Paying It Forward

A couple from Maine honors their farming heritage by offering the next generation a helping hand.

By Tharran E. Gaines | Photos By Jamie Cole

In 1975, Mike Holt bought a farm he could call his own. It was the same year he married Betsy Herrin. The farm the two then began to run was right across the road from Mike’s parents’ farmland, and just miles down the road from Betsy’s family farm.

Mike and Betsy with Sydney

Mike and Betsy with Sydney.

Together, the couple built a new dairy barn and loafing shed—much of it with lumber they harvested on their land and cut into boards. They also built up a thriving dairy herd that they operated for 18 years and raised two children, who grew to love the land as much as they did—all done on what began as a 100-acre spread just outside Canaan, Maine.

While a lot of things have changed over the past four decades, some values never wavered. That’s included the couple’s passion for farming, their desire to see the Holt land remain in the family and to help others pursue a career in agriculture. In fact, since the death of Mike’s parents, he and Betsy have already purchased the family farm from Mike’s siblings and are in the process of selling it to their son, Corey, with hopes that their new grandson born late last year will also grow to appreciate the “family business.”

The Years Bring Change

Even when the Holts sold off the family dairy in 1994, they didn’t quit farming. Sure, they had off-farm jobs: Betsy was already working as a dental assistant, but most recently as tax collector and treasurer for the Town of Canaan. Mike, meanwhile, began working at a paper mill in nearby Skowhegan. With 12-hour shifts three days on and three days off, his work schedule still allows him to produce hay and harvest timber on his family land.

“I hadn’t really planned to get out of the dairy business, even though it caused one or both of us to miss a lot of the kids’ school events,” Mike recalls. “The cost of grain and fuel kept going up, too, but we were still getting by. However, we were at a point we had more animals than we could comfortably handle.” So, he talked to a large dairy a few towns away about buying some of the extra heifers, and they offered to purchase all the milking cows, plus all the heifers.

The Holts went nearly nine years without having any animals on the farm … until they realized how much they missed having cows around. So, after boarding heifers for another dairy for a while, they began buying a few animals here and there. Yet, every time they had heifers ready to put into a milking herd, that same dairy that bought out the Holts in ’94 would come calling. Again, a deal would be reached and cows sold.

“Now, it’s Corey and me working together, just as Dad and I did before he passed,” Mike explains, noting that Corey is raising replacement dairy heifers in addition to operating his farm. “I help him cut lumber on his place, which is actually the farm where I grew up, and he helps me cut hay on our farm.” (Mike and Betsy’s daughter, Kristin, moved to a warmer climate and became a fourth-grade teacher in Florida.)

Extending a Helping Hand

For Mike and Betsy Holt, life has never been about money, how many cows they owned or how many acres of hay they harvested. For them, farming is a passion, and the farm is part of their legacy. It seemed only natural for them to share that passion and help somebody else, just as their parents had helped them.

Mike moving timber.

Mike moving timber.

So, with a milking barn still sitting empty, the Holts got a novel idea: The couple agreed to lease the barn and equipment for five years to then 23-year-old Nathaniel Brooks—a farmer from Canaan, whose father happens to be the pastor of a local church.

“We figured that would not only help him get started on his own, but give him time to figure out if dairying is something he wants to do,” Betsy explains, noting that the lease ended this past September and that Nathaniel is now in the process of buying his own dairy. “The arrangement with the Holts definitely put me at an advantage, compared to a lot of guys my age,” says Nathaniel. “It let me get started without having to borrow any money. I just bought calves and heifers as I could afford it, and built up a herd as I went along.”

More recently, the Holts have taken another young person under their wing. Sydney Quigley, a 16-year-old from Harmony, Maine, has been visiting the farm since she was 3 years old, when her parents first came to buy horse hay. As she grew older, Sydney began spending time at the farm on weekends and during the summers, helping the Holts care for the livestock.

Today, Sydney and Mike have their own sideline business together known as HQ Replacements, which involves the production of replacement dairy heifers. Already, the partnership owns a number of Holstein heifers, which is in addition to the 45 head of heifers and cows Mike and Betsy now own.

Nathaniel bundles up to get to work on the farm

Nathaniel bundles up to get to work on the farm.

“In 2015, Sydney and Mike bought five heifers together and have purchased a few more each year since then,” says Betsy. “So, while other kids her age are working at McDonald’s or Dunkin’ Donuts to earn money for college, Sydney is learning about the livestock business.”

“My mom and I already have three horses, and now I have two of the heifers up at our place, too,” says Sydney. “I’m not sure what the future holds because I would like to either go to farrier school to learn horseshoeing, or go to veterinary school—or both. But whatever I do, the experience with the Holts has been something I will always remember.”

As for the role of the milking barn, now that Nathaniel has purchased his own dairy, Betsy insists, “That chapter hasn’t been written yet.” However, the Holts are already interviewing a few prospective individuals and couples who need help getting started. Or maybe Mike and Sydney will buy even more heifers and expand into the barn.

One thing is for certain, though. The Holts’ farm will remain a farm for as long as they have something to say about it … and hopefully well beyond that.