The Face of Farming: Celebrating Cabot’s Women Farmers
In 1987, we proudly dedicated our original Visitor’s Center in Cabot, Vermont to Farm Women Everywhere, and even today, our appreciation has never been stronger. Like all farmers, Cabot farm women have a variety of roles on farms, and their influence on our co-operative and in our communities is immeasurable.
To celebrate them, we asked some amazing Cabot farmers to tell us what they love about farming, what they want people to know about farming, and what it means to them to be women in a profession that’s equally rewarding and challenging—and always changing. We were inspired by their wisdom, passion, and dedication, and we’re excited for you to meet them—in their own words.
Clara Ayer, Fairmont Farm, East Montpelier, VT
Growing up, Clara Ayer spent a great deal of time working and enjoying farm life on her family’s Fairmont Farm, a 3,600-acre operation with 1,450 milking cows located in East Montpelier and Craftsbury, VT.
Today, Clara works full-time on the farm alongside her brother Ricky Hall, and their first cousin, Tucker Purchase, as the third generation of family farmers. They have joined Clara and Ricky’s parents, Richard and Bonnie Hall, who had gradually taken over operations from Richard’s parents. Clara and her husband Dana have three children, Carson, Evelyn, and Lorraine.
At just 33 years-old, Clara also happens to be the youngest member of Agri-Mark’s Board of Directors. Representing Region 12 of the cooperative, Ayer serves on the board’s Equity Committee where she reviews the co-op’s equity program making recommendations to the full board.
No stranger to leadership roles, Clara was inducted into the Vermont Agriculture Hall of Fame as the “Emerging Leader” in 2018. She is also an Alternate on the Vermont Dairy Promotions Board, a Delegate for the New England Dairy Promotion Board, and she just joined the Vermont Agricultural Innovation board, a new role that she says she is excited to be a part of.
“I’ve also been very active in the Young Cooperators (YC) group over the years but had to shift my focus when I was elected to the Board of Directors,” she noted.
Ayer hopes her varied roles within the cooperative and the dairy industry, serve as an inspiration to women of all ages. “I hope to inspire people, especially young women, to get involved in our co-op at all levels, including leadership roles,” Ayer said. “It’s not difficult. I started by showing up at meetings and getting involved. It really opens up a lot of doors.”
International Women’s Day holds special meaning for Clara. “It’s important for me to set a good example for my daughters and my son,” she said. “Women can hold important roles and be effective leaders and I am honored to be serving on Agri-Mark’s Board of Directors where I can serve as a good example to women and my family to be effective leaders.”
Val Lavigne, Unc Brock Farm, Schaghticoke, NY
Anyone who knows Cabot farmer Val Lavigne knows that family and farming are her two greatest loves. And they know she has seemingly endless energy to devote to both. Val, and her husband, Greg, have twin daughters, Nora and Sadie who are almost 7 years-old, and a son Owen who is four years-old.
Val’s parents, Unc and Kris Brock are first generations farmers who own and operate Unc Brock Farm, a 626-acre operation in Schaghticoke, NY that thrives on diversity with a mix of Thanksgiving turkeys, laying hens, meat chickens, milking goats, horses, and of course, 200 milking cows. Unc Brock Farm is ready to celebrate its 21st anniversary and, much to the delight of her parents, Val and Greg and their children have joined them to help run the farm.
Farm work and the children keep Val and Greg busy every day. But Val always manages to make time for her newest role as Secretary of Agri-Mark’s Young Cooperators (YC) Program.
“I guess one could say I am a busy person,” Val says. “But I wouldn’t want it any other way. I’m the herdsperson for the dairy side of our farm operations and I do relief milking whenever necessary. I am also the bookkeeper for the farm. But most importantly, I am Mom to our three beautiful children and wife to one of the greatest guys anyone knows, my husband Greg. I am also honored to serve as 2022 Secretary of Agri-Mark’s YC program, which keeps me busy, too.”
Val has attended YC events for many years and has served as a YC Representative since 2019. As current YC secretary, Val works closely with YC president, Samantha Staebner, and YC vice president, Amanda Amadon, to represent members at the monthly and Annual Agri-Mark Board of Directors meetings and helps plan the annual YC Summer Conference. On top of all that, the family owns two food trucks, and a catering business called The Farmer’s Feed Bunk, so things are busy every day. Val also promotes dairy online with her popular social media page, DairyGalVal, followed by hundreds on Instagram, nationwide.
