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Stewards of the Land

By Daniel Ladue, Photos by Jessica McCafferty

What’s not to like about a Montreal bagel, fresh out of the toaster, then slathered with cream cheese? Pour a cup of coffee, add a splash of milk or heavy cream and then sit back and enjoy! A few hours later, slather some fresh butter on two pieces of bread, sandwich in some locally produced Cheddar cheese, grab a glass of milk, and, voila — an almost perfect lunch.

Few of us stop to think about where meals like this come from. The farmer who produced the milk to make the cream cheese and Cheddar is likely never thought of during the meal. Without farms, and the men and women who labor tirelessly year-round, the abundance and variety of food we take for granted wouldn’t exist.

For professional farmers Tom Remillard, his brother Tim, and Tim’s two sons, Jason and Josh, farming is not only a family business, but defines who they are as people. All four were born to farm families, grew up around the business and have made a conscious decision to stay on the farm. The Remillard family farm is alive and thriving in Peru, New York.

Grounded to the Land The men have deep respect for the land they work and the herd they tend. Respect is even deeper when Tom talks of the history behind the Remillard Farm. Their father, Rubin, was born in Sainte Antoine Abbe, Quebec in 1922. Three years later the entire family crossed the border and settled in the Peru area in search of a better life. It was rough going, but Rubin’s father, Hermas, worked on several farms as a tenant and also a caretaker. In 1949, he and two of his sons, Rubin and Jerome, purchased the property where the farm now stands. At that time, it was a small operation—50-100 acres—with dairy cows and apple trees.

Over the years, more property was acquired. In the early 1960s, life changed dramatically when the state of New York, through eminent domain, acquired the property west of the family’s home. Construction for I- 87, the Adirondack Northway, split the property in two. Forever removed were thirty acres of apple trees which necessitated a decision on the part of Rubin and his brother. The orchards were eliminated and dairy became the primary focus.

By 1980, a choice was made to augment the size of their herd—then at 70 cows. Within a decade, a milking parlor enabled the dairy farm to increase its herd to 350. Today, more than 800 cows occupy the men’s work.

To be a farmer means many things, and one of them is almost non-stop work 365 days a year. Tom’s day begins at 6:00 a.m. when he checks on the youngest calves. He then visits the maternity pen to see how many calves were born during the night. With a herd of more than 800 females, newborns are an almost daily occurrence. Tom obtains the milk from the mothers — it’s important that the first feedings come from her. Only newborn females join the herd and will be raised in Peru. The males are sold off.

By 10:00 a.m., Tom is ready for breakfast. What follows for the rest of the day is “whatever needs to be done.” On a farm, that could be just about anything. Fortunately, Tom and his brother and two nephews are not the sole workers. They are reliant on outside help who are loyal to the Remillards.

There are so many variables on a farm that it’s difficult to pigeon hole activities that vary from season to season. The farm is actually two enterprises—dairy and crops. Each person has a specific set of chores. There’s a mechanic, someone to work with a technician to artificially inseminate cows, crews to milk two times a day, teams to prepare the soil for planting, staff to hay, and more to harvest in the fall. Eleven workers are dedicated to keeping the Remillard Farm as efficient as possible.

Farm Fresh The Remillard Farm is a member of the Dairy Farmers of America (DFA) which is the largest of all the co-ops in the country. Regional offices for the Northeastern United States are in Syracuse. DFA is essential to farmers. It is the organization that finds a buyer for the milk, which in turn produces the families’ incomes. After each cow is milked, the milk is put into cooling vats that chill it rapidly from 101º to 35º. Twice a day, a milk driver arrives, collects the milk, then delivers it to one of three places. Some of it crosses the lake and goes to St. Albans, Vermont where it will be converted to heavy cream and dried powder. Another delivery goes to Chateaugay, New York where the milk is processed into cheese. A third destination is in St. Lawrence County where it becomes yogurt. Turnaround time is short. This morning’s milk is tonight’s cheese. From the three processing plants, the dairy products are then delivered locally to retail vendors. Mindful Responsibility

The Remillard men are grounded to the land. Tom sees himself as a steward to all that is around him. The men are deeply committed to producing a good product, keeping the cows well cared for, well fed and comfortable. They are mindful of their responsibility to the animals. “The animals are reliant on us,” Tom said. “The better we take care of them, the better they take care of us.”

Equally important is running the operation as efficiently as possible. New cows are added to the herd through internal breeding. The increase in numbers has actually been a good thing. In 1993, a milking parlor was added, enabling them to build the current population of 800+. While it may seem counterintuitive to think that 800 is less work than 100, the current milking method utilizes 20 stationary units that allow one group of cows to come to the station, be milked, then leave, allowing another group to enter. Prior to this method, Tom and Tim had to go to each cow. Now the cows come to them. Greater efficiency has resulted in increased output thus allowing the farm to expand.

Dairy is not the only enterprise on the farm. From April to autumn, tending the 1,500 acres of land is essential. Corn and hay are grown on the farm and are used to feed the animals. Roughly half of the work on the farm in good weather is taken up with preparing the land for planting, getting the crops in, monitoring, then harvesting in the early fall.

Days off? A farmer’s day never really ends. But a good farmer respects the need for rest, especially on Sundays, the only day that the Remillards and their staff take it easy. Sunday is the one day a week where only the basics are done — those chores that know no days off. Field work is rarely done Sunday. Still, the rhythm of the farm is so established in Tom that he confesses that he “gets the itch to work on things that need to be done every day.”

Vacation? “I’d like to get to that time where I want one,” he said. Tom would like to visit his three children who all live away, or go “way up north where the days are long.” I’m just not ready yet,” he explained. Retirement? “Maybe someday, but I’d still want to stay involved without having the burden of all the things that come from running a business.” Tom has no regrets, although he did say he’d do some things differently. “I can’t see myself doing anything else. In the spring of the year, there’s no place I’d rather be than out in the field,” he stated, and that carries through the season.” I feel privileged that I was born into this family. I’m grateful that my parents had the farm and let [us] be part of it. I get enjoyment out of farming. “

Unsung Heroes The next time you pick up a brick of cheese or a liter of milk, give quiet thanks first for the miracle of mass food production, and secondly for men like Tom, Tim, Jason and Josh Remillard, and the hundreds of thousands of men and women like them who help keep shelves stocked and families fed. All of them are unsung heroes.

Remillard Farm 1127 Fuller Road Peru, NY 12972 518 643-2133

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