FRANKLIN — More than 20 years after he assumed operations of his parents’ farm, Jon Gates still gets a kick out of how people pronounce the farm’s name.
“Sometimes people have a terrible time. They go, ‘What’s your farm name? Ho, ho — what?’ I say, ‘What do you mean? Don’t you know it’s phonetic…H-O-W, Howmars?’” says Gates. “My mother’s parents, Hugh and Martha Tull purchased this farm in 1943 and began farming here. My parents Howard and Mary Gates — hence the name ‘Howmars’ — began operating the farm in 1967.”
The family run operation, which has between 45 and 50 registered jersey cows, has just been recognized by the Vermont Dairy Industry Association as having the highest quality milk in the state.
“If we end up getting an award like this that’s icing on the cake. Our goal is to do as good a job as we can and that’s satisfying for us. It’s not something you work at or plan because we just work hard to produce quality products,” says Gates.
The award is traditionally presented at the Vermont Farm Show each year but, because of COVID-19, this year’s recipients were announced on the UVM Extension program “Across the Fence.”
Gates began operating the 230-acre farm in partnership with his parents in 1983 and took over in 1997. He says that in the mid ‘90s, when organic milk started gaining popularity, people started looking for producers. This coincided with a meeting in 1995 with the St. Albans Co-Op Creamery.
“I went to that meeting and nothing really came out of it, but then Organic Valley came into the area in 1997. Another farmer, Travis Forbes went to Peter Flint and said, ‘Hey, would you like to start taking our milk and the Gates’ milk?’ That’s how we got into organic production,” says Gates.
From his farm in Tunbridge, Flint started selling organic milk in 1992. For milk to be organic, the cows’ pasture land must be free of all chemical compounds like herbicides and the cows cannot have been injected with growth hormones. Gates says that Howmars was already using very little in the way of antibiotics, so it was a very smooth transition.
“For us, I just think it wasn’t as big a deal. People said, well, when you switch to organic production, your cows get healthier and this and that. I said, we were pretty much an organic herd already,” he says.
Even with the stability provided by the switch, organic farmers are still not immune to the issues of the industry.
“Without the move to organic production, the Howmars farm would not have stayed in business,” says Gates.
He also says he anticipates possibly having to reduce size in the future.
“My concern gets to be where I don’t want to get so small that maybe Organic Valley won’t pick up my milk. Even they have to look at how economical it is to transport the milk from your farm to the plant so...,” he said.
In 2019, members of the St. Albans Co-op voted unanimously to recommend merging its approximately 350 members with the National Dairy Farmers of America, a necessity Gates says has been able to maintain the milk market, and allowed farmers to stay in business.
“I think that’s wonderful and I’m very hopeful that Organic Valley has taken steps to solidify their management and their market so we have a stable place for our milk to go,” says Gates.
He also says that during the pandemic, consumers have seen the benefits of eating healthier.
“Hopefully that trend will continue and make the demand for our product strong for the next few years as well,” says Gates.
In the meantime, the Gates family has worked to diversify their business, which includes his wife and three sons. His mother, sister, brother and brother-in-law also help out. Howmars also has a small scale sugaring operation and produces compost to sell in the spring.
“The other things contribute and we make use of some of the raw products made available to us. It makes it more interesting to do a few extra things as well,” says Gates.
It’s positivity that carries on to the future.
“Farmers in Vermont. We’re a pretty resilient bunch. And we’ve weathered a lot of storms and we learned how to cope. I’m always impressed with my neighbors and what they can do and how they keep going,” he says.