“I am also excited to serve as the Chairperson of the National Milk Producers Federation YC Advisory Council for 2022. And as YC Secretary this year, I am beyond excited to showcase our amazing young farmer program in the Northeast and gather new ideas to bring back to our local program. In my national role, I hope to gain a stronger sense of the politics and policies of Washington, D.C regarding the dairy industry, learn about the challenges facing dairy throughout the nation, and meet new people within the industry.”
Val is thrilled to be able to work so closely with her family and to also be able to balance her home and work responsibilities in a healthy way.
“My Mom taught me to never give up and never settle for less than what is deserved,” she said. “It’s important for women to have a seat at the table because we bring a fresh perspective to business and we can do anything a man can do, sometimes even better!” You can see Val’s posts on Instagram and Facebook.
Megan Davenport, UConn Dairy, Hartford, CT
New England and New York State Dairy farmers tend to be a tight-knit community with many farms having generations of family connections that date back several centuries. So it comes as no surprise that University of Connecticut (UConn) Dairy Club President, Megan Davenport, has a very close Cabot Connection. The UConn senior’s aunt and uncle are Karen and Jim Davenport, owners of Tollgate Farm, a 600-acre operation located in Ancramdale, NY, that milks more than 130 purebred Holsteins and Ayrshires.
Megan’s love of Dairy Farming runs deep. Her studies include a double major, the first in Animal Science, and the second in Agriculture and Natural Resources. Upon graduation, Megan plans to earn a Master’s in Education at UConn, all of which will lead to a full-time career in agricultural education with a focus in dairy science.
“My Mom, Jill, and my Aunt, Karen, are my two biggest role models,” Megan said. “They’ve taught me to be hardworking, self-reliant and to always be honest and dependable. Mom has always been supportive of everything I do,” she continued. “Whether it was giving me rides to dairy shows and banquets as a young girl or helping now with school or work. She is always there to lend a hand. My Dad, Bill, has also been equally supportive. He’s always there for me and is very involved with our family farm operation. Dad and Uncle Jim are two of the hardest working men I know.”
As President of the Dairy Club, Megan is responsible for organizing and running meetings, facilitating educational workshops, and conducting other club business and events. Some highlights of her tenure include helping organize the annual dairy show which is open to all UConn students. Megan also helps oversee the Dairy Club’s fundraising activities including the famous UConn Dairy Club milk bottles, Cabot Cheese made with milk from UConn’s own dairy herd, and the sale of various UConn Dairy Club merchandise.
“Covid had a big impact on our activities, but things are starting to get back to normal,” she said. “Due to having cancelled the Dairy Show for the past two years, we are excited to once again offer this dairy showing opportunity in person. It’s our most popular and highest attended event of the year. We’re also excited to once again be able to offer education programs in person including our Clipping Clinics and our Dairy Food Science Clinics. It’s always busy but very rewarding as our students learn so much.” she says.
Megan also credits her boyfriend, Evan Pedneault, for her success. “Evan and I met through Future Farmers Of America,” she said. “He is always there for me and is highly supportive of the work I do with the Dairy Club.”
Megan points to the women before her as trailblazers and role models. “All of the women in my family have been involved in agriculture,” Megan says proudly. “And it’s interesting to see how women are becoming increasingly involved with the actual science of farming. In fact, most college Ag Clubs are becoming predominantly female. I think it’s a good shift because it brings parity and fresh perspective to the future of the dairy industry.”
Jenni Tilton, Flood Brothers Farm, Clinton, ME
Becoming a woman in the world of agriculture is a special kind of blessing. Learning how to come to terms with that blessing is not easy—but it is rewarding.
This way of life that we live on our farms is all about strength, intelligence, resilience, beauty, dreams, and hard work. Being a member of the Cabot family means being supported, having an extended family clad in plaid, and being a farmer first, and a woman always. It’s never an easy road, being a woman, but neither is being a farmer—that must be why Cabot women are such amazing farmers.
Becoming a dairy farmer is a dream come true. It’s not an easy road, and like anything difficult the stumbling blocks are best negotiated with friends and those who support you. Depend upon family, learn from friends, build your village to support you, and always hose off your boots before you head back into the house.
