The dairy in the suburb

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BAINBRIDGE TOWNSHIP, Ohio – It just might be the coldest day this winter.

The schools are closed. The roads are empty. The snow is relentless.

But life at Haskins Farm goes on.

Bob and Jan Haskins face cold Geauga County mornings every winter as they head out to the barn to milk their 36 registered Holsteins.

Bob’s family has been braving these winters since 1818 when his ancestors started farming in Bainbridge Township, Ohio.

Although Bob was not alive when his great-great-grandfather bought the land for $2.50 an acre, he can imagine what his forefathers saw out the window of the farmhouse – fields and trees.

Today when Bob looks out, he sees a different landscape – not a barn nor field in sight.

Instead there’s a large housing development all around him.

Amid all these houses, Bob and Jan have 185 acres of cropland.

Media hype. The Haskins always have reporters knocking at their barn doors. They say every new local reporter drives by the farm, sees it smack-dab in the middle of a housing metropolis and thinks, “Have I got a story or what?!”

But there’s so much more to put in the Haskins’ “article” than just being a dairy farm thriving in a suburb.

Side by side. As they walk back out to the barn, their boot prints from morning chores have been swept away by the blowing snow. The wind is whipping the 5-degree temperature down to negative 20 with the wind chill.

But the Haskins put their hood-covered heads down, brave the chilling wind and are back to the barn.

It’s just the two of them, working side by side – Bob handling the milking and manure hauling and Jan feeding the cows and working in the field.

Although Jan has donned Carhartts most of her life, she worked as a registered dietitian before the couple had the first of their three children.

Their son, Paul, is now a sire analyst with Genex and in charge of the farm’s sire-cow pairing.

Keeping things simple. Opening the door against the force of the outside winds, Bob and Jan, both 59, enter the barn. They walk through the milkhouse, then the parlor and on to the freestall area, all under one roof.

The parlor has been around for awhile and Bob did most of the repairs to the barn himself.

Nevertheless, expansion plans and new facility upgrades aren’t in their future.

By staying small and not overextending themselves on new technology, the self-described “mom-and-pop operation” stays profitable.

Their facilities, however, certainly don’t sacrifice quality. The rolling herd milk average is more than 24,000 pounds and plaques and awards cover the office walls. Nine Progressive Breeder’s Registry awards from the Holstein association hang proudly in the center.

Sugaring season. This keeping-things-simple idea carries over to their maple sugaring operation, too.

They have 1,200 taps, and use a team of draft horses and wagon to gather the sap.

Neighbor children, family, friends and even strangers gather at Haskins Farm’s sugar house each March to help with the sugaring of 300 gallons of syrup.

They sell their prize-winning syrup from the farm and 100 gallons are usually ordered before the season even starts.

The sugaring season is a special time of year for the couple and, most importantly, it’s part of the farm’s tradition. The Haskins family has made syrup at the farm every year since 1818.

Although the couple describes it as a “period of madness,” it’s something they look forward to each year, if for no other reason than it means the end of winter is in sight.

Doubts. When Bob came back to the farm from Ohio State University with a degree in dairy science and Jan by his side, he was not interested in adding fancy new equipment.

The couple knew that each house built in the then-new development was inching closer to their farm. They thought this would likely force them to relocate to a more rural area within 10 years. Investing in facility upgrades wouldn’t be worth it in the long run.

Thirty-eight years later, they struggle with the same doubts.

With increasing development around the farm and more traffic, they hesitate to invest in a new parlor or building because they aren’t sure how long they will be able to stay.

It’s not as though the family hasn’t had development offers. But even the most persistent haven’t gotten past Bob’s initial comment: “I’m not interested.”

The couple has no intention of abandoning the livelihood they’ve always loved. If the push gets too strong, they plan on relocating to a rural area where they can farm with their son.

Back in the warm living room with the snow whipping past the window outside, Bob smiles and says this “new” location certainly will “not have lake effect snow in the weather forecast.”

Intensified. Not only do they face the usual problems like milk prices and environmental regulations, they also have to worry about neighbors.

Although urban sprawl affects many farmers, it is intensified at Haskins Farm where that sprawl practically comes up their front porch steps.

The Haskins have adapted well to this pressure. With each new neighbor and house, they alter their lives – conforming to the ways of the “city people.”

People don’t like them in the fields late at night with the rumble of the tractor’s engine keeping them awake and the lights shining in their windows. So the Haskins change their schedule.

In the summer when they normally would have been chugging away in the fields past midnight, they come in early.

Bob said they used to do fieldwork in the afternoon, come back to the barn to do the evening milking and then head back out to the field. These days they save the evening chores until late at night and use the daylight hours for fieldwork.

They hire someone to spray their barns in the summer so neighbors don’t get bombarded with flies, and they try to spread manure in the middle of the week so neighbors aren’t smelling it on the weekend.

In addition, neighbors let him know about upcoming picnics and parties so he doesn’t spread manure before their guests come.

Neighborly relations. People have visited the farm before they moved into the development across the street. They just want to know more about the operation because they aren’t familiar with farms.

Some people even come to make sure the Haskins weren’t planning on selling the farm any time soon. They want to see a farm when they look across the street, not another housing development.

“They look across the street, see a farm and think ‘rural.’ I look across the street, see all these houses and think ‘suburb,'” Bob said. “Both are right, I guess. It just depends on perspective.”

Just like the Haskins’ neighbors think it’s odd to see them working so hard on a summer Saturday afternoon, Bob thinks some of his neighbor’s habits are peculiar, too.

“On a nice day, the neighbors have nothing better to do outside than wash their cars. I hope I never get like that,” Bob said, laughing.

While the Haskins and their neighbors may never completely understand each other’s ways, Bob said they don’t get many complaints.

“There’s no point getting into disagreements because there’s more of them than us,” he said.

Perseverance. Regardless of who is across the street and winter temperatures making them feel like they are in Antarctica, the Haskins continue farming.

“It’s the smell of fresh cut hay, new plowed ground and the smell of sweetness and steam in the sugar house,” Bob said. “There’s nothing else like it.”

(You can contact Kristy Hebert at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 23, or by e-mail at khebert@farmanddairy.com.)

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