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This is the story of the revival of two dairy farms as a result of regenerative farming practices, savvy marketing, and an openness to sharing land and cows. It’s written from a series of conversations at a farmer’s market in Roanoke, Virginia, where the author and Sweet Land farmers are neighbor-vendors. Rob and Erin Lisenby are first-generation farmers who operate a 17 cow dairy that supports a 300+ member herd share throughout the Blue Ridge and Appalachian Virginia. Four farmers and an administrative assistant contribute to the business. The herd share is like a milk subscription. Herd share members become part owners of the herd, paying for services from the farmers to care for the cows and deliver milk. The herd share structure is a legal necessity to receive raw milk in Virginia. Some states, however, allow consumers to buy raw milk at stores. It can also sometimes be legal if purchased directly from the farm. Raw milk regulation varies state by state.

One of Sweet Land’s dairy cows

Rob and Erin met in college, connecting around their shared interests in changing the world for the better. A love of animals and nature led them to farming, and they soon developed a passion for raw milk, figuring that, “the best way to do the most good for the most people was growing healthy food.” They learned firsthand from small dairies across the US, including Stony Pond Farm in Enosburg, Vermont, part of Organic Valley Cooperative. Rob and Erin were also inspired by the carbon farming movement, farming methods that capture and hold carbon in vegetation and soils, as well as traditional diets.

For the first few years of Rob and Erin’s raw milk herd share, Rob had to work full-time off the farm in order to pay their bills while Erin milked. Their impetus for starting a family farm was an ideal vision of working alongside each other and nourishing their bodies with hard work and good food. They would also nourish their community with nutrient-dense milk. The reality, however, was much different. Rob and Erin hardly saw each other and were working at a relentless pace. Everything seemed to be going wrong. Their families had encouraged them not to go into farming, as their ancestors just a few generations before them had been impoverished farmers in the Deep South. 

“If we did the math, we wouldn’t have been farmers.” – Rob, Sweet Land Dairy

The small farm family struggle is well-documented by governmental agencies and nonprofits alike. Median farm income hit negative digits in 2018, with dairy farmers some of the hardest hit. An article that went viral on Medium by Sylvanaqua Farms’ Chris Newman “Small Family Farms Aren’t the Answer: The Romance of Neoliberal Peasant Farming Blinds Us to Our Collective Power” shared:

“We in [the farm-to-table] cohort trade the benefits of agrarian collectivism — living wages, retirement, a sane workload, profitability, survivability, and the capacity to make a game-changing impact in the marketplace… for rugged independence: complete autonomy in decision-making, the ability to grow what/where/how we want, set our prices as we please, sell wherever we choose, and work ourselves into the ground. In short, we’ve done the most Modern-American thing possible: bartered away our quality of life for the freedom to be miserable . . . Go to a big farmers market this weekend and have a look around. Each of those independent producers would tell you interesting stories: 80+ hour work weeks, getting by without health insurance, paying employees next to nothing and/or relying on volunteers, supplementing with outside jobs. Enduring broken marriages, worn out bodies, social isolation, strained finances, emotional burnout. These are the conditions my grandfather’s generation endured that convinced their children to get as far away from the farm as possible.”

Rob and Erin soon had their first child and realized they had to make the dairy work or quit. When they nearly hit rock bottom, they decided to reach out to the Montgomery Family, a fourth generation dairy on a 450-acre farm in southwest Virginia. The family includes Thad and Gayle Montgomery, their twin 16-year-old daughters Hayley and Emma, 8-year-old Heath, and 7-year-old Heidi. The Lisenbys knew of them through local dairy events; Thad had been growing organic alfalfa. Rob proposed they work together. What Rob didn’t know was that the Montgomerys were just a few months from selling their cows for what they could and shutting the dairy.

Sweet Land and the Montgomerys agreed to a lease that enabled Rob and Erin to pay for land access through a portion of their herd share income, a non-extractive arrangement. The Montgomerys manage the herd, while Rob and Erin lease the facilities. Their arrangement gives them independent spheres of responsibility. They have written standards for healthy farm practices and agreements for how to deal with disputes.

When Sweet Land gave the Montgomerys their first rent check from their herd share income, they agreed to keep the lease amount where it was and not increase it, even if herd share income increases. The Montgomerys have been generous and thoughtful about Sweet Land’s challenging financial situation. They shared that, “We could have used the money, but we also knew Sweet Land has got to make it!”

Now, Rob and Erin are able to do things well instead of just making it. Their family is sustained by the farm: they have health insurance and are able to pay a mortgage on a home nearby. Both families help with the dairy, ensuring healthy pasture all year for the cows. Sweet Land helps market the Montgomery’s beef and eggs with the herd share. The ideal of the small family farm is made a whole lot sweeter with the support, camaraderie, and collaboration of another family. As Rob said:

“Owning land is a luxury—financially and socially. We aren’t ‘rolling in it’ but the arrangement with the Montgomerys allows our family to work at a more reasonable pace, we see each other more often, and our relationships are a lot happier.”

Today, they share on their website: “We want you to be your best!  Whether you raise a family, run a business, or are trying to heal from disease, raw milk can help. Our cows and milk are tested regularly to ensure you only receive the most nutritious, pure, and safe milk possible. For the past 8 years we have provided the tastiest grass grazed milk possible so you and yours can thrive. If you need a recipe, help with your yogurt making, or simply ideas on how to include more milk in your diet, we are here for you. Taste and feel the difference!”

The Lisenby family

At Agrarian Trust, we value collaboration and recognize the wisdom of the land and those most connected to it. We recognize indigenous farmers’ wisdom to show us some of the most ecologically and socially sustainable, collective, and enduring models, which inspire us to support cooperative farming opportunities through commoning farmland. The Agrarian Commons model is structured to support layered, collective, yet independent agricultural enterprises that nourish healthy soils and produce nutrient-rich food on shared land. This design enables farm-to-farm collaborations and interconnections within the community. The local Agrarian Commons approach may be a remedy for the plight (and the myth) of the small family farm through equitable long-term lease tenure for farmer equity, farm viability, and through permanently de-commodifying farmland by putting its ownership in community hands. 

Sweet Land: The Story of a Collaborative Farming Model that Saved Two Dairies
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