The Daily Tar Heel

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Sunday January 29th

Milking Rural Life For All It's Worth

His grandfather had some of the first registered Holstein cows in the United States. His father was a past president of the National Holstein Association. His farm, Maple View Farm, has been in Orange County since 1963, when the family left the farm in Maine.

So when he says farming is his life, he's not kidding.

On a cool, bright Saturday, Nutter explained in his Southern drawl, still tinged with Maine undertones, how Maple View Farm has survived and why times have changed for farmers in Orange County.

Sunrise to Sunset

The last winter Nutter spent farming in Maine, it snowed 46 inches between Christmas and New Year's Day. Nutter made the decision to move the operation to Orange County in 1963, he said, where the warmer weather has made a significant difference in production.

"I was the fifth generation to farm on the farm in Maine that we left, and I got tired of those long, cold winters," he said. "I decided that it would be easier to operate further south where there wasn't so much cold and snow and so forth -- it is a lot less labor-intensive for milking cows here than it was in Maine."

Despite warmer weather, daily life on the farm isn't much different than it was in Maine. It still means feeding the cows at 4 a.m., followed by their morning milking.

"We milk 120 cows two times a day, at 4 in the morning and 4 in the evening," he said. "The milking takes about three hours ... the herdsman goes home for breakfast around 7 ... and then comes back to start the feeding of the dry cows."

But Nutter, who is in what he calls semi-retirement, takes care of the afternoon feeding of the new calves, which are born year-round on the farm.

"Our goal is for a cow to have a calf once a year, and she milks for 10 months, has two months' rest period and then has another calf," he said. "We need milk all year round, so we have calves being born all year round."

The farm hosts visitors throughout the year who come to watch the cows get milked and the calves fed. Often, Nutter lets the children help feed the calves, making the children feel like part of the farm's daily workings.

Eight-year-old Ruth Anne McLendon of Chapel Hill visited the farm Saturday to watch the evening feeding with her sisters, mother and grandmother.

"I like the baby calves because they're cute and little, and I like little animals," she said. "I got to pet them. I think it's interesting."

Many of Nutter's daily chores have been taken over by family.

Nutter's son Roger is his partner in the bottling operation at the farm, and his daughter Muffin Brosig is his partner in the newly opened farm store, which sells milk and ice cream. Russ Seibert is Nutter's partner in the dairy farm.

"We got three different partnerships here, but we're still kind of all one family organization," Nutter said.

Changing Times

The most significant change to the county has been the influx of people to land that was at one time open, Nutter said. And that increase in people has meant an increase in land value, which has its drawbacks.

"You hope (you make) enough to make a profit, but in the last few years, it hasn't been because Orange County is a high-price place to live," Nutter said. "You can get 100 or 200 miles from here, and land is worth a lot less, houses rent for a lot less, and that's all part of the cost of living."

Nutter said the possibility of an increasing population in the Triangle never crossed his mind when he relocated in 1963.

"The biggest thing to change is the people that have moved to this area," he said. "When we came down here, I sold my neighbor 10 heifers in the spring of '64, and we drove them up Dairyland Road for three miles to his farm.

"We didn't meet a car, and a car didn't pass us driving the heifers three miles up the road, and now all you can't hardly drive out my driveway without waiting for a cow to pass before there's a car coming or going on Dairyland Road."

Nutter said the increasing land values has meant a decrease in profits for the dairy farmers in the area. Often, the cost of running the dairy is not met by what the farmers are paid by bottlers.

"As far as the dairy farming is concerned, when we were selling milk in 1963, it was more profitable selling milk to the dairy than it is now selling the milk to the dairy."

The cost of selling milk to dairies to be bottled led Nutter and his family to consider different options.

A Farm for Many Generations

The recognizable glass milk bottles in area grocery stores have made all the difference to the farm, Nutter said. The dairy began bottling its own milk in 1996, selling it to 50 stores in a 50-mile radius, including all Harris Teeter stores in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, rather than selling it to a large milk buyer to be resold to grocery stores.

"The profitability of the dairy business selling to the co-op has decreased, and that's one reason we started bottling our own milk," Nutter said.

"Many dairies in North Carolina have gone out of business because of the economics of it, and I guess we would have been one of those that have gone out of business if we hadn't started to bottle our own milk."

Nutter said the land he farms is protected under a conservation easement, which ensures the land will never be developed.

"It doesn't mean that it will always be farm because we can't be sure of that, but it means there will never be houses developed on it," he said.

"It will be a forever open space."

Governmental Struggles

The government has caused some problems for Nutter's farm, which is a family-owned operation. Taxes are taking a toll, and so far, county officials have done little to ease the burden, he said.

An estate tax is placed on any business that is handed down from one generation to the next, and Nutter said it is this tax that causes some farms to go under.

"The estate taxes are such that it's almost impossible to pass a farm from one generation to the next because most farmers don't have any money," he said.

"If they're doing well, they buy some more land ... or they spend it.

"When you go to transfer the farm from one to another, if the farm has been successful, you've got a lot of value as far as taxes are concerned but no money to pay the taxes with."

He said that as the land value in Orange County continues to increase, it will become more and more difficult to pass the farm on to future generations.

Nutter also said the Orange County Board of Commissioners has done little to help the county's farmers survive.

He said that when his family decided to open a farm shop to sell the milk and homemade ice cream made at the farm, they ran into difficulties with the county's Planning Department.

"They haven't done anything that I know of," he said. "They do a lot of talk about wanting to keep the farmers farming, but anybody that wants to build something to sell things in and so forth, it's not a simple thing to do.

"I think that if they're really interested, the county commissioners or the Planning Department were interested in making things easier for farmers to make a living, they could make things easier for farmers to have a place to sell their product."

Facing the Future of Farming

The future of farms in Orange County is uncertain. With the phasing out of tobacco as the main cash crop, farmers must be more ingenious to survive, Nutter said.

"There isn't any other crops (besides tobacco) they can grow commercially and sell wholesale that they can make a living within Orange County," Nutter said.

"If farmers want to continue farming and make a living, I think they've got to get a niche or specialty product or a specialty crop that they can sell."

Nutter also said that while the area farmers do work together to ensure the best conditions for farms, they are limited by the market prices and competition.

"I think the farmers work together, but when there's only one market, like for milk, and when you've got it to sell, you don't have a choice," he said.

"The truck backs up here and picks up the milk and they take it to the market -- at the end of the month they figure what they can pay for it -- that's what they pay the farmer, and you don't have any control over it."

But Nutter said that barring anything drastic, Maple View Farm will be around for years to come with him at the helm.

"The only thing I've ever done in my life is worked with cows in the dairy business basically, and it's been a good life.

"I've enjoyed it."

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