmly, “That is when I pulled the plug on that!” He could also see that the edible bean business was shifting to the Dakotas and that “the cost of growing it out there and shipping it east was lower than trying to grow it here in Vermont.”
During the late 1990s, it became clear that the milkroom and pipeline system needed updating to keep up with production and the competition. Mark and Fred did not think that it was worth the enormous investment it would take to update the milking operation, so in 2000 they sold their milking cows. It was Mark’s turn to try a new approach.
Steering toward beef cows
Mark decided to commit his energy to raising and selling beef cows. His mother recalls how often he was told that he’d never make it, but in the end she said, “It was a good decision,” and it continues to be a breadwinner for Mark. His success with raising beef cows is due to a combination of timing, intelligence and perseverance. He made the shift to beef cows just when the marketing climate was starting to go local. His wife, Lauri, opened The Milk House Market on the farm where they sold their beef along with other locally grown and raised products. They also made inroads with local restaurants and markets where Boyden Beef continues to be a premium meat. To secure that position, Mark developed a hybrid beef breed, which he trademarked, called Red Velvet. While he said there is a lot more competition these days even among the food distributors like Black River Produce, which offers its own Vermont-raised beef, Mark vows to never lowball his prices.
As Mark worked on developing his beef cow enterprise, Lauri was busy raising their three daughters and following her own agricultural visions. She rode the wave of agri-tourism and opened a petting zoo and a scoop shop that sold Vermont’s famous Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, built a pavilion next to the hay barn for family gatherings and started a summer concert series that attracted as much of the local community as it did tourists. In the fall, she offered hay rides and a 12-acre corn maze for visitors. Her goals were twofold in that she wanted to carve out a business for herself while offering the community a welcome place to bring their children, relax and learn about the farm.
Read more: Growing relationships off the farm
Perfect setting for a wedding
When a local family asked if they could use the pavilion and throw up some tents for a wedding one summer, the seeds were planted for Lauri’s future as a wedding planner. “We held a few weddings and with the Vermont weather being unpredictable we wanted to be able to provide a wedding and reception space that was undercover and had a kitchen,” she said. That is when she and Mark decided to invest in renovating the circa 1800s post-and-beam barn. This major financial commitment solidified Lauri’s role at the Boyden farm. Given the cold in Vermont, Mark is quick to point out that there are exactly 26 weekends on which to hold events. For 2016, Lauri has only two weekends left without a wedding booked.
Adding vines to the farm
David, Mark’s younger brother by four years, returned to the family farm in the late ’90s with his own agricultural dreams of starting a winery. While Mark and Lauri worked to develop their portion of the farm, in 1996, David and his wife, Linda, planted their first rows of grapes, Seyval blanc, Léon Millot, Baco noir and Cayuga. They also renovated the carriage barn where they set up their wine-making operation and a shop to sell the wine and hold tastings. While they waited for those first vines to mature, they opened the winery with fruit wines. “My Uncle Sterns always made hard cider and it appealed to me to make a product,” David said. The hot, dry summer of 2005 marked a turning point for the winery as they had a bountiful harvest that year that set them on their own successful Boyden Farm venture.
Given that The Boyden Valley Winery was one of Vermont’s first wineries, David and Linda were entering new agricultural territory. Fortunately for them, early in their careers they met Robert La Royer of Vignoble Le Royer St-Pierre Winery in Quebec who gave them much-welcomed guidance. Since then, they have planted other varieties of grapes, all winter hardy, and they have built their product collection to include ice wines, crème liqueurs and sparkling ciders.
However, running a successful winery in a small northern state requires more than delicious hardy grapes. Over the past 20 years, David and Linda have learned plenty about state and federal liquor laws and often find themselves buried in paperwork. David said, “Each state has its own liquor laws and permitting requirements, and it takes sheer economics of scale to get both shelf space and distributors interested in your product.” Being a small craft winery that uses only Vermont produce means that the economies of scale are not in their favor. What is, though, is their commitment to making pure Vermont wine, ciders and liqueurs that will stand the test of time.
Both brothers and their wives have spent the past 20 years building their individual and well-established businesses on the Boyden Farm. They all agree that the key to continued success is to approach life with optimism and focus their energies on what works. For Mark that means increasing his herd size without increasing his overhead. To do that, he has partnered with 12 family farms that have barn space and the time to care for a small portion of his herd.
For Lauri it means ensuring that the weddings and events held in their barn are given personalized attention. She said, “We are not a wedding factory and never will be one.” To do that she limits one wedding per weekend and she personally works with families organizing the big day, which, in some cases, takes a full year of planning. For David and Linda it means focusing on developing the red wines and developing local partnerships like the one they started last year with Cold Hollow Cider Mill in Waterbury, Vermont. “We buy their apples to make our creamed liqueurs and ciders and then sell those spirits to them wholesale.” It is a happy marriage of Vermont produce, Vermont labor and Vermont entrepreneurial spirit to create a high-quality Boyden product.
Pride runs deep in the family
Diancy, the family matriarch, is proud of what her family has done with the opportunities presented on the farm. But she is also not surprised by the success she sees when she walks out her front door. Like her children, Diancy is smart, optimistic and willing to roll up her sleeves and get to work. She and Fred are not the only ones to have watched the evolution of the family farm. Their grandchildren have, too. No matter what they choose for their futures, Lauri and Mark know that their girls have benefited from, as Lauri said, “growing up being able to watch the dynamics of the family businesses evolve.” Mark’s advice to the next generation of Boydens is that no matter what they do, “take classes in how to run a small business!”
Dale and Darcy Cahill are freelance writers who have written two books about tobacco sheds in the Connecticut River Valley.
Read more: Utilizing social media for your farm