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At Dusk, At Dawn
In The Red, In The Black

CREAM students learn to love the realities of dairy farming

photos by Andy Duback

There are times and things in this life that are especially merciless in the ways they demand our focus and punish our frailties. A gutter cleaner is among them. The contraption, 140-feet of steel chain and paddles hooked up to a motor and drive unit, clears the inevitable business that issues from the rear of a cow. A working gutter cleaner is a beautiful thing. A gutter cleaner frozen stuck at 5 o’clock on a January morning is a real ugly one. Can’t ignore it. Can’t delegate it. Must focus on it. Now.

For the 15 students in UVM’s CREAM program (Cooperative for Real Education in Agricultural Management), the ways of a gutter cleaner in winter are among the first signs that they’ve signed on for a year of serious business. The demands are many, varied, and every bit as harsh, if not so vivid. CREAM will require financial management and sound judgment to steward an operation with a give and take of roughly $100,000 per year; animal sciences knowledge from genetics to nutrition; and plenty of manual labor of the shovel and pitchfork kind. Maybe most importantly, it will take the less tangible ability to come together as individuals into a unit. Back to that gutter cleaner, the beast won’t freeze stuck if it is run for a full cycle every time it is used, but that happy circumstance requires the know-how and vigilance of all — full cycle, every time. So it goes during students’ year with CREAM.

It’s 6:30, the evening before UVM’s Spring 2004 semester, 20 degrees outside and dark. Inside a classroom at the University’s Spear Street Farm the new class of CREAMers, as they call themselves, is gathered around a table. As one might expect from a bunch of college students who aren’t fazed by the prospect of 4 a.m. chores, they are getting a jump on the semester.

“CREAM 2004, you get a seat!” hollers Professor Jim Gilmore. “Gilly,” as the students will soon know him, settles the chatter and tells the group, “When we get done tonight, you guys will have a big business to be responsible for together.” It’s a daunting fact simply expressed, a notion that is at the core of the CREAM program’s genius. Take 15 students who bring levels of farm experience that range down to non-existent, give them 30 cows and a barn, then essentially hand them the keys. Such stakes add weight to the “getting to know you” routine at the opening of class. Several members of CREAM 2003 stand at the edge of the room and offer advice heavy on the importance of teamwork and dependability. Keith Bogatch ’04, one of the student advisors who will help with the transition, makes it simple: “Don’t ever miss chores. You’re just screwing each other.”

Gilly puts it a bit more broadly: “This is a course in people skills more than dairy herd management.”

The professor gets the introductions started with a favorite question — “What are you famous for?” — posing it to student James Sturzione.

“I’m normal. I don’t have any special qualities,” the new CREAMer says, somewhat shyly. Gilly’s having none of that and nudges him for more. Sturzione opens up a bit, recalls hearing CREAM described at a new student orientation and thinking, “That isn’t going to be me.” Now in his junior year, he says he’s “wanting something a bit more memorable” in his college experience.

Gabrielle Lipman tells everyone to call her “Gabe” and describes her search, familiar to so many, to find the right major. “I think animals are pretty cool, maybe cows are the answer.” More typical are the pre-veterinary majors, who have long been focused on working with animals, though their experience with cows is limited. Jackie Hulce says that she sees herself driving around Vermont taking care of cows on dairy farms, “a New England James Herriot.”

Then there are the earthier appeals of the program. Amy Krikorian did a summer internship at a zoo and discovered that “I really like scooping poop. I can’t help it.” It’s as if the flood gates have opened at a twelve-step meeting. Michelle Frick says, “I like scraping crap, as well. It’s very intriguing.” Laughter and a discussion about the strangely pleasing smell of a barn follow. The ice is starting to break, it seems, for CREAM 2004.

Jim Gilmore strikes you as one of the fortunate who does just what he was put here to do. The son of an Ohio State University animal sciences professor/dairy farmer, cows and higher education have been part of Gilmore’s entire life. He’ll walk over to the shelves in his office and proudly show off a copy of his dad’s book, Dairy Cattle Breeding by Lester O. Gilmore.

