Planning for a recent Breakfast on the Farm event at the Nea-Tocht Farm in Ferrisburgh, Vermont started more than six months ago. This event required the efforts of more than 100 volunteers, including the Vander Wey family and representatives from the Vermont Agency of Agriculture. With long lines at the breakfast tent and more than 900 people expected, Public Relations and Communications Specialist Laura Hardie from the New England Dairy and Food Council along with Dr. Julie Smith, DVM, PhD, who teaches Animals in Society/Animal Welfare at UVM declared the event a success.
The tour started with a hearty breakfast after which visitors visited the Biosecurity Bootie Station to slip blue booties over their shoes before entering the barns. The first stop was in the airy free stall Milking Cow Barn which houses robotic milking machines. The Vander Weys have five machines that allow the cows to choose when to be milked, on average three times per day. The system also keeps track of how many steps a cow takes, how often they lay down and how much they eat. All of this information helps the farmers monitor the cows’ health. The cows also have constant access to food which is pushed to them every hour from a special robot. From this cool and well ventilated barn, visitors moved on the Heifer barn and to see the farm’s newest arrivals in the Calf pen.
We caught up with Dr. Smith towards the end of our tour just after completing an exit survey. She explained the details of organizing this event and the enormous effort it required from all of the volunteers. She also explained the significance of the exit survey which asked visitors to compare their perceptions of dairy farming with the reality of what they had just experienced. In her role as a professor and calf management researcher, Smith understands that the public does hold some negative misconceptions about the ethical treatment of animals on farms.
She sees events like Breakfast on the Farm as a direct and effective way to address those misconceptions and give the public first-hand experience of farm life. In last year’s surveys, 91 percent of first time visitors agreed or strongly agreed that farmers treat their animals humanely. That positive impression is exactly what Smith hopes visitors will share with others in the community who were unable to attend the event.
For Smith, it is also important that visitors leave with the knowledge that the cows are also healthy and protected from disease. With a background in in biosecurity and preventive animal health management, Smith has conducted studies to better understand how highly contagious diseases spread on farms and the proactive measures necessary to prevent their spread. Putting on those biosecurity booties at the beginning of the tour let everyone know that they were helping to prevent unwanted bacteria and viruses from entering the farm.
The Vander Wey family certainly appreciated everyone taking time to wear the booties so as to protect their cows. Raymond and Linda Vander Wey started farming in Vermont in 1972 and continue to do so with their five children and their grandchildren. Nea-Tocht is Dutch for ‘never thought’. As the family’s history explains, “When Raymond came to America from the Netherlands with his parents in the 50s, he never thought that his dream of owning a dairy farm would emerge into the beautiful family operation it is today.” With one great grandchild now in the family, it looks like this farm has a long future!