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Meet the 2018 New England Dairy Farms of the Year

The prestigious New England Green Pastures Award is given every year to one outstanding dairy farm in each of the New England states as part of the Green Pasture Award program. Winners are evaluated on production records; herd, pasture, and crop management; environmental practices; contributions to agriculture and the local community; and overall excellence in dairying.

Farm profiles written by Carmelle Druchniak 

Connecticut: Fairholm Farm, Woodstock

Dairy farmer Erica Hermonot’s family can look back at 100 years on the same plot of land and recognize that Fairholm Farm’s continued success is due to the power of pulling together. Erica, her husband, Jon, and her parents, Todd and Diane Morin have been farming for four generations in Woodstock.

Photo by Chrissy Peckham Photography

With a milking herd just north of 400, the family prides itself on providing the highest level of care for their cows. They grow about 800 acres of corn silage and haylage, and they’ve made plenty of improvements in the last 10 years, including a new barn, shop, and manure storage needed for an efficient dairy operation.   

Farm Technology

The most recent upgrade has been the installation of four robotic milkers, which reduce labor costs as well as provide data on everything a modern dairy farmer needs to know about the cows — which cows are eating, which are not, and which may need extra care.  As for the benefits to the cows, the robotic milking system provides improved cow comfort, allowing them to make their own schedules, with more time to rest and eat. Each cow wears a collar (very much like a fit-bit) that allows Erica and others to track the cow’s daily activity (or lack of if they are sick). They use the information in conjunction with the activity monitoring system to help keep tabs on individual cow’s needs. 

Also, on site is a robotic feed pusher that allows cows to have constant access to feed 24-hours a day – it functions like a Roomba, zipping around the barn, pushing food back closer to the cows. Erica is the farm’s herdsman and works alongside her parents. Her dad, Todd, handles all repairs and fieldwork, and her mom, Diane, handles all the financial work, though her favorite job is driving the farm truck. Her husband, Jon, tackles a little bit of everything, from nutrition, field work to cow care and has become the go-to guy for the robotic milkers. 

“We’ve worked really hard to get where we are today, and to make sure we can look toward the future,” says Erica. “We keep up with the times, of course, but we don’t forget the core of what we’re doing.”

Rhode Island: Breene Hollow Farm, West Greenwich

Pictured from left to right: Matt holding baby Sawyer, Kenzie, Melissa, and Kevin.

When Melissa Breene Jordan was 14, her father, Kevin Breene, told his daughter she’d be working full-time with him at Breene Hollow Farm. Her other siblings had other interests, but she spent 24 hours a day, seven days a week with her dad, working the farm. All that work paid off. Melissa took over the farm two years ago and this year, Breene Hollow Farm was named Rhode Island’s Dairy Farm of the Year.

Like their commitment to dairying, the Green Pasture Award appears to be a Breene family tradition, since the operation won the honor in 1988 and 2009. The dairy farm in West Greenwich was established by Kevin Breene with 20 cows at his parents’ home in 1977. Upon his graduation from the University of Connecticut in 1976, he bought 150 acres of land at the farm’s present location in West Greenwich, and built a barn and milking parlor.

Today, the farm spans 360 acres and the Breene family milks 50 cows, with 90 head in total consisting of registered Holsteins, Jerseys, and Ayrshires. Crops include 20 acres of corn and 45 acres of hay land and pasture.

Kevin Breene continues to do the crop work and cares for the young-stock. Melissa and her husband Matt work the milking operation. Melissa attended the University of Connecticut and Matt has a bachelor’s degree in forestry from Paul Smith College. Like Melissa, Matt also comes from a farming background and grew up working on his grandfather’s dairy farm.

Melissa and Matt do the work equally. “It’s not just me. I could never do it alone with three kids, so I’m grateful we are able to run the farm as a team.”

The third generation is also a major presence on the farm. The couple’s oldest daughter, Kenzie, is a precocious 4-year-old who helps feed the calves. Joining her in the barn along with mom are 1-year-old Sawyer and Kaylie, only one month old.

“I love being able to have my kids with me on the farm,” says Melissa. “And I love being around animals, especially the calves. And my absolute favorite part is when cows give birth. The miracle of life never gets old.”

The entire Breene family is actively involved in the community. Kevin is involved in 4-H, Future Farmers of America (FFA), Exeter Grange, and previously served as state chairman of the USDA’s Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service. Melissa is the dairy chair and vice president of the local 4-H Fair and chair of the Young Farmers & Ranchers group for the RI Farm Bureau. She is a former 4-H member, past state vice president of FFA, and past president of Agri-Mark Young Co-operators.

As for the Green Pasture award, Melissa sees it as validation for some of the changes made in the past two years. Although she credits her dad – “He taught me everything I know” — she created a new area for calves, with better footing and cozy hutches, “and they are thriving.”

Melissa is also proud of her work with New England Dairy & Food Council’s outreach to schools through the Fuel Up to Play 60 program. Melissa has attended several Fuel Up to Play 60 events in Rhode Island and enjoys being able to connect students to their local farmers.

