Farming Runs in the Family: Another Generation Arrives

People / Jul. 24, 2011 4:22pm EDT

By M. D. Drysdale

Joe Angell and dairy farming go way back—much farther than his 22 years.

The son of Tim and Janet (Wight) Angell, he grew up on the family farm on Wight Road in Randolph. Through his mother, he is heir to eight generations of dairy farmers.

“And Gram still farms out on Route 14,” he said. “Gram” is Agnes Wight Spaulding, who farms and makes maple syrup with her husband George.

As for Joe, “As long as I can remember, I wanted to (farm),” he said. His earliest tasks weren’t glamorous—feeding the cows and shoveling manure in the barn—but they were enough to make him love it.

“I always liked being my own boss,” he explained. “I liked the natural world.” 

He also likes cows, especially Jersey cows. 

“They’re pretty docile, and they’re creatures of habit,” he observed. “They like things to be the same every day.”

And then, an important addition—“ I always liked working quite a lot, too.”  

It’s a necessary attitude for a dairy farmer.

Like most farm kids, Joe Angell started raising his own cows through the 4-H club. In this case, it was the 4-H club of the Middle Branch Grange, the biggest in Vermont. Angell still has one of those cows, a Holstein.

“Madison’s her name,” he acknowledged, with a fond grin.

It was nearly certain that Angell would go to Vermont Tech. His grandfather, Byron Angell, was a professor there for many years, and his father Tim grew up in the shadow of the VTC Farmstead on Water Street.

Lots To Learn

“I always thought I’d go, and I’m glad I did,” he said. “I knew a lot about farming, but there were things I didn’t know,” adding, “There are things I still don’t know.”

Most valuable skills to learn, he said, were those involving animal health and reproductivity, also accounting and managing money. He gives great credit to Chris Dutton and Cal Blessing for the former and to Greg Hughes for the latter. In fact, he used Hughes’ class to create the business plan he would use in buying his own herd of cows.

Upon finishing at VTC, Angell went looking for “an empty barn” in the area where he might set up his own dairy operation. It was a difficult search, he found. Though there were quite a few empty barns, there weren’t many former farmers interested in leasing them. 

Kermit LaBounty, however, was ready to talk.

LaBounty said he got the idea of leasing the farm after hearing about the agreement that Chris Dutton at Vermont Tech worked out with dairyman John Osha. The college now uses the Osha farm as an “incubator” farm which a young farmer can manage for two or three years, while producing enough equity to go into farming on his own.

LaBounty was intrigued with that model, and he gave Dutton a call, leading to the contact with Angell.

Negotiations were going well with LaBounty when Angell received another offer from an old friend of the family—Wes Snow, who was farming with his wife Brenda on a beautiful piece of hillside on Ferris Road in Brookfield. From the road, you can see Killington in the distance, and you can also see Camel’s Hump “if you climb the ladder on the silo,” according to Brenda Snow.

Friends of the Family

“We knew Tim and Janet Angell and for 20 years we joked about it—maybe Joe would take over our farm,” Wes Snow recalled recently. Snow had farmed it for about 35 years.

“I stopped when I couldn’t milk any more,” he explained. “I had ‘farmers knee,’ and it just wasn’t fun any more. It hurt too much.”

For Joe Angell, the Snows’ offer had a couple of big advantages. It was reasonably close to his parents’ farm—and it came with its own cows.

Buying a herd from elsewhere (as Brandon Bucossi did) is risky, confirmed Cal Blessing at Vermont Tech. As many as a third of imported cows typically don’t make it through the first year, finding it hard to adjust to the new regimens in feed and living quarters. So Angell jumped at the chance to take over the Snows’ herd. He and Wes decided to dispense with lawyers. “We sat down one day and did up the lease, and it hasn’t failed us yet,” Angell said.

“I bought the cows and the barn equipment, and I rent the barns and 25 acres of pasture land.” Snow kept the rest of the 150-acre farm and harvests feed to sell to Angell at a pre-set price per ton that he can rely on, in a five-year deal.

The purchase of the cows was made possible by a seven-year loan from VEDA through the Vermont Agricultural Credit Corp. 

“Part of our mission here is to help beginning farmers get started,” explained loan officer Sarah Isham. 

“Joe had a history of growing up on a farm, had gone to VTC, so he had a lot going for him. And he put together a good business plan.”

Low Prices

The loan was approved, even though at the time—2009, just a month after Angell graduated from Vermont Tech—milk prices were at an historically low ebb. He remembers his first milk check was for $13  per hundredweight—including the add-on for “components” like butterfat and protein. 

Because of his arrangement with the Snows, however, he found he could break even, despite the low price. 

His latest milk price this summer was $24.70 per cwt, and Angell is optimistic, even though costs for grain have risen steeply at the same time.

“I can pay off my loans in five years at this rate,” he said. Then he will own the nearly 50 cows outright. Eventually, he suggests, he’d like to move his new herd to a farm near his home farm, which his brother Matt is working along with his father. (The Snows have an 11-year-old son, adopted from Romania, who is already showing interest in farming, himself.)

For Wes and Brenda Snow, Joe Angell’s success so far is deeply gratifying.

Wes Snow, a Massachusetts native, also learned dairying at Vermont Technical College, and “never went back home.” He bought the hillside farm from Charles Slack, under a special deal that included building a house for Slack nearby.

“Without those two people (Slack and his wife), I would never have farmed,” Snow reflected recently. “I always thought that if I had an opportunity to help someone else do it, that I would like to do that …

“What goes around comes around.”

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