The group of visitors gathered recently in the barn at Billings Farm and Museum in Woodstock, Vermont for the daily afternoon milking demonstration had to be patient when one of the herd’s Jersey cows decided it was time to give birth. No one complained and, as soon as the cow had safely delivered, they were permitted to walk down to the stall to see the still-wet calf lying in the straw next to her mama. Young and old alike seemed thrilled to have been present for the moment, peering through the gate, cooing over the caramel-colored newborn and pulling out cameras. After answering some questions, Paul Brock, one of five team members who works with the herd, washed up and moved right along to the next task at hand, swapping out his role as delivery nurse for that of milker.
Although the staff at Billings does not promise that every group will get to see a moments-old calf, it was a perfect opportunity for them to do exactly what they set out to do. “We want to give the public the knowledge of what really goes on at a dairy farm,” explained Paul. “We try to give visitors an understanding of why we do what we do, not just what we do,” added Tom Remp, the farm and museum’s marketing manager; Billings, he clarified, is not a petting zoo but an educational farm.
That mission underlies everything they do, even a recent challenge the Billings team sent to Nintendo. “We’re writing because our farm staff recently saw the cow milking game for Nintendo Switch and decided that you’ve taken all the challenge out of milking,” they wrote earlier this year. “We have 30 prize-winning Jersey milking cows that we milk twice a day, and it is NEVER that easy.” Somewhat to their surprise, Nintendo responded that they would come to Vermont to see how cows are actually milked. They came, they milked – both real and virtual cows – and they had a great time, returning home with a new level of understanding of what it takes to produce milk. (See the video below.) The challenge also attracted quite a bit of media attention to, from Food & Wine magazine to Slate.com, further spreading the word.
Like the guests from Nintendo, about 55,000 people come annually to get up close to the herd of milking cows; see the calves in the nursery; visit the wooly Southdown sheep and lambs, fluffy chicks and the farm’s pairs of oxen and draft horses; and participate in any number of programs and activities. Seven-year-old Marco Miller and his brother Diego, 11, came recently with their dad from the Washington, D.C. area to ski and visit local sights. The brothers were particularly impressed with Jim, a large Percheron draft horse who smacks his lips when he senses a tasty treat might be on its way, and said they were also excited to see the “mini cows,” as they referred to the calves.
During the tour of the property’s meticulously restored 19th century farmhouse, the Miller boys had also been fascinated by the milk cooler and the water-powered swing butter churn in the cellar creamery. That was where, the tour interpreter explained, top-quality butter had been made from the farm’s high butterfat Jersey milk to be shipped by rail to the city. These days, the farm is a member of the co-op that owns Cabot but it does devote about a third of the herd’s milk production to Billings’ own cheese: ranging from a buttery, mild, creamy “butter cheddar” to their sharper Woodstock Reserve Cheddar.
The farm also has a broader mission as part of The Woodstock Foundation, Inc., a non-profit educational institution founded in 1968 by the property’s final owners, Laurance and Mary Rockefeller. The Billings Farm and Museum was established in 1983 to preserve the historic farm as well as the character and heritage of rural Vermont. In addition to the animals and the restored farmhouse, there is also a museum chockful of antique farm equipment and life-size replicas of a typical farmhouse, farm workshop, general store and traditional activities like ice-harvesting, cider-making and sugaring. In addition, an Academy Award-nominee film viewable at the visitor center illuminates the deep historical stewardship ethic of the Billings Farm and Museum and its partner organization, the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park.
The park, which offers a network of all-season trails and tours of the property’s mansion and gardens, was created by an Act of Congress signed into law by President George Bush on August 26, 1992. It is the only national park to tell the story of conservation history and the evolving nature of land stewardship in America. Starting as the boyhood home of George Perkins Marsh, often called “the prophet of conservation” for his seminal 1864 book, Man and Nature, each owner of the Woodstock landmark built upon that vision. As the film conveys, each believed strongly in the obligation to live in harmony with the land and to pass it on, enriched, to future generations.
The Milking Challenge: Real and Virtual
To see farmers and video-gamers compete to see who is the best at milking cows (real and virtual), check out this fun video of the recent visit by two Nintendo game experts to Billings Farm.