About thirty miles northwest of Portland in the town of Cornish, three generations of family work on the farm where their ancestors started one of the nation’s first registered Jersey herds back in 1886. For its longevity alone, this is a winning dairy farm, but there are many more reasons Highland Farms was crowned Maine’s 2017 Green Pastures Farm of the Year.
With the seventh generation now toddling around the farm, farmer (and grandmother) Libby Bleakney says, “You work to hopefully improve the farm a little every day to make it better for the next generation. We try to produce the best quality product for the consumer, take care of our animal the best we can and do all that we can to protect the land, soil and water.”
To run the 225-cow milking herd and nationally renowned breeding stock program, 300 acres of cropland and 1,000-acre logging operation, Libby works closely with her brother, Daniel Palmer, and their cousins, David Pike and Lorie Pike.
Of the next generation, Libby’s twin daughters, Jennifer Kimball and Johanna Chapman, also work full-time on the farm — thanks, in part, to their grandmother, Allaire Palmer, who watches their three kids five days a week. (Nothing like great-grandchildren to keep an 82-year-old on her toes!)
Jennifer and Johanna’s brother, John, helps out part-time on the farm, while cousins, Chad and Andrea, work full-time across the dairy and logging operations. “We are excited about the award because it really is due to the efforts of our younger generation,” Libby explains.
Family is the heart, soul and driving force behind the operation. Growing up on the farm, Libby recalls she always knew she would make her life there, but her parents encouraged her to spread her wings, “to get out and see other things.” She went to the University of Maine and earned a degree in animal science but “I missed my family,” Libby says. “I’ve always been able to work with family and that’s very important to me.”
Her daughters made the same commitment early on. Each member of that sixth generation helped their grandmother one day a week caring for the calves. “They decided in high school that they’d like my mother’s job,” Libby recalls with a chuckle. “They said to her, ‘If we go away to school, can we come back and have your job?’”
After graduating from the University of New Hampshire over a decade ago, the twins came home to the farm. “It means a lot to all the generations,” Libby says, of working alongside Jennifer and Johanna as well as with their brother and cousins. “It makes us proud to watch these young people grow and mature and take on more and more at the farm.”
In addition to doing the bookkeeping and managing the milking for Highland Farms, Libby is a director of the Maine Dairy Industry Association. The family has also played a leadership role in the American Jersey Cattle Association and is known worldwide for its Jersey breeding program. Plus, Libby adds, “Their eyes make you melt.”
As for the next generation of farmers, Libby says, “We’re hoping to encourage them and plant the seed but you can’t ever force them.” In the meantime, she takes joy in the animals, the land and family. “I try to look at the positive things every day,” she says. “Some days go sideways but I always try to leave things a little bit better than I found them.”