What were you doing between midnight and 5:30 am this morning? I was fast asleep in my bed. At Freund’s Farm, Inc. in East Canaan, CT, members of the Freund family were milking their dairy cows.
It all started with patriarch Eugene Freund. Bronx-born of Eastern European Jewish descent, he went to Cornell to study to become a veterinarian. In the early 1940s he was drafted, and when he came back, he didn’t pass his vet tests. Visiting a friend in East Canaan, he fell off the truck he was riding. The nurse who took care of him, Esther, became his wife in the late 1940s.
In 1949 Eugene and Esther started their family farm with a dozen cows. In the decades that followed, they grew it, bringing on their sons, Matthew and Benjamin, who eventually took over in the late 1970s/early 1980s. The next generation has since become involved in the farm, too, which now has 265 cows (still small, by farm standards).
Freund’s Farm is one of the 1,200 family farms in New England and NY that make up the Cabot Creamery Cooperative, the result of the 1992 merger of two dairy cooperatives, Cabot in VT and Agri-Mark in MA, and one of the 140 dairy farms left in CT—in 1950 there were more than 6,200!
Dairy farmers like the Freunds have two options when it comes to selling their products, explained Amanda Freund, one of Matt’s daughters, who grew up on the farm and returned full-time in 2012 after graduating from Cornell, working for a congresswoman and then going abroad with the Peace Corps. Two of her siblings also work on the farm, while the last one works on another farm. Each of the Freunds wears a lot of hats, and Amanda’s include marketing and being the farm’s “spokesperson.”
The two options are: joining a cooperative, which manages transportation and supply and demand of goods, or making and bottling their own products. The Freunds opted to be part of the Cabot Creamery Cooperative, so they focus on producing the milk that Cabot turns into cheese, sour cream and other dairy products.
Cooperative membership has its challenges, too, though. Dairy farmers don’t dictate the prices they are paid for milk, and some years are significantly better than others. On Freund’s Farm, that has paved the way for many side businesses.
Each cow—female, dairy cows only; male cows born on the farm are sent off to auction for beef—produces about 80 pounds of milk per day.
And with all that milk…comes a lot of manure—100 pounds per cow per day. As Amanda says, “We’re in the business of making milk, but we have to manage the manure, too,” especially because it’s hazardous—and there’s so much of it. That’s what drove Matt Freund to create a subsidiary business called CowPots in 2006, which makes biodegradable, plant-able pots out of composted manure, a natural, renewable resource as opposed to traditional materials like plastic and peat, and was featured on “Dirty Jobs” in 2007.
Another venture is Freund’s Farm Market, run by Amanda’s mother Theresa, which includes a market with local, seasonal, specialty foods, a bakery and a catering business. The family also organizes farm visits for schools, nonprofits and government groups.
So, what’s it like to be a Jewish farmer? Just as Esther Freund was one of East Canaan’s few Jews in the 1940s, the town’s Jewish population remains small. For the most part, the Freunds practice their Judaism at home. Theresa converted, as did the children, and each of the kids celebrated his/her bar/bat mitzvah in the farm’s greenhouse. Being Jewish makes it easy for the family to cover for Christian employees on their holidays. But just like the cows need to be milked at hours when most of us are asleep, Amanda shares, “There is no such thing as Shabbat or holidays—cows must be fed and milked every single day, so we all work together, sometimes starting even earlier in the morning to make it to synagogue services for special events and high holidays.”
Top photo: The late Eugene Freund with sons Matt and Ben posing with the herd, demonstrating the balance between tradition and new innovations.