(Editor’s Note: This story is part of a radio series called Growing Local that tells stories about local food and farms in the Southern Appalachians. The series airs Monday mornings on a local NPR station.)
ASHEVILLE, N.C. — It’s 5:30 in the evening and the cows are already lined up at the gate. Alan Harmon of Harmon Dairy is getting the milking machine ready. How many times has Alan started and ended his day in the milking parlor?
“I got started when I was a teenager,” says Alan. “Now I’m 61 years old, so I guess I’ve done it a couple millions times. Every day, seven days a week, 30 days a month, 365 days a year, it’s being done.”
But the cows won’t be milked by Alan and his brother Doug forever. The Harmon brothers have lived on this farm in Polk County, North Carolina all their lives, but soon someone else will be milking the cows every day.
Jennifer and Andy Perkins are poised to take over the dairy. They’re the owners of Looking Glass Creamery, an artisan cheese company in Fairview. For the past nine years their lives have revolved around curds, but now they’re getting closer to the source of their milk in order to have more control over their supply.
They bought the 226-acre farm in the spring of 2017, and for the next year, they’re living in an RV outside the Harmons’ home while the brothers teach the cheesemakers how to milk the cows and manage the herd.
It’s an unusual arrangement. Most farmers pass their land down to their children, or give up agriculture altogether as they get older, but the Harmon brothers don’t have kids. They weren’t sure what would happen to their farm, but the wheels were set in motion in 2009 when Doug visited Looking Glass Creamery on a farm tour organized by ASAP, the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project.
Doug saw how Jennifer was adding value to milk by turning it into cheese, and thought that might be the next step for Harmon Dairy. “So I encouraged him, yeah, you should definitely do it,” Jennifer says. “We exchanged numbers and that was it for six or seven years. And then we found ourselves needing some more milk, so I was like, oh, I have that dairy farmer’s number in my phone.”
Jennifer got to know the family who owns a dairy equipment store nearby, and they kept reminding her to give the Harmons a call. “Every time we would buy our soap or whatever they would say, ‘You should be working with the Harmons. They’re great people. They have a beautiful farm.’ Every time and so that was always rolling around in the back of my head, too. And then we connected later and started buying milk from them.”
Doug explains it this way: “We got involved in a conversation about them wanting to expand and where would they get their milk and I kind of kid Jen that I made them an offer they couldn’t refuse and now I apologize, maybe, for getting them into this. She may be mad at me in two or three years,” he says with a laugh.
It didn’t take much convincing to get Jennifer and Andy on board, but there were plenty of details to work out between the two families.
“We had a lot of conversations sitting right at this table about where do we go from here and how are we going to live and how does this transition happen,” Jennifer says. “I’ve worked in dairies, but I don’t have one millionth of the experience that they have. We need that information to make this a success and their input and their experience, and the fact that we’re living 50 feet from their front door in an RV, all those kind of things we really had to hash out what that would look like. And the fact that they’re willing to make this transition is one thing, but they’re also willing to live it for the next year, which is something that I think most people wouldn’t do.”
On a warm summer afternoon, Jennifer, Doug, and Alan sit under a pecan tree that Doug planted as a Future Farmers of America project back in high school. The tree produces more shade than nuts these days, but it does bring back memories of growing up here at Harmon Dairy.
“Me and my brother Alan, we inherited the dairy from my parents,” says Doug. “They moved here in 1947 and started the dairy then and there’s been cows milked here ever since. I’ve been driving a tractor since I was probably eight or nine years old and I was put on a tractor and told to learn, so basically I’ve operated the equipment more so. Alan’s always looked after the cows.”
Alan explains his work with the cows this way: “I see if everybody’s here and everybody’s healthy and everybody’s going good. Trying to get the heifers going and baby calves and everything. Just working with all the cows.”
“Back then it was more manual labor intense,” Doug adds. “I remember Pop had two tractors and we loaded the manure spreader with a pitchfork and as equipment got more sophisticated, using front end loaders and everything, it just got to where it was less manual labor, but equipment intensified.”
More change is coming to Harmon Dairy. Not with more high-tech equipment just yet, but with its future owners, Jennifer and Andy Perkins from Looking Glass Creamery. They’ll be the ones milking the cows twice a day, along with their fifteen-year-old son Max. They’ll also bring a new business model to the dairy— turning the milk into artisan cheese and selling directly to the public.
For decades, Harmon Dairy has been a member of a producers association that pools raw milk from many dairies and sells it to wholesale buyers. Doug says this model has its drawbacks.
“The price of milk, or any kind of farm commodity, selling it wholesale to the processors, the price has not changed much in the past 40 years, really. So that’s forced the producers to produce more volume and make a smaller profit per volume. That’s the biggest thing going on in agriculture that I see. And that’s why I think Looking Glass is going to [succeed]. They’ll be adding value to the milk by going straight to consumer. The way me and Alan have been doing it, it’s pretty much out,” he says.
The Harmon brothers believe it’s important keep their land in farming, and they accomplished that three years ago by putting it under a conservation easement. Now the land can’t be subdivided and must be used for agriculture. Even after the Perkins take over the dairy, the Harmons will continue to grow barley and corn on the property to feed the cows.
Doug has seen Polk County transition from small farms to larger equestrian centers. And while he says that does preserve the rural landscape of the region, there’s more financial incentive for people to sell their farmland now.
“I’ve always been involved with farmland preservation and it’s just something that I wanted to see happen. I wish more people could do it, to preserve land for agriculture. If we can keep some land available for people to farm on, and it’s going to be up to the consumer to help folks out whenever they’re marketing direct to them,” he says.
Soon Looking Glass Creamery will build a cheese shop on the property and an underground aging cave for their cheese. I hop in Jennifer’s truck to check out the hillside that will someday be a hub of agritourism.
“So we’re pulling up here, now, to a little rise in the hill. We’ll be digging into that hillside and building underground caves and a new production facility where you can come and watch the process from the outside. People can see the cheesemaking and even peek in an aging cave. And then hopefully soon people will be able to come and sit on top of the hill and enjoy the cheeses here on the property. Once you get up to that ledge it’s a very beautiful view. Some people call it the crowned jewel of Polk County in terms of farms because it is really beautiful.”
I discover that Jennifer’s 15-year-old son Max has stowed away in the back of the truck. I ask him, “Do you think you’ll be helping out with the dairy?”
“Oh yeah, for sure,” Max says. “I milked some cows last week. It was pretty cool just to see what it’s like. How you get your milk.”
Standing on top of the hillside, looking out over the mountains, Jennifer sees the future in front of her. “Everybody in the Polk County area has been supportive and welcoming to us and I think they’re in general very excited about the idea of the creamery and also the opportunity to keep this farm a working farm,” she says.
“We’re just really glad to be here and it’s the best possible solution for long-term growth and stability that we could have ever found. I dream big, but I’d never dreamed this big.”
Hear more stories about the evolution of family farms at ASAP’s website.
— ASAP (Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project)
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