“We’re at the Billings Farm & Museum in Woodstock with Steve Perkins, the executive director of the Vermont Historical Society,” Mike Hoey said. “Steve, to be exact, we’re on the front lawn in front of the old farm manager’s house, so what brings us here?”
“So, Mike, we’re going to be talking a bit about how this whole farm came to be,” Perkins answered.
“Both the farm and the estate were meant to model — or show other farmers, other people who had land in the community — how they could use that land responsibly,” Billings Farm & Museum interpretation and education coordinator Christine Scales said. “On the estate, they were re-foresting a lot of hillsides.
“Here on the farm, they were practicing this new concept of scientific farming — so, thinking about how they can improve production by feeding their animals different things, how they can improve the croplands by using different fertilizers and working the land in different ways, using different crops.
“It was a place where people could come and learn what they were doing here, see the experiments in action, and theoretically take them home and use them in their own farms.”
“(I understand) this farm was one of those first places to really push Vermont agriculture towards dairy,” Perkins noted. “Is that true, and what did that transition look like?”
“It is true, yeah,” Scales replied. “The landscape had really been kind of decimated by the overgrazing of the sheep population. It’s hard to grow crops in a lot of the state, so dairy is kind of one of the paths of least resistance for farming in the state.
“Frederick Billings set up this small herd. He had a product, which was butter, in mind. He had animals that were kind of purpose-built for this product to produce this high-butterfat milk. So, he’s kind of showing how you could use specific breeds of animals to increase profitability, but they’re also breeding for certain traits and selling those genetics to improve herds around the country and locally, too.
“We are kind of talking about the late 1800s. It’s a time when transportation is becoming a lot easier with railways. Cities — populations of cities — are really increasing, so the demand for dairy in those nearby cities is increasing, and also, we have a way to get it there more quickly without it spoiling. That being said, we don’t have refrigeration, really. We have ice and iceboxes, but butter is a product that can last a little bit longer (than milk). That is one of the reasons why they were focusing on butter here at the farm. It was something that they could preserve a little bit more to ship to these broader markets.
“And the Jerseys have that high butterfat in their milk naturally, which means you’re going to get more cream from their milk, which means you’re going to make more butter and better quality butter — and today, Jerseys still have high butterfat in their milk and it makes delicious cheese, so we have our Billings Farm cheese that’s made with that really great Jersey milk.”
“You mentioned experiments a little bit earlier,” Hoey noted. “What kinds of experiments might visitors be able to observe — or maybe even, depending, partake in should they come here?”
“Yeah, that’s a great question,” Scales said. “Rotational grazing and thinking of ways that we can be more regenerative with our practices in our gardens. We have a lot of different methods on display where people can see what they might be able to do in their own home gardens.”
Perkins asked, “How do they do that?”
“They can visit us in person,” Scales continued. “We are open every day from April through the end of October, and then weekends (from) November through February, or they can visit us online or on our social media accounts.”