Hodgdon woman writes book about starting dairy farm

9 years ago

HODGDON, Maine — As educators working in the Bangor area in 2004, Lee Rae Jordan-Oliver and her husband, Matthew always knew they wanted to move back home to Aroostook County and start a family.

While they accomplished their goal, they did not foresee that their family would include 130 animals, which includes cows, heifers, calves and bulls and that they would be the ones becoming educated on a dairy farm in Hodgdon.

It is a story that Lee Rae Jordan-Oliver, a mother of three who formerly taught fourth-grade students at the Fairmount School in Bangor for more than ten years, details in her new book, “Chainsaw Mama.”

The book depicts the Oliver’s decision in 2006 to leave education and operate their dairy farm, which is located on 125 acres of land on Westford Hill. Matthew Oliver was the former superintendent in the Old Town School Department.

While Matthew Oliver grew up on his parent’s vegetable farm, neither he nor his wife had any dairy farming experience.

“It was just something we decided to do and I just held on for the ride,” Jordan-Oliver said Monday. “We started with just ten bred organic dairy cows and kind of learned on the job. It was a real eye opening experience to say the least.”

In Chainsaw Mama, Jordan-Oliver relates how the farm grew in the early years with the addition of more cows, pigs, and horses, and how the family dealt with setbacks such as ailing animals, financial changes in the dairy market and the breakdown of equipment.

In one instance, when the couple was trying to escape the farm one night for dinner and a movie, they were quickly sidelined by a sick child and the breakdown of a motor on their milk pumping machine.

When Matthew Oliver did not have a spare motor handy or a part to fix it immediately, two different area dairy farmers immediately helped him milk his cows until he could get a replacement part.

Jordan-Oliver said that such camaraderie is common among County farmers.

“I don’t believe that there is any competition among dairy farmers up here, at least that I have seen,” she said. “We have had so many local dairy farmers up here who have helped us and provided valuable insight. I don’t think we would have made it without them.”

The Oliver’s three children, Walker, 10, Anna, 8 and Wyatt, 6, are active participants in life on the farm, according to their mother.

“They have chores that they do, and they do them because they like to do them,” she said Monday. “They are not things that they are being forced to do. They love taking care of the animals and bottle feeding the calves. They are developing a strong work ethic.”

At the same time, she acknowledged, not everything about farm life is easy.

“The toughest part is finding time to relax and play,” she said. “We can’t just get away, because there is always something to do. There is only a small window of time to go swimming, because everywhere you look on a farm, there is always a chore that needs to get done.”

She also said that like any farmer, making a living is always a challenge.

As was the case with other dairy farmers across Maine, the Olivers were hit hard by the closure in January 2013 due to competitive pressures of the Garelick Farms production facility in Bangor. Since dairy farmers must pay to have their milk transported to the processing plant, Oliver wrote in her book, the farther away the milk is hauled, the higher the cost to the farmer.

The Olivers had shipped their milk in the first three years of operation from their farm to Garelick Farms, which is approximately 100 miles away, she noted, paying an average of $1,000 a month in shipping costs.

After the closure, the family began selling their milk toDairy Farmers of America, a national farmer-owned cooperative based in Kansas City, Mo.that acquired Portland-based Oakhurst Dairy last year.

She noted that transportation costs from their farm to DFA’s Portland processing plant then jumped to $1,800 a month, an $800 a month increase.

“It isn’t always an easy life, but it is the life that is working for us,” she said. “We work as a team here. The children love taking care of the animals and just soak up the affection they get in return, and they learn about the circle of life and where our food comes from. Our neighbors and friends pitch in when needed. It works for us.”

Copies of “Chainsaw Mama” can be purchased online at maineauthorspublishing.com or on Amazon com.  In Houlton, books also may be found at local businesses such as Aroostook Milling, County Yankee, Visions, Hairworks Studio, or Andy’s IGA.
Editor’s Note: Oliver’s book is a collection of many columns that appeared periodically in the Houlton Pioneer Times starting in June 2011.