MONTGOMERY – There’s a small farm on Fuller Bridge Road that’s been in Mark Brouillette’s family for four generations, tucked into 210 acres of Montgomery hillside stretched out under the wooded peaks of the Green Mountains.
It’s one of the storied “hill farms,” small farms cut into some of the state’s least agreeable land, and was even featured as such in a photography book by acclaimed photographer Peter Miller, where the image of a younger Brouillette is shared opposite of a portrait of great-grandfather Andrew Cabana and great-uncle Billy Cabana.
Today, cows still roam the hillsides of the Cabana Farm’s former dairy, and the family farm, now going by Breezy Acres Farm, lives on long after the economic struggles of dairy farming first led Brouillette to sell his herd years ago.
With a growing grass-fed beef, pork and poultry business where his family once milked cows, Brouillette smiled as he told the Messenger in late August that there was, at least for Breezy Acres Farm, “a life after dairy.”
If Brouillette’s name seems familiar, it’s because he isn’t a stranger in much of Franklin County.
In Montgomery, Brouillette has served on the selectboard for almost 15 years and has taken on the duties of road commissioner for the town. He was almost immediately preceded by his great-uncle Billy Cabana, who had roughly 30 years of selectboard service by the end of his tenure.
Outside of town politics, Brouillette might be seen behind the wheel of one of the town’s school buses, a position he keeps partially out of enjoyment and partially for the supplemental income for supporting the farm.
“I enjoy the bus,” he said. “I’ve had the bus for almost 15 years now. I’ve grown up with the kids. Some of the kids I started with have graduated.”
Brouillette is also a regular at Montgomery’s own farmer’s market, held Saturdays beneath the historical society’s Pratt Hall in Montgomery Village, and a Breezy Acres Farm stand is a frequent sight at the St. Albans Bay’s farmers market and at a few others dotting Northwest Vermont.
Beyond Montgomery, Brouillette traces his roots back to the family dairy farm in Sheldon, where Brouillette grew up and where his brother still milks a herd of around 80 cows.
Brouillette’s ties to Montgomery began when he started working with his great-uncle and great-grandfather on his mother’s side, the Cabanas. He was about 13 at the time, and, according to Brouillette, he almost immediately fell for the farm. “I remember the first day I came up here,” Brouillette said. “As soon as I came up here, I fell in love with the place.”
What’s now Breezy Acres Farm has been in Brouillette’s family since 1946, when his great-grandfather on mother’s side bought a small dairy etched into Montgomery’s rolling hillsides for a few thousand dollars.
The barn and farmhouse at Breezy Acres Farm predate Brouillette’s family by several decades, with Brouillette placing their construction around the start of the 1900s.
But his family’s left their mark on those two buildings, where the name “Cabana” can still be found nailed to the door to the house’s porch and where Brouillette remembers painting the now ragged-looking barn as a teenager when work was slow elsewhere on the Cabana Farm.
He told the Messenger he’s thinking about repainting the barn once the money’s there, giving it a facelift after decades of wear.
When Brouillette was young, a second home stood next door to the first. That house has since been sold and physically moved to a ten-acre plot – also carved out of and sold by the Cabana Farm – further south along Fuller Bridge Road.
Aside from the removal of that second house, the farm’s changed very little, according to Brouillette. There’s a trailer near the barn where Brouillette said he’d hoped to rent to someone willing to work on the farm, “but that never panned out,” he admitted. Close to that stands the family’s horse barn, where several families of pigs now make their home.
Otherwise, the family’s 100-year-old home still stands uphill from the barn, looking over Fuller Bridge Road as it winds toward Richford, and the barn still stands as the farm’s centerpiece just before Brouillette’s 210 acres begin their cascade down the hillsides.
“It looked a lot neater at the time,” Brouillette said. “But it hasn’t changed much.”
“You’re lost after you sell the cows”
Brouillette started working summers at the Cabana Farm in 1981, filling in part-time when the farm needed it. After a few years of seasonal work, Brouillette began working there full-time and, by 1996, he took his great-grandfather’s and great-uncle’s place as the head of what was now Breezy Acres Farm.
Five years later, Brouillette sold the herd.
At the time, the family herd that began with just more than a dozen Jerseys had more than tripled in size – “Just as much as the barn could hold,” Brouillette said – but farming was taking a toll on Brouillette and the buyers offered a good price for the cows.
“It was a hard decision,” Brouillette said. “It was the herd my great-grandfather started with… but financially, it wasn’t working anymore.”
