ST. ALBANS BAY — Talk to a Montagne about farming, and you touch on something sacred.
When Joe Montagne, a selectboard member and 39-year-old St. Albans native, walked through his several acres here last week and fed his 12 cows, the mundane act of pouring grain into a trough seemed, well, right. Padding across a field as the sun slowly set and while Joe’s animals followed behind was peaceful, spiritual. Talking about the fact that Joe no longer farms for a living felt like addressing a lost loved one.
“Life isn’t life without cows,” Joe said. “It’s part of me.”
Sitting at his red-checkered kitchen table in his tidy and toy-filled Kellogg Road home last Wednesday, Joe talked about his farming experiences began and how they ended.
Joe is one of six children born to Frank and Annette Montagne, and Frank was one of 18 children to John Baptiste, a French-Canadian who crossed the border to dairy farm in the bay in the 1920s.
“They came out of Bedford and he came over with seven kids on a horse and sleigh,” said Joe. “That’s where they started.”
Baptiste was the third largest dairy farmer in Franklin County with 50 cows, which he milked by hand.
“That was a lot of cows back then,” said Joe.
Frank and Annette carried on Baptiste’s farming and big family tradition, as did their children.
“I was out in the barn,” said Joe. “I was milking cows when I was nine.”
Joe bought his first farm on Hathaway Point Road at age 19 following graduating from Bellows Free Academy-St. Albans and two weeks after marrying his high school sweetheart, Christie.
“That’s where Christie and I started,” said Joe. “We milked 100 cows then.”
Joe and Christie also went on to have eight children that are currently between toddler and college ages: Eva, Hannah, Luc, Maddie, Isabelle, Beau, Jac, and the youngest, Max.
“That’s my crew,” said Joe.
At the height of the Montagne farming period, Joe’s parents and siblings owned about 3,000 acres in St. Albans Town, or about an eighth of the land acreage in the town.
“We were all farming in the bay,” said Joe. “[Christie and I], we were the largest organic farm in the State of Vermont.”
When asked to explain his farming schedule, Joe said he and his wife’s day started around 3 a.m., when he would begin milking and Christie would care for the calves.
“I’d come in and eat breakfast at 10 and then would head back out until seven or eight at night,” Joe said.
When asked how he possible did that day in and day out, Joe said, “You incorporate it into your life. It doesn’t seem like work.”
He added, “The kids would help out. That part is so rewarding.”
Ten years after they started, Joe said he and his wife began questioning whether they should get out farming as they struggled to handle their finances and growing family. Another 10 years passed, and then they had to sell. Joe and Christie sold their farm, which had 1,000 dairy cows, to the Magnant family in 2011.
“They’re really progressive farmers and do a really super job,” said Montagne.
When asked why he and Christie sold, Joe said there were several reasons.
“The money was one thing and the labor was the other thing,” he said. With a lot of emotion in his voice, Joe said that he knew every cow that he had, and he felt his farm and animals were part of his family.
“It’s a big family, it really is,” he said. “It’s challenging when animals die – it’s life and death. It’s a lot of emotion. [But] you also have to treat it like a business,” Joe added. “It’s hard.”
Losing that, he said, in addition to giving up the freedom of working on his own land, on his own schedule, was devastating.
“It’s hard to explain how rewarding it is when it’s so challenging,” he said. “Life isn’t the same without cows. I do miss it.”
Joe added, “I have two acres but I just can’t get used to it.”
Last farm standing
Joe’s two older brothers, Mitch and Dave, also sold their farms in 2009 and 2013.
The only remaining full-time Montagne farmer is Mitch’s daughter, Jenny, who runs an organic dairy farm on Kellogg Road with her husband, David Reynolds.
“She milks about 120 cows,” said Joe. The farm has almost 300 cows.
On a visit to the Reynoldses’ farm, Joe stepped in the barn and breathed in deeply. “I love that smell,” he said. “I miss that smell.” Joe wandered over to the calves, scratching the faces of “Noodle” and “Walnut. His face brightened.
“My wife would love this,” Joe said. He said he tries to keep in touch with farming by helping others in the community when they need it.
“I usually go around to all the farms and see what they need,” Joe said. He added that he keeps in touch because of the camaraderie he built with other farmers – the community that is an essential part of him.
“All these guys, we’re like a family down here. All of our lives, everybody that’s [farming], everybody’s lives have the same cycles,” he explained. “The same things are happening to all of us.”
Joe still has his own 12 heifers he keeps on some of his remaining land behind his home and off of Lake Road. In between explaining that some farmers suspect that all white cows are crazy – like his own, temperamental white cow – Joe gave a yodel-like call in his backyard to let his “girls” know grain had arrived.
In the field off of Lake Road, Joe explained that one of his cows had lost an eye and is now starting to have an infection. He talked about bringing her home soon in order to take care of it so it doesn’t get worse.
“That’s the addictive part of farming,” he said. “If I didn’t take care of that cow, she would die. They depend on me.”
In addition to caring for his remaining cows, Joe currently works at Pike Industries, running an asphalt plant in Swanton – work he said is different and good, but not comparable. “I farmed all my life, I didn’t know what it was to do anything else,” Joe said. “I enjoy the work I do, [but] it’s not as meaningful as farming was.”
In the family
Driving around the whole of St. Albans Bay, Joe pointed out fields along most roads in town that he and his family owned or had owned or had farmed at one time. Joe explained that essentially, his family has worked land in the whole of the bay area.
The Montagnes have been ingrained in the St. Albans community in many ways. John Baptiste was on the town selectboard and started the fire department. Frank, Joe’s dad, was a farmer as well as a longtime selectboard member. So was Joe’s brother, Mitch.
“Everyone would come to the barn, the house, phone calls all over,” said Joe. Joe is now following in his father’s footsteps as a selectman.
In addition to the town community, family is also big for the Montagnes – literally and figuratively speaking. Frank and Annette Montagne, for instance, have 23 grandchildren, and almost as many great grandchildren. Many of them grew up helping on one farm or another, and all still see each other.
“It’s a full house when we still have Christmas,” said Joe. “That’s what life’s about, is family. When it comes to one of ours, we’re all there no matter what.”
Frank and Annette now live in the home right next to Joe’s, where he visited them briefly last week. Smiling all the while, Annette told her favorite stories about her children, about their various escapades and about the hard work they put in on the farm.
When asked if the Montagnes ever considered another way of life besides farming, Annette quickly answered no.
“Oh god no, that was his life,” she said of her husband, Frank.
Frank said, “Oh I love farming. It’s a good tradition, a good life.”
“It kind of died, it’s too bad, but Jenny still does it,” said Annette.
Joe said, “We all still do love the land and the place.”
He added, “If you had told someone 10 years ago that all the Montagnes wouldn’t be farming now, they wouldn’t have believed it.”
Once a farmer…
It seems that Joe doesn’t quite believe he’s done with farming either. He and Christie actually looked at buying a farm recently and decided against it, but Joe has some other plans in the works.
“I think there will be a day when I farm again. Call it a dream,” Joe said, “I want to fix the lake, the land and the people — one cow at a time.” He added that he wants to start a small, raw-milk private operation, providing healthy milk, promoting local food and environmentally friendly farming.
“I think I could make a living out of it,” said Joe. “I’ve got all the land I need.” He added that he plans to breed his heifers in January and then start selling milk.
“You can take a farmer off the farm but you can’t take the farm out of a farmer,” Joe said.