Pictured: Bruce, Hugh and Meg Schader with Penelope and Snacky.
Farming is a low-margin, high-risk business that truly is a labor of love. This was illustrated by Brian Luton at Stone Throws Farm in a previous Q&A and by our latest entry.
Meg and Bruce Schader suffered a scare this winter when he ruptured a tendon in his arm, requiring surgery and rest for much of the winter. It forced the family behind Wake Robin Farm to change its schedule and reduce its workload, cutting back on production and sales while maintaining the milking schedule for the cows on the 75-acre farm in Jordan. That meant no cheese, milk or yogurt at the Central New York Regional Market, Syracuse Real Food Co-Op, Bailiwick Market or the store at the farm.
Meg is one of the celebrities at the Central New York Regional Market. Wake Robin Farm maintains one of the busiest stands during on Saturday mornings, regardless of season. Just saying hi to her may require a 5-minute wait in line as she chats with the assemblage of Wake Robin devotees seeking cheese, yogurt and milk.
The farm began in 1999 as a vegetable farm but shifted to dairies after seeing a hole in the local market. Meg and Bruce’s son, Hugh, is just as active in the farm as his parents, tending to the cattle and spending his Saturdays at the market. Meg also teaches yoga, while Bruce has branched out into breadmaking. Call it diversification.
Meg took a few minutes away from the cows to answer our questions as the sixth Al Dente Q&A.
You might have one of the most popular stalls at the CNY regional market. Talk to me about how Wake Robin markets itself and built its following.
We have built our following by consistently offering high quality products, and pricing them fairly. We don’t have a marketing plan – I call our approach “guerrilla marketing”. We spread the word about our farm by supporting local causes that we feel strongly about, using a professional logo on our packaging, and developing relationships with our customers. Word of mouth is our best advertising.
I know that you and your husband started off with a vegetable farm. What led to the dairy farm? Was there a lightning strike moment?
We grew organic vegetables and flowers on our farm from 1999-2006. We didn’t have a lightning strike moment, but we started to wonder why there were no small dairies around anymore. We thought we might add a cow and provide milk to our CSA members, but as we researched it, we realized that we needed a certain number of cows to make the investment in animals and processing equipment make sense. We were at a point with our vegetable farm where we couldn’t get any bigger without adding employees, and we realized that a 2-person dairy farm made more sense for our land and labor.
How many head of cattle are you up to?
We milk about 15 cows year round now, with another 15 head of young stock on the farm
What does wintertime look like for you guys at the farm?
Wintertime is actually busier than summertime for a grass-based dairy like ours. Chores take longer because we are taking hay to the cows, instead of taking the cows to the grass during the grazing season. Our processing schedule is pretty steady year round – we process our milk about 3 times a week.
Take me through a typical day for you.
We start milking at 6:30 am, and with set-up and cleanup, morning milking takes about an hour. We work for another hour or two in the morning feeding and bedding our cows. On processing days, Bruce is in the creamery all day between milkings. Evening chores start at 5 pm, and we are usually home by about 6 pm. In the summer, when we are making hay, there is no typical day – we live by the weather on those days.
Wake Robin is truly a family operation for you guys. Did your son organically develop and interest in farming or was it something that started out as part of daily chores for him?
Hugh has been farming with us literally since he was born. He has also had the opportunity to help his grandparents on their crop farm. He is a 5th generation farmer, and he intimately understands both the joys and the sacrifices involved in running a family farm.
Have you thought about the legacy of the farm? Do you hope that one of your kids will want to take it over?
Hugh is our one and only, and he has aspirations beyond the farm. Who knows though – Bruce went to college to become a teacher, and returned to his parents’ farm to start his own operation!
What are five things most people don’t know about life on the farm?
How about 5 things most people don’t know about cows?
- All cows with horns aren’t bulls
- A cow must have a calf to make milk
- Most cows are milked twice a day
- Cows have a pecking order, and are continually working to keep their place in the hierarchy
- Cows sleep outside during the summer (at least our cows do!)
Where do you come in on Gmos and Monsanto? Good, bad or indifferent?
While we don’t use GMO’s on our farm, some of our neighbors and family members do, so we understand the pros and cons. Our farming philosophy has always been to make educated choices for our land, our animals, our customers, and ourselves. We respect the choices of other farmers, and we believe this approach keeps the door open for conversation and learning on both sides.
Five years from now, where do you see Wake Robin?
Still plugging! We don’t have plans for expansion or major changes –we still believe that small is beautiful. That being said, we continue to adjust and adapt to present realities – for us, sustainability is not a destination, but a constant balancing act.