For first-generation farmers and sisters Beth and Courtney Hodge, watching Courtney’s two kids grow up on Echo Farm is “really neat for us,” says Beth. The joy is summed up well, she explains, by a comment from her nephew’s teacher: “Colton always has so much going on in his life, he has so many stories to share.”
While the two sisters did not have that experience themselves at quite such a young age, they fell in love with farming as teenagers when their parents bought the New Hampshire farm. Thanks to neighbors, Beth and Courtney were introduced to 4-H and discovered Milking Shorthorns, a red and white British dairy breed. In 1990, they convinced their parents to buy their first five animals. “We were supposed to sell them once they were bred,” Courtney explains, “but then Mom said, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to milk a cow?’”
With the support of their parents, the Hodge sisters gradually built up a successful dairy farm as well as a farm-fresh pudding company called Echo Farm Puddings. They have been co-op members from the beginning and still ship Cabot about 80 percent of milk produced by their herd of Milking Shorthorns plus a few Jerseys. “But we always knew we wanted to make our own product, too,” says Beth.
Their line of wholesome, all-natural puddings—including vanilla, tapioca, chocolate, butterscotch, rice and even a sophisticated coffee-caramel tapioca—are distributed widely throughout the Northeast in independent grocery stores as well as chains like Hannaford Supermarkets and Whole Foods Markets.
The Hodges have always worked very hard to be the most sustainable and responsible farmers they can be. This led them to become the first dairy farm in the country to be certified humane by Humane Farm Animal Care. Since Echo Farm does not have enough land to grow their own animal feed, they work closely with a nearby farm that does raise crops to trade their cow manure for feed. That farm appreciates the value of the manure as rich, natural fertilizer. The sisters also buy corn stalks recycled from harvested corn for cow bedding.
Their most recent endeavor is just over a year old: a new robotic milking system that has helped them modernize the milking operation, smooth out labor needs and offer on-demand milking for the cows. With the robot, cows choose when they want to be milked by the machine, which is trained to recognize each cow and tracks all health and production details. “It works so well,” Beth says. “The idea was really to let us focus on the pudding business.”
The sisters have also stayed involved with 4-H helping other youngsters find their own passion for agriculture and they are thrilled that Colton, 7, and his little sister, Honor, 4, love being 4-H Cloverbuds. Echo Farm has also hosted interns from around the world including Tanzania, New Zealand and the Ukraine. There is no shortage of things to learn and do at Echo Farm. As noted on a wide-ranging list of “things to fix” spied in the barn, you could start with “feed bin bottom to be welded” and move up to “global warming.” If anyone can work on both at the same time, it’s the Hodge sisters.
Melissa Pasanen is an award-winning Vermont-based journalist and cookbook author with a focus on food, farming, and sustainability. She was the writer for The Cabot Creamery Cookbook (Oxmoor House, 2015).