Beth Hodge, Echo Farm Puddings, Hindsale, NH
Being a woman Cabot farmer means being part of an elite “wolf pack.” As farmers, we spend a lot of time with our cows and employees on our farms and we probably don’t get to spend much time off the farm. But I know that there are other Cabot women out there that I can always connect with. I’m part of a community of women who are all struggling every day, but still getting up and showing an amazing capacity for leadership and a strength of character that I am forever trying to live up to. While there are probably many groups of women out there doing the same things, this is MY Wolf Pack and I always know they have my back.
We’ve been pretty lucky to have some amazing women work on our farm over the last 15 years, many of whom started out as 4-Hers, then employees, and always friends. “Our girls” have aspired to and been very successful working in the dairy industry. These ladies continue to impress us with their incredible passion, and we love the idea that we had a small part in helping to develop that passion!
Nicole Fletcher, Fletcher Farm, Southhampton, MA
Being a woman farmer means having to work just as hard as the boys, and doing my best to show them up. Being a part of the Cabot co–operative means that the product of my hard work (the milk) gets turned into delicious dairy products such as cheese and butter that I can use when I am baking and cooking. I love to bake, and it’s even more fun when you get to use ingredients that you helped create!
Women farmers are a special group, and the Cabot women are no exception. It’s a unique mix of New England humor and sarcasm along with an unending desire to succeed and to make each year better than the last. [Farming] is such a rewarding career in the sense that you can be outside, work with animals alongside your family, and also enjoy the seasons. It is a challenging job because it requires long hours and attention to detail, and the need to be both physically strong and mentally focused. Caring for animals is such a great way to spend each day, and I believe that women farmers have a special nurturing quality towards the cows.
Samantha Staebner, Whittier Farm, Sutton, MA
If you spend just five minutes talking with Samantha “Sam” Staebner, you will quickly learn that family is paramount. As a fifth-generation farmer, Sam and her family own and operate Whittier Farms, a 500-acre operation in Sutton, MA with 65 milking cows. Since 1945, the Whittiers have worked side-by-side to make great food for the community. In addition to their dairy herd, the family also runs The Milk Store, which Sam describes as a 50-year-old, overgrown 4H project.
Growing up on a farm has been an amazing experience, “ Sam said. “It’s something I wouldn’t change for anything in the world because it allows our family to be together every day. My husband Hale and I have a daughter, Sarah, and I have two siblings. My brother John and his wife Lauren have a beautiful son, Kolton, and my sister Diana is engaged to a great young man named Brett. Together, we help our parents Wayne and Mary Whittier, and our uncle, Todd Whittier, operate the farm along with additional staff members. So it’s easy to see why family is so important to Sam. With so many things going on year-round at the farm, it’s hard to believe Sam has time for other activities – but she does – and in a big way.
Sam is President of the Agri-Mark Young Cooperators (YC) program that serves as an informational and educational branch of Agri-Mark. The program provides young members with the information and knowledge they need to understand milk marketing and the cooperative’s operation and structure.
“As President of the YC program, I help represent the next generation of Cabot farmers. “Sam says. “It so important to support and nurture young farmers and help connect them to everyone in the cooperative through programs like our Summer Leadership Conference, virtual seminars, and providing them with legislative updates,” she said. “Another great part of the program is that YC officers (President, Vice President and Secretary) are invited to attend Agri-Mark Board Meetings where we learn about the state of the cooperative and the direction we are headed. We are a diverse group ranging in ages 18 to 40 years old. We strive to connect young farmers with experience and knowledge to help sustain the cooperative for many years to come.”
Interestingly, all three of this year’s YC officers are women which comes as no surprise to Sam.
“I tend not to see the difference between men and women in the workplace,” she said. “I was raised to look people in the eyes, talk straight and get things done, whether I was dealing with a man or a woman. So it’s not about gender – it’s about your work ethic and seizing the opportunities in front of you. It’s also about the children because they are our future. Our daughter Sarah is just two-months old, and my nephew Kolton is just two years-old. We have a responsibility to them to be good stewards of the land for generations to come.”
With a driving force like Sam at the helm of the YC Program, it’s clear the future of the cooperative is in able hands.
Kies Orr, Fort Hill Farms, Thompson, CT
What I love about farming is knowing that you are providing a wholesome product for consumers to put on their table to feed their family. Being a woman farmer and being the next generation of this farm means a lot to me because I plan to keep my grandfather and father’s hard work going.