“The program is a great opportunity for these kids to learn where milk comes from and to meet an actual dairy farmer.”

Melissa brings a calf to visit with students at Northern Lincoln Elementary School in Manville, RI.

New Hampshire: LeClair Acres, Claremont

Gary LeClair will tell you that dairy farmers should appreciate that their operations are part of the local landscape. Sure, dairy farmers rarely have time to think about such things – they’re a busy bunch, after all – but Gary recalls one fellow stopping him one day to ask him about what caused his corn to fall over. Yes, the locals notice things like that, it seems, and lots of people often stop by the LeClair Acres farm stand to chat.

LeClair Acres Farm dates back to 1926, when Gary’s grandfather purchased the farm with 120 acres of land. Gary’s father, Henry, continued farming until 1976 when the farm was auctioned. After the sale, Gary and his wife, Jean, worked her father’s dairy farm, but that made little sense, says Gary. “We thought, ‘If we’re going to work seven days a week, why not work for ourselves?’” Two years later, after borrowing money to start back up, Gary and Jean bought the LeClair Acres Farm back with 22 cows of their own, later buying another 36 soon after the farm purchase. 

Since those early years, the couple has focused on slow, steady growth with a few more cows and land purchases. Today, the farm consists of a total of 410 acres and 250 milking cows. 

Left to right: Troy LeClair, grandson; Tonya LeClair, daughter-in-law; Matt LeClair, grandson; Jason LeClair, son; Liam LeClair, grandson; Gary LeClair with granddaughter Piper; Jean LeClair, wife; Tim LeClair, son; Cory LeClair, daughter-in-law.

It’s a fairly large operation for a New Hampshire dairy, but Gary has it under control thanks to a smart phone app called Pocket Cow Card (PCC). There are still paper records and constant on-site monitoring, but with a push of a button, Gary can tell you when cow #52 was milked and how much she produced. 

The speed with which Gary has embraced technology is only outdone by the furious pace of other improvements on the farm. The LeClairs have remodeled the milking parlor twice, the first time replacing a four-stall parlor with a double-five parlor in only one month’s time. The recent upgrade in 2015 took just two days, when they went from a double-eight to a double-ten stainless steel parlor and they remodeled the building to boot. 

Over the past 40 years, Gary and Jean have employed local high school students as occasional help, and the farm currently has a few part-time employees. The full-time labor comes from family members who contribute to the daily management, with responsibilities informally divided. In addition, there are two full-time employees sharing daily chores.  

Gary and son, Jason, manage the cow herd and crops, with Jason managing the feed, nutrition, equipment, and day-to-day employees. Jean runs the business side of the farm on a daily basis and milks the cows with Gary every morning, while Jason’s wife, Tonya, feeds the calves. You might also spot Jean in corn season riding the tractor, packing corn silage on the bunk silo.  


Recently, Jean and Gary, along with son Tim and wife Cory, ventured into the direct customer marketing side of farming and started a small vegetable stand selling sweet corn and a variety of vegetables. Tim helps Gary with veggies, and Cory bakes bread, cookies, and muffins for the farm stand, as well as creates relish and jam. Tim is also busy in the late winter with maple sugaring, to create the popular syrup sold at the stand year-round. 

That stand is where many locals visit to talk about the weather or the corn that fell over. Gary doesn’t mind.

“So many people come by just to talk,” he says. “Whenever I get a chance, I stop and chat. It’s a chance to share the story of agriculture, and to promote agriculture.” 

Massachusetts: Roger Farm, Warren

Asked about his guiding principal in running his dairy farm, Will Rogers says simply, “Let Mother Nature do her own work.” 

For Rogers, dairying on his land in the small town of Warren, in central Massachusetts, is focused on remaining viable as a small farm in an increasingly centralized, commodity driven age.  

Rogers grew up on a dairy farm run by his father and uncle in Mendon, MA, and even when he left to attend the University of Massachusetts’ Stockbridge School of Agriculture, he worked local farms to make ends meet. The spring of his freshmen year, his uncle’s illness forced him to return to the family farm to help with chores a few days a week (a helpful classmate took notes so he could keep up with his studies), but the following spring came his father’s untimely death, so Rogers returned to the farm. 

Financial hardship led to the selling off of his dad’s operation, and after renting both the barn and the few remaining acres, Rogers bought 47 Holsteins and moved the herd to land in Warren. 

Today, Rogers’ dairy operation includes a 70-cow milking herd, and a focus on the importance of the entire operation, from feed to soil health to animal care.

“We look at the whole picture of food production,” he explains, “the health of the cows, the health of the land.” 

Soil Health

Adopting a no-till approach to his land and using no herbicides, Rogers has discovered what he calls “a wonderful concept when it comes to soil health, one that conserves all of our resources. The key is to work with the land, not against it.” 

