MAKING STRIDES OF HER OWN
Dating back seven generations, Aires-Hill Farm in Berkshire, Vt., is truly a Thompson family legacy. The family farm has been through some monumental changes over the past nearly two centuries since its founding in 1826, including the addition of cows, land, equipment, new parlor, rebuilding from scratch and many other improvements along the way. Most recently, in 2020, the family put in a processing facility, so they had capabilities to bottle a small portion of their milk to sell to locals.
Today, the day-to-day farming operation duties and key decisions rest with Karie Thompson Atherton, who officially began the transition to take over the farm in 2014. At a high point of milk prices and with support from her dad and uncle, Karie was set for success when it came time to take over the farm when both men wanted to retire. Karie, who was eight months pregnant at the time, eagerly and passionately stepped up and began to make the daily decisions that would impact the farm for future generations, starting with the herd management side of the operation. After two years of learning, stepping into the decision-making role and getting her feet under her, Karie was ready to take control of the crop management side, too.
“Transitioning 100% of the farm was hard. It’s not easy standing toe-to-toe with the people that raised you and made you who you are today, but I knew I had to follow through with what I started for the future of the farm,” says Karie.
As generations change, so do farm practices. “My goal when transitioning in 2014 was to beat my father’s numbers. Not really a goal that I wanted to share, but that’s how I was going to judge myself. These were the numbers I had the privilege of starting with, and I could either take the herd to the next level or I could easily ruin them,” Karie explains. “I realize now, that’s not a way to measure success. I have much more technology at my fingertips as the next generation so it’s not a fair comparison.”
Karie has big shoes to fill but as a female farmer-owner, she has support across the industry in more ways than one. “When I was in my 20s there wasn’t many women in the field of agriculture. Today, I’ve really seen a shift. Women hold prominent positions within dairy, including AI technicians, veterinarians, field inspectors and nutritionist, not to mention farm managers and owners,” says Karie. “I think the trend will continue. I don’t see how it can’t.”
Earning her role as owner and trust among partners of the farm has come with time. Karie, who has been on the farm since she was a young girl, has grown up watching and learning from her dad and uncle who, with time, rebuilt the farm entirely from scratch as previous generations had let the farm go. Starting over with 26 cows, the farm grew a little bit every few years with improvements along the way, including a new parlor and free stall barn in 1998.
As far as the future of the farm, Karie’s goal is to make the farm more sustainable so the opportunity to continue farming is there. “I want the next generation to want to farm, not make them feel like they have to.” Karie will make decisions now that affect the farm for years to come in order to keep up with the ever-changing dairy industry. “The saying work smarter not harder has been around for years, and it applies to farming as well. We need to use technology and everything at our disposal to make sure the next generation has the opportunity to farm,” says Karie. “We, the dairy industry, can never stop learning. We must strive to be better tomorrow than we are today, efficiency is the key.”