An assignment for Farm and Ranch Living magazine had me traveling north to East Canaan, CT recently to photograph a dairy farm.
Started in 1949 by Eugene and Esther Freund, Freund’s Farm is still family owned and operated. Amanda Freund, the oldest of 4 kids in her family, has been working on the farm her entire life, except for a stint in the Peace Corps. She gave me a very thorough tour of the farm and taught me a little about modern farming. Her farm works hard to be friendly to the environment, the animals, and the community while still maintaining profitability.
It’s an impressive, innovative, multi-faceted business.
When I arrived, my first impression was that this was a pretty standard family farm operation. I saw the old red barn for cows, sheds full of tractors and machinery, hoop houses, wide open fields, and cute country gardens.
Spring on the farm means mud and flowers. It also means a flurry of activity as the growing season begins. Even though I was there on a Saturday morning, the family and their employees were all hard at work.
The Dairy Operation
I watched as Amanda mixed up the feed for the cows and delivered it with her tractor. She went about her work efficiently and independently, making it clear that this was just a daily routine for her. I was still impressed.
This might seem like an old fashioned farm from the outside, but upon closer inspection, it is actually a very modern operation. Hiding back behind the rest of the farm is the new cow barn, and it is very large, open to the air, and filled with modern amenities.
The roof is covered in solar panels. Inside, there are fans with temperature sensors that help circulate enough air to keep the cows at the right temperature. There are waterbeds to help the cows get comfortable.
There is a giant Roomba that cleans the pathway and pushes the scattered cow feed back to where the cows can reach it. There are even automatic back scratchers for the cows (and I got to watch a few cows make use of them!) Amanda tells me that when the back scratchers were first installed, the cows figured out how to use them immediately. They look like big circular red hairbrushes, and when the cows go underneath them and push up, they spin around to give a nice scratch.
The pinnacle of the modern upgrades to this farm is the milking robot system.
The cows visit the milking robot voluntarily, and on their own schedule – some visit twice a day, some four times a day. The robot scans the cow’s necklace, which acts like a big FitBit for cows. This tells the robot everything it needs to know about the individual cow – which cow it is, when they were last milked, when they were last bred, how much activity the cow is getting, etc. The robot has a special feed tailored to the unique needs of that cow, and dispenses some into the feed trough. As the cow eats her special feed, the robot cleans itself and the underside of the cow, then, using lasers to find the target, attaches the milking apparatus and begins the milking process. On the other side of the wall, the farmers and staff can watch the milk being collected and service the robot when needed. All of the information on each cow goes right into a complex computer program which helps the farmers keep tabs on the health and productivity of each cow.
Amanda’s uncle, Ben, is in charge of keeping tabs on the health of the cows. He monitors their statistics from the computer, and regularly goes into the barn to check up on them in person.
All of these modern features free up the farmers to spend their time focusing on diversifying, marketing their products and making the farm more profitable.
After meeting the cows, I went to the farm store to meet the rest of the Freund family.
The farm store is the public face of the farm, and it is the perfect blend of rustic charm and modern convenience. The store is filled with good things to eat, like produce, baked goods (baked upstairs in their commercial kitchen), and dairy products made from their milk (their milk gets sold to Cabot, a dairy company which pasteurizes and processes the milk into cheese and other dairy products.)
The store also carries goods made by local artisans, like soap, decorative succulent arrangements, wooden signs, and lots of plants for your garden.
Attached to the farm store is a large greenhouse filled with flowers and bedding plants.
The family was so warm and welcoming, it made the atmosphere at the market that much more friendly.
Theresa and Matthew met on the farm when Theresa was hired on as a milk maid. “Marrying the milk maid makes for cheap labor, right?” she laughs at Matthew. He thinks for a moment, then replies, “Actually, all told, probably the most expensive milk maid we’ve ever had…”
Matthew tells me the story of his invention, CowPots. He was looking into ways to make their farm more profitable and find uses for all the manure the farm produced. The farm already had a methane digester to harness energy from the cow manure. The waste leftover from the methane digester was sometimes sold to neighboring farms as fertilizer for their fields. While speaking to a neighboring farmer, Matthew had the idea to manufacture something from the leftover manure from the digester. CowPots are his brainchild – processed manure pressed into flower pots of various sizes.
The pots make perfect plant starters – as the plants grow, their roots penetrate the pots and slowly break them down for fertilizer. Gardeners can put their bedding plants right into the garden – pot and all – and the CowPots will fertilize the plant as they break down, allowing the plant to grow freely. The Freunds have cultivated an international market for their invention, selling pots to elite flower growers in Europe.
Matthew has largely passed along the task of marketing his CowPots to Amanda, who uses social media to grow the business.
As I was touring the farm, I was struck by the intelligence of the farmers, the sustainability of their business, and the heart they have for their work. Everybody who was working at that farm was happy and respectful. They seemed to work together like a well oiled machine – each with their own set of tasks, each working together and yet self-driven.
But what touched me the most was the way they treat the animals in their care. Every thought is for the comfort and health of the cows. They are so much more than milk-generating machines to this family. The amount of time and resources put toward keeping track of the health and well being of each cow was impressive. And the cows responded to Amanda like pets.
I love photographing powerful women, and Amanda was no exception. Although clearly not a fan of being in front of the camera, she obliged me and posed for a number of pictures. I love the way she carried herself with confidence, and was not afraid to get dirty.