Seeing and hearing more women farmers farming makes me feel like the agriculture is heading in the right direction. As a woman farmer, I take it day by day and look at the positives. There are many challenges in life and farming, but we all just keep working through them.
We need to start supporting more local farmers or there will not be much agriculture left. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. So please support your neighbor farmer in their crazy farming dream!
Isabel Hall, Fairmont Farm, East Montpelier, VT
To me, being a woman farmer isn’t really any different than being a farmer in general. If anything, we can bring different and unique qualities to the table than male farmers.
Being a female farmer, you have to work a little harder to gain the respect of fellow farmers, because there are less of us and tradition shows men predominantly farming. I think generally women can show compassion more, and that is good for the perception of farming because we aren’t afraid to show the love we have for our animals.
Being a Cabot farmer is great because we can really stand behind the delicious products made with our milk. I think it’s really important for people to know that we really do farm because we love our animals and our land, and we love feeding people.
Kristina Howlett, Champlainside Farm, Bridport, VT
My responsibilities as a calf manager are feeding calves, caring for them when they are sick, and taking care of the newborn calves. One of my favorite things about being a farmer is helping bring new life into the world, teaching them how to suck on the bottle, and helping them to walk because sometimes they need a little encouragement. Knowing that it’s up to me to give the babies everything they need to survive is stressful but extremely rewarding.
Being a woman farmer shows that girls can do anything that men can do. I think seeing and hearing about female farmers will help influence our perception and encourage other young women who may look at careers in agriculture. The main challenges that I keep facing are men and some women underestimating the power and knowledge that female farmers have. Most people don’t believe that I know how to run the chopper, tractors, or drive the dump trucks, even though that’s what I do pretty much all summer long.
Working with my family and cows every day is the best thing that could have ever happened to me. I’m so grateful to be a farmer. I don’t think a lot of people understand the passion that farmers have. I really have no idea what else I would be doing with my life.
Amanda Amadon, Landmark Farms, Clifton Springs, NY
When you think of leadership qualities, it’s easy to see why Amanda Amadon was selected as this year’s Vice President of Agri-Mark’s Young Cooperators (YC) program. Amanda and her husband Dan, along with her father-in-law Roger Cunningham, own and operate Landmark Farms located in Clifton Springs, NY, a 500-acre that milks 450 head using a state-of-the-art robotic milking system.
Amanda has served as an elected YC Representative for four years and looks forward to representing young farmers in her appointed role as Vice President in 2022.
“As Vice President, I am involved in all phases of planning our groups participation in Agri-Mark’s Annual meeting, planning our Summer Conference that is held in July of each year, and working closely with YC President Samantha Staebner, to ensure YC members are represented within our cooperative, Amanda said. “I appreciate the support the Board provides the YC program as it gives us the opportunity to attend the annual meeting and share ideas and programs that our members are involved in throughout the year. Having that voice and being included in the meetings helps us to be more critical thinkers and learn more about the dairy industry. That’s important because young farmers are our cooperative’s future.”
One of four female siblings, Amanda knows how important it is for women to have a voice in business and on the farm. “It’s great to see so many women becoming more and more involved in the dairy industry,” she says. “Education is a big part of that. I have a master’s degree, my first sister has a Ph.D., my second sister has a bachelor’s degree in business and my third sister has a bachelor’s degree in sociology and anthropology. Our Mom pushed each of us to speak up, participate, and contribute in whatever we were doing. So she played a huge role in our success.
As one of three women officers of the YC program, Amanda is proud of the role women are playing in Agri-Mark’s business. “I am fortunate to participate as an officer of YC’s,” she said. “I’ve been able to attend and participate in the Annual meetings, YC Summer Conferences and I have participated in the National Council of Farm Coops Washington, D.C. Forum in 2018. I served as our National Milk Producers Federation YC Council member from 2019 to 2021 and have served on the Ontario County Soil and Water Conservation District Board of Directors since 2019.
One of Amanda’s role models is her mother-in-law Joanne. “Many years ago Joanne was divorced at a time when that was frowned upon. She never let that hold her back. She was a true leader and she fought hard for the dairy industry. She was and always will be a role model to me.”
Amanda is grateful for the support of Agri-Mark’s Board of Directors. “I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge our Board members for their leadership and vision,” she said. “Their support of the YC program and women in farming has helped me become a much better leader.