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Life after dairy: Fleurys turn focus to maple sugaring

Jennifer Bradley Published on 11 March 2015

Fleury's farm

Elizabeth (Betsy) Fleury and her husband, Steve, spend each Christmas Eve discussing how their year went, and each New Year’s Eve planning for the next 12 months on their farm in Richford, Vermont.

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Their farm motto always has been “Get better, not bigger,” and when the couple sold their 35 registered Jersey dairy cows at the end of 2014, Betsy says this tough decision fell right in line with that mode of thinking.

“We don’t have any regrets,” she says. “We know we did the right thing for us and the cows. They are in a really good home and going to be cared for. It just got to the point we couldn’t do the job we wanted to with the cows.”

The Fleurys still live on the farm and have grown the property’s maple sugaring business since the cows have been gone, but they will always hold fond memories of their dairying days.

Betsy’s message to others is to live with no regrets, but always have a plan and think it through. “We made the right decision, and know we did because we took a long time doing it,” she says. “Now, we’re onto the next thing.”

maple sugarhouse

In transition

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Fleury’s Maple Hill Farm sits on 260 acres of rocky hillside in Vermont, and the Fleurys are the third generation to care for the property, which was bought by Steve’s grandfather in 1929. Until the herd moved to its new home on Nov. 30, 2014, the 35 registered Jersey dairy cows were milked in the 1890s tiestall barn, and Fleury says it was in need of repairs. So was their equipment.

This, combined with a slipped disc in her back and a previous heart surgery for him, led to the pair spending New Year’s Eve 2013 developing a multi-year plan for their future. While they started out with a six-year plan, when Fleury’s back wasn’t improving and milking was becoming harder, that timeline shrunk and shrunk until the couple made the final decision to sell the herd, and over a one-year period, the end of an era was reached.

Today, the Fleurys miss their cows but have 40 years of memories and are happy, even ready for a new chapter of life to unfold. They bought a travel trailer and plan to do much camping throughout Vermont and other New England areas over the next summers, including a longer trek cross-country. “Neither of us has seen much of the U.S., and we are really looking forward to such a trip,” she says.

Betsy explains a high point of her dairying days was following the replacement heifers they sold to area farmers. “I always followed their progress,” she explains. “Some of my favorite memories are from seeing those animals go to other producers and do really well in their herds.”

A highlight of the couple’s career was when a registered Jersey was identified as a prized animal and bought by a Cuban farm to increase their herd genetics. “That was a big thing for us and it made us feel really proud,” Betsy adds. “We’ve always been proud of our cows, but to see somebody else acknowledge it was nice.”

Steve told her he really enjoyed being featured on Agri-Mark/Cabot Co-op’s Farmer Friday just a couple of weeks before the herd left for its new home. That, and “he really enjoyed watching the animals being born, raise the calves and watch them turn into a really good milking cow,” Betsy says of her husband and business partner.

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jersey cows

Paying it forward

She advises others: “Don’t just have a bad day and say you’re selling the cows. You need to figure out your finances, sit down and do a budget, and see if you can do it.”

The Fleurys’ two adult sons both have successful careers in agriculture but off the family farm. Betsy says both were consulted and gave their blessings on the decision. “Neither had the desire to come back and milk but were glad the land was still staying in the family, just run differently,” she says.

Though not in the family, the Fleurys are thrilled they’ve been able to use their farm to pay it forward to the next generation of young agriculturists. The farmer who bought the herd is a recent college graduate, just starting out.

He bought the Fleurys’ herd and struck a deal with a landowner who is also helping the young farmer get his feet off the ground. “We were very careful about who we sold to,” Betsy says. “We wanted to know what they were going to do with the cows and interviewed them as much as they were looking over our herd.”

She says the herd’s new home is a beautiful farm and a perfect situation for everyone, including the Jerseys, whose registration and family lines will continue to thrive.

While the Fleurys are excited to skip the haying process each summer, Betsy says she’s glad the land is being rented to a neighbor, another new farmer. “We really do like the idea of helping new farmers get into the dairy business since so many older ones are retiring,” she says. “We want to see the dairy business stay strong.”

steve and betsy fleury

Fleurys’ maple farm

“Maple sugaring is in the family as much as dairy farming,” says Betsy. They still operate out of the original 1930s sugarhouse and have 2,000 taps. The plan is to expand this year by another 1,000 taps but not make any other huge changes.

Betsy says Steve is looking forward to have more time to spend with maple-sugaring activities, because that was limited while the dairy cows took priority. “I think we can make it even more profitable if we have more time to devote and are not trying to squeeze it in between milkings,” she says.

The maple syrup business will occupy them in the fall, winter and spring, but Betsy says the pair is excited to have free time for activities the dairy operation didn’t allow. “We are looking forward to visiting family and friends, attending concerts, theatre and lectures, hiking, going to Red Sox games, visiting historical sites, maybe even taking some classes at the local community college,” she notes.

Betsy says that without proper planning and saving ahead for retirement, none of this would have been possible. She worked off the farm for 25 years and is happy their financial planning is paying off. “If farmers make an informed decision, we don’t think they will regret it,” she says.

Betsy says the day the cows left was sad and full of emotion, but she’s happy to report the herd is enjoying its new home. The new owner recently told Betsy the animals adapted quickly and that milk production is increasing every day. “Yesterday, he shipped more milk than ever before,” she says. “That is a sure sign our cows are well fed, happy and healthy.” PD

Jennifer Bradley is a freelance writer in Chilton, Wisconsin.

PHOTOS
PHOTO 1: Steve and Betsy Fleury may have sold their cows, but the land will stay with the couple, and they’ll focus on their maple sugaring business.

PHOTO 2: The Fleurys’ sugarhouse with steam rising from it. This is where the couple will spend much of their on-farm time.

PHOTO 3: Steve driving cows up the road with the farm in the background. Betsy says this picture has been used by Cabot’s Facebook page and always receives likes and comments.

PHOTO 4: Steve and Betsy standing on top of the Mt Washington Summit, during a trip to a Jersey breed convention. Betsy says this is the type of activity they look forward to doing more of now that they’re no longer dairying.Photos courtesy of Betsy Fleury.

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