Dusk, At Dawn
In The Red, In The Black
CREAM students learn to love the realities of dairy farming
photos by Andy
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 oclock on a January morning is
a real ugly one. Cant ignore it. Cant delegate it. Must focus
on it. Now.
For the 15 students in UVMs CREAM program (Cooperative for Real
Education in Agricultural Management), the ways of a gutter cleaner in
winter are among the first signs that theyve 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 wont 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.
ARE YOU FAMOUS FOR?
Its 6:30, the evening before UVMs Spring 2004 semester, 20
degrees outside and dark. Inside a classroom at the Universitys
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 arent 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. Its a daunting
fact simply expressed, a notion that is at the core of the CREAM programs
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: Dont ever
miss chores. Youre 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
Im normal. I dont have any special qualities,
the new CREAMer says, somewhat shyly. Gillys 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 isnt
going to be me. Now in his junior year, he says hes 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 cant help it. Its as if the flood gates have
opened at a twelve-step meeting. Michelle Frick says, I like scraping
crap, as well. Its 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 Gilmores
entire life. Hell walk over to the shelves in his office and proudly
show off a copy of his dads book, Dairy Cattle Breeding by Lester
The 30-year veteran of UVMs faculty earned the Kidder Teaching Award,
presented by alumni, in 1994. Ask todays 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 professors
virtues. In the second semester of his CREAM year, James Sturzione has
sprouted a beard. When someone comments that its the bearded Gilmores
influence, Sturzione laughs. Yeah, its dress like your idol
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. Vermonts
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
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. Its not
just students doing chores. Its 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, its 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
Early on, Gilmore envisioned the UVM program would attract more students
with direct experience in dairy farming. That hasnt 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 theyve 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 CREAMs hands-on aspect: You
apply everything you think you know and everything youre working
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.
CLASSIC ROCK AND COW KICKS
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 years group, is among those helping
with the new teams 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 shes 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, theyre herd animals,
Nastri says. Theyre 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 wouldnt be
fast enough, she says, but were 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 isnt
on the chore sheet. She shrugs and offers an apology of sorts for being
so into it so soon. Its 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. Theyll 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, theyll
show off their man hands.
AND MILK PRICES
Generally a break-even operation, persistent low milk prices and some
bad breaks put CREAM in the red a couple of years ago. Theyve whittled
the debt by tightening operations, finding opportunities to sell the herds
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
Though he will clearly welcome the day when CREAM is back in black, Gilmore
suggests that a dose of stark financial reality isnt 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 theyve been more serious in finance committee in trying to understand
that, he says. They realize there is a deficit, so we arent
going to go buy a new truck. This is serious, UVMs not paying for
all that, were 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 its real about
what that can mean to dairy farmers.
James Sturzione agrees. It shows you that not everything is perfect,
he says. Thats real life. Not making it in the business world
is hard reality. You might face a challenge like this, you take it head
on, dont 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
The group wasnt 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 UVMs 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 Carols 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 years
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.
Shes happy to know that the girls will be well cared
for, but admits a twinge of regret It wont 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 wouldnt have been imaginable.