Five Mile Farm in Lisbon, New York has been in the Akins family since the mid-1800s. Today, the fifth, sixth and seventh generations work together on the farm with an eye to future generations as well.
All new efforts on the farm, explains Mark Akins, have at least a 30-year outlook. “We ask ourselves, ‘Are we doing this for immediate satisfaction, or are we building this for the future?’” he says. “Everything we do has to be sustainable.”
Mark works closely with his parents, Dean and Betty, as well as his son, Ryan, who returned to the farm after studying animal science and business at Cornell, which his father also attended. Mark’s wife, Becky, is a teacher and their daughter, Allison, works for an agriculture credit and financial services provider. Ryan’s girlfriend, Emma Carver, is also a teacher and helps out on the farm during the summer.
Five Mile Farm supports eight full-time employees, milks about 500 Holsteins, raises another 100 Black Angus beef cattle and manages 1,500 acres.
The Akinses run careful analysis of all inputs on their farm and refine everything for maximum efficiency and sustainability. They recycle the water used in the milking parlor to flush out other equipment and they capture and divert all rainwater. They have invested in equipment that injects manure into the fields (rather than spreading it on top) for optimal absorption of nutrients and reduction of smell and run-off. Not only does this practice have environmental benefits, it also improves neighborly relations, Mark observes with a chuckle. Even Five Mile’s beef herd is an exercise in efficiency: the beef animals are offspring of select dairy cows who have been crossbred with Black Angus and they eat excess feed that the milking herd doesn’t consume.
Their most recent projects include a new free-stall cow barn and a 50-stall rotary milking parlor that will be finished in April. Like every endeavor on the farm, these investments met clear criteria for improving performance in a specific area like cow comfort (happy, productive cows) or labor management (happy, productive employees). The new milking parlor, Mark details, does both: cutting down the current 21 hours a day of milking with 2 employees handling 75 cows per hour, to 6 hours of milking with 2 employees handling 300 cows per hour. Less time spent in the milking parlor translates into more relaxed cows who make more efficient use of feed; it also means shorter worker shifts.
“Sustainable management practices to me are not about what will necessarily make us money this year,” explains Ryan, “but about how we’ll make a living on this farm every year for the next several generations.”
Five Mile Farm’s maple operation started back in the early 1920s and a wall of the sugarhouse bears the first date of the boil and gallon yield for every year since. The season usually starts around the third week of March but varies depending on the weather. Mark’s parents, Dean and Betty, set about 1,000 taps and run an old-school, wood-fired evaporator to boil the tree sap down into syrup. His mom further simmers down much of the syrup into maple cream, a spreadable treat with the consistency of creamed honey. The family enjoys maple in a myriad of ways. “Everything goes with maple,” says Mark. His dad, he notes, loves a burger made with the farm’s own Black Angus beef stuffed with maple syrup, mushrooms and cheddar. “And then more cheddar on top,” he says.
Here are some delicious ways to incorporate maple into lunch, dinner and dessert.