According to the Midwest Dairy Association, the average dairy cow produces around 20,000 pounds of milk in a year. The average cow on Evergreen Farms produces close to 30,000 pounds. That’s almost enough extra milk to fill a typical above-ground swimming pool.
“If happy cows really do produce more milk, and I’m telling you they do, than you can tell our cows are happy,” says Abe Harpster, who co-owns the farm with his two brothers, Aaron and Andy.
Evergreen Farms is a dairy farm based in Spruce Creek, Pennsylvania. It is one of the largest such farms in the state with almost 3,000 milking cows. It is also one of the most productive dairy farms in the state. According to its three owners, that productivity reflects not just their understanding of the business and the needs of the animals, but also their emphasis on work-life balance and a sense of heritage that gives them the energy to excel in an industry known for its grueling hours.
Abe Harpster and his brothers are the second generation to own Evergreen Farms. The land was first bought by their grandfather, Robert L. Harpster, in the 1930s as a getaway from his thriving car dealership. But it was his son, R. Wayne Harpster, who wanted to make farming his profession, and in the late 1950s, he bought the land from his father to start Evergreen Farms.
Abe Harpster says he and his brothers have been working on the farm their entire life, first under their father and now at the helm of the farm.
“My dad was really good at teaching us and giving us responsibility,” says Harpster. “My parents wanted to travel and be able to go away for short periods of time so they made sure we were able to manage things.”
By the time he was 18, Harpster and his brothers understood how to take care of the day-to-day responsibilities of the farm. This included scheduling veterinary treatments for the animals, managing a work force of almost 85 people, and understanding the factors that make a cow produce the maximum quantity of milk, such as the type of feed they eat and the conditions of the barn they live in.
Sustaining their home
Harpster and his brothers have always felt deeply connected to their family’s farm. While they were growing up, the trio would spend free time hunting and fishing on the farm property, mountain biking or else watching eagles build nests in the trees surrounding the farm. There was never any doubt the three of them would take over the business. So in 2004, they bought the business from their parents.
Today, Evergreen Farm’s milk is sold wholesale and is processed through the Dairy Farmers of America cooperative. “We’re proud of what we produce. It’s high quality, safe in every way and is produced sustainably,” says Harpster.
Like many farmers, the idea of sustainability is important to Harpster and his brothers, but it stems from their closeness to the land and their family’s connectedness to the area, not just a desire to capitalize on a trend. This particular motivation to be sustainable has prompted the brothers to use sustainable technologies that also make use of natural resources on the farm.
For instance, when milk comes out of the cow it is a little over 100 degrees. Before shipping it out, Evergreen Farms has to cool the milk by sending it through a series of stainless steel plates, called a plate cooler. Abe says the cooler uses cold ground water rather than energy-intensive refrigeration units to absorb the heat. Once the milk is cooled to 35 degrees, the farm recycles the water used by the cooling systems as drinking water for the cows and to hose down the barns.
Any water used to hose down the barns is reused as well. Harpster says they use McLanahan processing equipment to repackage the waste water for other uses on the farm. “So we’re using our water four or five times a day for different things before it goes to drinking water or goes out to irrigate our crops,” he says.
The farm also uses its 6,500 acres to grow grass, corn, alfalfa to feed their cows and also buys locally grown feeds to balance the animal’s diet. This is sustainable because Evergreen Farms does not have to rely on shipping in feed from around the state, which is expensive and requires a great deal of fuel.
“Even though our farm is big it is a family operation,” says Harpster. “We live there so we drink the water and breathe the air and try to do the best we can for our people, our cows and our land. It’s important to us because that’s really what we love.”
Happy people means happy cows
Still, the most important job on the farm is making sure the cows are comfortable and well taken care of.
Evergreen Farms keeps its cows in “free stalls” that allow them room to lie down rather than forcing them to stand all the time, like some dairy farms do. The cows are also kept in insulated barns which keep them warm during the winter and cool during the summer. In the hot months, the farm uses fans and an evaporated cooling system to keep the temperature comfortable.
“When you’re caring for thousands of animals your worries are that everything is being done right,” says Harpster. This role of caretaker keeps Harpster and his brothers busy year round and is an example of why dairy farmers get so little time off the job.
“The cows need water and feed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, at night and on weekends. It’s not something you ever shut out of your mind because there’s always somebody working and there’s always cows being milked,” says Harpster.
Despite the challenges that come with this lifestyle, the brothers have managed to find a work-life balance, something that’s almost unheard of in dairy farming.
“The famous thing I heard growing up were farmers bragging that they haven’t missed a milking in 20 years, but that is not the way I want my kids to grow up,” says Harpster. Instead, his priority has been to find a balance between working on the farm and enjoying the land around them. This means watching his three kids ride their bikes around the farm, fly fishing in the nearby Spruce Creek and sometimes taking a well-deserved vacation.
In the future, Harpster and his brothers want to share these practices with their customers by branding and marketing their own milk.
“I think we have a really good story to tell about how we do things and where our milk comes from,” says Harpster. “We want our consumers to know their milk is being produced sustainably and using the best practices.”