Breezy Acres Farm was never idle for too long, though. Brouillette would lease out the barn to a neighboring farm, and Brouillette personally managed some of the haying.
By the time 2005 rolled around, Brouillette felt it was time to try his hand again at dairy farming, purchasing another small milking herd. “I got some more cows,” he said. “Just starting over – financially it didn’t work.”
He sold his second herd soon after and sold the farm’s bulk tank with it, formally cutting Brouillette off from taking any more leaps back into the dairy industry.
Brouillette wasn’t the only farmer in Montgomery to fold either. Over the years, the number of dairy farms in Montgomery was slowly whittled away by an increasingly fickle industry, thinning from the nine farms Brouillette remembered being scattered around town to one last dairy farm today.
For Brouillette, the change was jarring.
Beyond the weight of selling the family herd, removing dairy from Breezy Acres Farm completely upended a day-to-day life.
“You’re lost after you sell the cows,” Brouillette said. “That was your routine.”
Brouillette found work elsewhere, first at a creamery in Enosburgh and later on the water systems in Montgomery and Richford. It’s around that time he also began bussing for the local school district and found his way onto the Montgomery selectboard for the first time.
Brouillette also met Wendy, now his wife and co-owner of today’s iteration of Breezy Acres Farm.
Life returns to Breezy Acres
After selling the herd a second time, Brouillette made sure the family farm still found some use, boarding heifers for other farmers in the old barn and leasing its milk parlor to the few remaining dairies in the area.
On the side, the Brouillettes kept a small amount of animals for themselves, allowing them to raise their own beef, pork and poultry for both their household and for a few others elsewhere in the community.
Slowly, however, that number of animals started growing, eventually leading Brouillette to decide it was time to try his hand at farming again. “At that point… I just wanted to see if we could get the farm going,” Brouillette said.
This time, however, instead of milk parlors and dairy cows, the Brouillettes invested in the needed licenses to begin selling their meat to an increasingly wider market.
Their meat, while not certified organic, was grass-fed in Brouillette’s pastures and, according to Brouillette, sourced from more humanely raised animals than those found at some larger meat-oriented farms. It’s also largely affordable, with prices not straying far from organic counterparts in local supermarkets.
Breezy Acre Farm’s meat also received rave reviews, according to Brouillette, helping build their farm’s reach and encouraging the Brouillettes to expand their herd and their marketing.
“We wanted to give people a local option for meat,” Brouillette said. “That’s our mission.”
Today, Brouillette keeps twice as many cows as he did when Breezy Acres Farm was a dairy, with those cows spread between the original family farm and land the Brouillettes lease elsewhere in Montgomery.
There are also around 100 turkeys now, usually huddled into pens where they’re protected from predators, and just as many pigs scattered between a handful of pens and the family’s old horse barn.
They’ve stayed a centerpiece in Montgomery’s community, where, aside from the Brouillettes themselves, their pig Wilbur had become somewhat of a local sensation thanks to his social media presence.
At one time, Wilbur – who has since passed away – was even the star of his own calendar.
The transition for Brouillette, he said, was probably easier than it might’ve been for other farmers, with much of the infrastructure in place from when Breezy Acres Farm was a dairy and later used for boarding.
It also helped, Brouillette admitted, that they entered the market just as the Farm-to-Table trend began taking off and consumers began looking more locally for their food.
Breezy Acres Farm’s meat is now available at a pair of inns in Montgomery – the Black Lantern Inn and the Inn in Montgomery Center – as well as the Crafty Li’l Gift Shop in Montgomery Center, and they’ve recently partnered with a slaughterhouse in the Northeast Kingdom to expand into the sausage market.
Farming is still hard on Brouillette, however. With the exception of some occasional help from a few locals, the Brouillettes are largely alone in maintaining their expanding beef, pork and poultry herds.
On top of that, Wendy Brouillette still works as a veterinarian, bringing a little extra income – and health insurance – to Breezy Acres Farm. “You’re trying to feed people, but you need 10 jobs to support the farm,” he sighed.
Despite the work both he and Wendy have to commit to the farm. Brouillette, 53, said he’s where he wants to be.
“It’s in your blood,” Brouillette said. “It’s hard to explain. When I wasn’t doing it, it was still what I wanted to do.”
“It’s a lot of work to keep the farm going,” he said, almost to himself. He cracked a smile. “There is a life after dairy, but it’s a challenge.”
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