The 30-year veteran of UVM’s faculty earned the Kidder Teaching Award, presented by alumni, in 1994. Ask today’s students about working with Jim Gilmore and you typically get a sigh, a look in the eye that speaks respect and genuine affection, then a ramble about the professor’s virtues. In the second semester of his CREAM year, James Sturzione has sprouted a beard. When someone comments that it’s the bearded Gilmore’s influence, Sturzione laughs. “Yeah, it’s dress like your idol day.”

Gilmore has been part of the CREAM program since its inception in 1987 and credits students of the era for taking the initiative to create a hands-on experience in production agriculture for undergraduates. Vermont’s program was built on the model of a similar cooperative at Washington State University. CREAM soon became a model in its own right, inspiring programs at the universities of Maine and New Hampshire, and even one in Ireland.

“Just two or three weeks after we started, we all knew the dynamic of the group was just magic,” Gilmore recalls. “We realized this is going to be much more than a hands-on experience. It’s not just students doing chores. It’s students learning to work as a group and solve problems.” The professor has become a master of sensing when to step in or let go — more often, it’s the latter. “There are times when I want to say, ‘No, you need to do it this way.’ But if I do that on one thing, the real secret of the program will be gone.”

Early on, Gilmore envisioned the UVM program would attract more students with direct experience in dairy farming. That hasn’t proven to be the case to the extent he imagined, instead it has provided an essential hands-on experience for students who might not have found that opportunity. For the 260-some CREAM alumni, the program has made them better agri-business executives, teachers, researchers, and, yes, dairy farmers.

Andrew Meyer ’92 has put his CREAM experience to use in a range of settings — developing agricultural policy in Sen. James Jeffords’ office, working as a Washington lobbyist, and, most recently, retooling the family farm. Last year, Meyer joined his brothers, Taylor ’97 and Nick ’99 (CREAM 1998), on the family dairy farm in Hardwick, which they’ve converted to an organic operation. Helping CREAM evolve in its early years, Meyer says, was his first taste of the challenge of building a new business. Meyer praises CREAM’s hands-on aspect: “You apply everything you think you know and everything you’re working to know.”

Many of the alumni in the program have gone on to be veterinarians, a field that 11 members of the 2004 CREAM group aspires to, as well. Getting into vet school is every bit as tough as getting into med school (the acceptance rate hovers around 33%), and a year of experience in the barn with CREAM has proven a significant way for UVM students to separate themselves from the pack. Larry Bjorklund, director of admissions for the University of Minnesota veterinary school, calls CREAM graduates “exactly the students we are looking for to enter our dairy program.”

The morning of January 23, first week of chores for the 2004 CREAM team, it is 10-below outside of the barn, and not much warmer inside. Billy Idol snarls on the radio —“nice day to start again, nice day for a white wedding.”

Kathleen Nastri, an alumna of last year’s group, is among those helping with the new team’s transition as they get the hang of milking, cleaning out the barn, and doling out 4,400 pounds of feed. She gives James Sturzione a few tips about getting started milking. Sit way back with your head up to avoid getting whacked, she says, advising him that cows kick to the side. Nastri adds that she’s an expert on such matters, having been kicked by Snow White, Jade, Penelope, Priscilla, Caitlin, Jasmine, Carol, Kali, Lilac, Carly, Hailey, Boo, Luscious, Destiny, Cupid, Ebony, Black Jade, Hunter, Lilly, Destiny, Bonneville, Surprise, Rizzo, Crissie, Black-Eyed Susan, Bourbon, Maya, Jolt Beauty — every cow in the barn.

The key, Nastri says, is to pay attention to the details so the cows feel like it is the same person milking them every time. Big picture: Be a creature of habit when working with a creature of habit, because a calm cow is a happy cow is a productive cow. She recalls the day when she was leading the cows outside and they froze at the sight of a stray rag on the floor. “Anything new frightens them, they’re herd animals,” Nastri says. “They’re prey.”

At the first CREAM meeting of the semester Ladan Karimian defined herself as the type who worries about everything. Today, she admits that learning chores had her fretting especially. “I thought I wouldn’t be fast enough,” she says, “but we’re all in the same boat. I got past it.”

Jackie Hulce, she of the James Herriot dreams, has dropped by the barn this morning to see how things are going, even though her name isn’t on the chore sheet. She shrugs and offers an apology of sorts for being so into it so soon. “It’s kind of pathetic,” she says.

