Matt Peckham grew up on his family’s sixth generation dairy farm in the 1750-era farmhouse where he lives today with his wife, Chrissy, and their four children. Back during his own teenage years in the 1980s, he recalls, “Dairy farms were going out of business all around us. My family pushed me to do something other than dairy, so I studied public policy. But I knew ultimately this was what I wanted to do. We’re doing something important: feeding people while caring for the land and animals in the best way we can. And this is the lifestyle I wanted for our family, for our kids to grow up on the farm like I did.”
Every day Matt is thinking about ways to steer the farm in a direction that makes it sustainable for the Peckhams to come—both on an environmental and economic basis. “We need to leave farms better for the next generation than we inherited them,” he says. “Our farm is small in the scheme of things,” Matt explains of the 170-cow milking herd with 400 acres of owned and rented cropland. “There’s no room here for expansion, so looking to the future for our kids, we’re looking to diversify to create jobs for them.”
A great example of multi-faceted sustainability is the Peckhams’ recently launched compost business. It has become a conservation demonstration model for its use of solar-powered blowers to aerate the compost piles and it yields a value-added, farm-based product much in-demand by local gardeners. On the cropping side, the farm has reduced chemical fertilizer use “major league,” says Matt proudly. In addition, they have made significant infrastructure investment to manage and apply manure—a rich natural fertilizer—in a way that minimizes runoff into the local watershed. Other sustainable cultivation practices include cover cropping and no-till or minimal tilling of fields, all aiming to build soil structure and reduce runoff. The Peckhams have upgraded all lights and motors on the farm for optimal energy efficiency and are working with their local solar provider to install an array that will provide much of the farm’s power.
Matt was named Connecticut’s Young Farmer of the Year in 2012 for these accomplishments, among others, and he also earned a spot on the national roster of top ten Outstanding Young Farmers. He serves as a board member for the Eastern Connecticut Conservation District and puts his public policy background to work advocating for farms on a state-wide basis, sharing stories of the best environmental and economically sustainable practices. “Farms need farmers,” he says simply.
The Peckhams are also doing their part to cultivate the next generation of farmers in the family. Caleb, 16, Grace, 13, Graham, 8, and Tucker, 7, are all very involved in daily life on the farm. “The kids are as much a part of this farm as we are,” says Chrissy. “The simplicity that farming offers is how we stay grounded.” Caleb, currently a student at the regional agriculture high school, works closely with his father on all aspects of farming, from cows to cropping. He chuckles about how his non-farming friends can’t imagine choosing to get up to milk before 5 a.m. or pulling an all-nighter making round bales for a neighbor, but he can think of nothing he’d rather do.
“It makes me feel good that I have that responsibility and that I can really do something to contribute,” he says. “People think a farmer is the old guy on a rickety tractor in blue faded overalls, but we’re just like them,” Caleb continues. “We’re modernizing our farms, working around the clock to fuel America and keep it going strong.”
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).