Observing the symbiotic relationship between the cows and rotational grazing, Rogers became interested in the science of soil health. Rogers isn’t alone – farmers across New England are realizing the benefits of regenerative agriculture practices that sequester carbon in the soil and reduce emissions from tillage. Rogers purchased a no-till drill, roller crimper and no-till corn planter that helped crops grow and helped the soil retain its nutrients.   

He admits it’s been a steep learning curve, through trial and error, but he continues to educate himself on the latest science. His iPad has become his course book, and he connects it to the stereo in his milking parlor to listen to the latest innovations in dairy science as he goes about his chores. “My milking parlor has become my classroom,” he says with a chuckle.  

Rogers also works to connect to the local community and understands the importance of folks knowing where – and from who – their food comes from.

Vermont: Aires-Hill Farm, Berkshire

Karie Atherton recalls the memorable summer she worked on a Wisconsin dairy farm. Flash forward many years later, and she’s running her own, Aires Hill Farm. While the hours remain long and the work hard, she continues to appreciate dairying. 

“You’re never going to master it – there’s always a challenge,” she explains. “I guess that’s what appeals to me,”

The farm in Berkshire, VT, is home to a herd of 400 Holsteins. Atherton is the primary manager and part-owner, responsible for all the decision-making in the daily operation of the farm. She took over in 2014 when her father, Edward Orlyn Thompson, and uncle, James Bryan (Bernie) Thompson, decided to retire. 

Karie Atherton

Atherton attended Vermont Technical College with the goal of buying into the family operation, but the timing wasn’t right after she graduated. That led her to Wisconsin for that memorable summer, but she soon returned and worked with her father and uncle. 

She currently milks 195 cows twice a day and has enjoyed a winning streak in terms of milk quality. The farm has been with St. Albans Cooperative Creamery since 1986, consistently earning awards for its high-quality milk, and in 2016, Atherton received an award from the co-op for Platinum Quality milk and for having two perfect inspection scores of 100. 

Atherton isn’t content with only perfect scores, however – she recently received a matching $40,000 grant from the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board to purchase rumination collars to help monitor the cows’ activity, which alert the farmer to cows in heat or requiring attention. The grant also covers installation of a cow identification system in the milking parlor. “It’s like having a really good herdsman around,” she laughs. 

Helping out at the farm is a reliable crew that includes Atherton’s soon-to-be four-year-old daughter, Maggie, “a dairy farmer in the making.” Atherton’s husband, Nick, works off the farm but spends his vacation pitching in as well. 

Family is an important component to this operation. As Atherton points out, she’s seventh generation, with the first ancestor milking a cow back in 1823. “I’m a diehard,” she admits. “I don’t want to see it end.”

With the future in mind, Atherton is active in the St. Albans Co-op Young Cooperators, and also works with the Cold Hollow Career Center in Enosburg Falls, offering students an opportunity to work on the farm to learn about dairying. 


Maine: Hilton Farms, Norridgewock

At Hilton Farms, the transponders that are on each of the cows continuously sends information to dairy farmer Jim Hilton’s computer for analysis. Thanks to this technology, Jim and his family and farm crew can track a cow’s temperature, overall health and other critical information. 

“Who would have thought someone could come up with an algorithm that takes information from a cow’s ear?” he says with a chuckle. “It’s almost like the cow is talking to you!” 

Hilton Farms, owned by Jim and Elizabeth Hilton, has been a local landmark since it was purchased by Jim’s grandfather, Ralph, in 1927, but the Hilton family has been in these parts since their ancestors arrived on the Fortune, which landed in Plymouth a few weeks after the first Thanksgiving. 

Back in the 1920s, the operation was a diversified farm with prize-winning sheep, chickens and work horses used for a lumbering operation. In 1949, the farm started commercial dairy production, and a few years later, Jim’s dad, Frank, purchased the farm, milking about 45 cows becoming one of the first dairy farmers to convert from milk cans to bulk tank milk. 

Thanks to this and other innovations, Frank made Hilton Farms a Green Pastures winner in 1969.  

Enter Jim, who after college and a 13-year career in construction returned to the farm, taking over the operation in 1993. 


There have been lots of improvements in the past 25 years. In 1995, a new milking parlor was added, a new barn built in 1997 and an updated milk room added in 2001.  Jim, who works with his wife Elizabeth, and sons Jesse and Alex, has also adopted several energy efficiency measures so that the farm’s power bill is similar to what it was in the 1990s. 

Automation is key in operating an efficient dairy farm these days, says Jim. It includes a new computerized grain dryer and storage bins for their crop, and Jim fondly recalls when his father, at the time legally blind, was able to drive the new chopper since it was equipped with an automatic steering feature. 

Jim is proud of his Green Pasture win and was pleased to tell his father before his passing in June that Hilton Farms had once again been nominated. 

“We were quite surprised. You spend so much time on your own operation, you don’t get a chance to see what’s happening on other farms,” he says. “We were very happy to win.”