Modern Life: Working and Living on a Dairy Farm
Hannah Sessions and Greg Bernhardt, 38, Co-owners of Blue Ledge Farm, Hayden, 9, Livia, 12, and Boomer.
By: Suzanne Rust
Photography by: John Huba
When they were younger, despite their artistic tendencies, Hannah Sessions thought she might become a lawyer and Greg Bernhardt imagined a career in education. So how did they wind up down on the farm? A love of Vermont and good food plus a yearning for a bucolic lifestyle and creative work inspired the couple to invest in a property that they converted to a goat dairy. Fifteen years later, their Blue Ledge Farm boasts 140 goats and produces award-winning artisan cheeses. Now these first-generation farmers cannot image a better life for their family of four.
Which three words best describe your family?
Active, creative, earnest.
What made you choose a goat dairy and cheese making operation?
Goats were an affordable alternative to cows when it came to the capital investment involved in starting a dairy. We always had our sights set on making cheese and we were very excited by the diversity of cheeses you can make with goat’s milk. Lastly, we felt like there was room in the market for excellent artisanal goat cheese. Hannah says that since getting to know goats and their personalities, she would be hard-pressed to work with any other animal.
What is the most rewarding thing about your lifestyle? What is the most challenging?
The things that are the most rewarding are also the most challenging! It is very rewarding to work where we live, and that is also the greatest challenge. Working where you live allows you to be very efficient with your time, to multi-task and to seamlessly blend family and work life together. We get to work together every day, and we are available for our kids.
It is also challenging because you never actually leave your place of work and there is always something that needs tending to. It is rewarding to be deeply connected to weather and the seasons, but that, of course, it also very challenging as weather dictates our ability to harvest feed and many other things. It is wonderful to live with the companionship of hundreds of animals, but challenging to never travel because we are responsible for their care.
You are both first generation farmers. What are the biggest misconceptions about farm life?
One big misconception is that farming is easy, and anyone who can hoe a row of lettuce or muck out a pig pen can do it. You do have to do physical, dirty jobs from time to time, but farming is high tech and takes an incredible amount of knowledge. We wear many “hats”: plumber, electrician, veterinarian, mechanic, accountant, public relations, builder, and graphic designer to name a few. We weren’t born into a farming family so we have learned to gather knowledge when and where we can! Fortunately, folks more experienced than us have been very generous with their time since the birth of Blue Ledge Farm. And we can always “Google it”!
How hands-on are you two at this point? Do either of you actually milk the 80 goats twice a day?
Hannah manages the herd of 140 goats and is very active in vaccinating, breeding and general care of the animals, and takes a few milking shifts per week. We have a great team of milkers so that no one person is burdened with milking twice a day!
Greg manages the cheese production, but between making hay, keeping the books and maintaining operations about the farm, our cheese maker, Megan, has her hands in more actual cheese curds than he does.
What do you love most about the cheese making process?
I enjoy seeing the development from milk, to curd, to a formed shape, and then a fully aged cheese. I also like the fact that we are creating a product that is nourishing to body and soul. (Greg) How do the kids help around the farm? Our kids are busy with their school and sports lives during the academic year. They will bottle feed kids during kidding season and in the summer they help harvest hay, give farm tours to visitors, and they sell cheese at our local farmer’s market. Like all of the farm kids I’ve ever known, they are willing to lend a hand when needed!
How do you think they are benefitting from the life you have chosen?
Our kids have never wondered what it is that their parents actually do for a living. They see us working, and they understand that hard work and diligence makes an idea reality. They have a lot of pride in the product that we produce and our part in the community.
Were you two always very environmentally conscious, or did that come once you started working on the farm?
Hannah was voted “most environmental” in high school, and both were vegetarians before starting Blue Ledge Farm and raising their own animals for meat.
Did either of you ever imagine that you would be running a dairy farm?
No, Hannah thought she would be a lawyer and Greg thought teaching was his future. We both always aspired to be artists.
You are both painters. Tell me a bit about that creative side and how you make time for it.
We paint during the slower months on the farm (September through March), but a painter never really stops working! We are always craving more time in the studio, but the farm, the landscape, and our animals are our muse, our subject matter, and our source of inspiration. I think our deep connection to these things comes through in our paintings, and if we weren’t constantly juggling the farm and the art, our paintings might be missing something.
Any short “farm bloopers” to share?
Years ago we answered a local ad for three piglets, so wild that they were “free to anyone who can catch them!” We felt we were up for the challenge but after chasing piglets for two hours we drove away with one lone piglet in the back of the truck. After stopping in town for a quick errand we headed for home, only to discover upon arrival that the lone piglet had in fact escaped from the truck! What followed was three days of heavy rain and no sign of the pig. Then, out of the blue we get a call from a nearby town “you missing a piglet?” The poor pig had taken residence under a porch, chasing away their dog. With help, we went and retrieved the piglet. How this person traced the piglet back to us is still a bit of a mystery-- small town Vermont! For more information check out: www.blueledgefarm.com