Talk with Black farmer Earl Ransom, owner of Rockbottom Farm in Strafford, about farming in Vermont and you know right away his success is unique and underlines a bigger issue that local Windham County farm initiatives for BIPOC people are trying to address.
“I was born here and raised here, but the people who seem most alarmed by the fact of me tend to be from not here,” says Ransom.
The 48-year-old Ransom, co-owner of Rockbottom Farm with his wife Amy Huyffer, manage their land organically and tend a herd of about 70 Guernsey cows on 600 acres in Strafford. They also own Strafford Organic Creamery.
Ransom’s father had moved to Vermont in 1963 and bought an old, 100-acre farm “for cheap,” hoping, his son says, “to be an artist and a poet.” He founded a commune called Bryn Athyn. Several different types of communes and intentional communities followed.
“They all failed, most horribly,” says Ransom. “My father came to be more and more interested in growing and producing food. By the late ’60s, the Rockbottom Farm commune was making maple syrup on several thousand taps and raising organic vegetables for some local and city markets. My Mom moved to Vermont from Reading, Pa., in 1968 to check out the commune on the invitation of a friend and ended up staying and eventually marrying my father. They had four children. I’m the second.”
By the early ’70s, Ransom’s father was “totally disillusioned” with the commune scene and started to move into production agriculture, first with a focus on meat animals and, by 1975, getting into dairy. At first, they sold raw milk to neighbors and made some black market cheese, he says, but in 1979, built the dairy barn and started shipping milk to a regional processor. For the next nine years, the Ransoms milked cows and shipped to eastern milk producers, most milk being processed by Garelick Farms or H.P. Hood.
The elder Ransoms sold their cows in 1991.
Ransom, who returned to his parents’ farm after graduating college in 1994, “wanted to see if I could make a go of farming.”
“I was 8 when the new herd of cows arrived to be milked along with the four we had in the new barn. I remember it like it was yesterday,” says Ransom, who, upon his return to the family farm, started with beef and maple syrup and “quickly realized dairy was what I wanted to do.”
“I grew up on this farm and, even after living in a bunch of different places between age 14 and 22, it always felt like home.”
With his parents not milking, Ransom was worried the farm would be sold.
“Instead of going to grad school and continuing my education in history, I decided to try to figure out how to make money on a hill farm in Vermont,” he says. “We had always had Guernsey cattle and so in the spring of 1996 I started looking for a herd of cows I could buy. I purchased a herd of 24 Guernseys in central New York and they arrived on Aug. 2, 1996.”
His business plan was to achieve certified organic status and sell milk to The Organic Cow in Chelsea. At the time, the going rate for organic milk was a two-year contract at $19 per hundredweight.
“A good, stable price meant I could plan and budget with that variable locked in. I sold milk to the Organic Cow until April of 2001, when we opened the creamery and started bottling our own milk,” he says.
“The name ‘Rockbottom’ came from my father, who says it came to him while building a stone culvert in December,” he adds. “I think he had become disillusioned with the people he had to work with at the commune who seemed to not want to work at all.”
Three days a week, Ransom arises at 4 a.m. to milk and other days he’s up at 5:30 a.m. to tend to other chores. He employs one full-time and one part-time employee, and his four boys also help. His eldest son Jackson, 18, an engineering student at the University of Vermont, has expressed an interest in continuing the family tradition but isn’t yet sure.
As far as discrimination, as Ransom points out, “literally my entire community is white.”
“I have experienced individual racism, but quite little,” he says. “Mostly, it is ignorant people who have very little, if any, experience with Black folks, but I grew up here, so most people from here know me.”
“My farming experience is pretty much the same as a white farmer’s. I do all the same work, I fix all the same broken tractors and injured cows, I deal with the same weather, I watch cows give birth, I watch cows die,” he says.
“The thing that is different is dealing with people, mostly ignorant people, who might question why I’m here,” he says, noting that “the worst racism I have felt is from people not from Vermont.”
He describes that racism as from those from out of the area who are sometimes surprised that, in this white bastion, a Black farmer not only exists but is doing business with them.
“It is hard to fault salespeople coming to a farm, having only talked to me on the phone, being surprised that I am not white,” Ransom says. “After all, I talk like a Vermonter — I even have an accent, I’ve been told.”
“I think it would be great to have more Black farmers in Vermont [...] we need more farmers,” he notes. “I don’t think Black farmers ever was a thing in Vermont [...] in the USA, the number of Black farmers has dropped in the last 100 years from about 14 percent to about 2 percent, which was mostly driven by the great migration to Northern cities from the South.”
“That is a complex issue because what those folks were escaping was Jim Crow segregation [and] looking for a better life,” Ransom says. “Many of them were happy to give up their farms for a chance at a better life. Most of those folks were not dairy farmers, they were small-scale vegetable growers and maybe some hogs and chickens.”
“There was wide-scale discrimination in money lending and government assistance in the ‘50s, ’60s, and ‘70s, and there are attempts to rectify that now,” he says, “but it is mostly too little, too late.”