Over the course of the CREAM year, Hulce and Karimian will become close friends, frequently pairing up on chores, and sharing the duty as liaisons to UVM vet Dr. Ruth Blauwiekel. They’ll each come to put in a good 30 hours on CREAM most weeks. The rigors of chores make visits to the gym unnecessary and, with something between pride and lament, they’ll show off their “man hands.”

Generally a break-even operation, persistent low milk prices and some bad breaks put CREAM in the red a couple of years ago. They’ve whittled the debt by tightening operations, finding opportunities to sell the herd’s impressive genetics, and starting to fundraise an endowment that will cushion for the lean times. Still, an approximately $45,000 deficit looms and, until the books even up, it is all part of the program for each class of CREAM.

Though he will clearly welcome the day when CREAM is back in black, Gilmore suggests that a dose of stark financial reality isn’t altogether a bad thing during the students’ year as small-herd dairy farmers. “In a way it is too bad they have that hanging over their heads, but they’ve been more serious in finance committee in trying to understand that,” he says. “They realize there is a deficit, so we aren’t going to go buy a new truck. This is serious, UVM’s not paying for all that, we’re running a business here.”

The 2004 CREAMers agree that the deficit has sharpened their focus. Ladan Karimian says, “I remember when I used to hear on the news about milk prices dropping it was very abstract to me. Now it’s real about what that can mean to dairy farmers.”

James Sturzione agrees. “It shows you that not everything is perfect,” he says. “That’s real life. Not making it in the business world is hard reality. You might face a challenge like this, you take it head on, don’t back away from it.”

CREAM faced perhaps their toughest decision early in the year when an older cow named Carol came down with a case of mastitis, grew thin, and students struggled with the best course of action. It was a situation that called on CREAM 2004 to combine their firsthand experience with the cow, their textbook knowledge of animal health, the counsel of their advisors, and sort it all out among themselves under the fluorescent light of a classroom.

The group wasn’t yet totally comfortable with one another or the weight of some of the decisions they faced. Jackie Hulce encapsulates what many were feeling as they considered whether they had somehow done something wrong and what the next steps would be. “These are living animals,” she says. “Your every action has a consequence.”

As students’ bond to the herd grows strong, emotion becomes an undeniable part of the equation. The group struggled with whether the most humane route would be “to beef” Carol and sought advice from the many sources they can draw upon — Gilmore; Don Maynard ’74, who couples years of experience at UVM’s Spear Street Farm with a Vermont family farm background; and University Veterinarian Dr. Blauwiekel, among others.

Student Molly Robinson says that last spring the group came to see that despite Carol’s sickly appearance, other signs of her health were sound and she was a productive cow. “As a business decision, it made sense to keep her,” Robinson says. But Carol would remain a concern throughout the year, forcing the group in November to make the hardest choice of culling the cow from the herd.

The final chore for any CREAM group is passing the pitchfork, as one year’s crew is in charge of recruiting and handpicking their successors. CREAM 2004 has spread the word aggressively and there are twice as many applicants as spaces for CREAM 2005.

As the prospective CREAMers meet with the current class and try out chore rounds, they are closely watched to see if they have the right stuff. Don Maynard likens the succession to a fast-forward version of that faced by farm families. Over the course of a year, the CREAM students have gone from being the new generation to the old one. Concerns about taking on a business have phased to those of passing it on and the inevitable worries and difficulties of letting go. Ladan Karimian says observing a student working in the barn who will be a worthy member of CREAM 2005 is bittersweet. She’s happy to know that “the girls” will be well cared for, but admits a twinge of regret — “It won’t be me.”

Like many CREAMers past and present, James Sturzione calls the program a defining part of his college experience. The young man, a self-described “kid who grew up 15 minutes outside of New York City where the closest I got to a cow was the one on a milk carton,” looks back over the year with a sort of wonder for how far he has come. The experience crystallized one day last spring when he handled morning chores on his own — “milked, cleaned the barn, fed out” — and stepped outside to watch the sun rise. “If you asked me to picture myself in that scenario three years ago,” he says, “it wouldn’t have been imaginable.”