There is a time for everything under the sun; a time for every season. But the season of the family-owned farming operation is on the verge of its last leg on its steady decline into oblivion; losing ground by the day. It is happening coast to coast. As farming goes the way of big corporate business, small family units are selling out and opting instead for a more secure life. After all, how many small farms offer the security of a consistent, predictable income, and health benefits? Besides the grueling hours, backbreaking labor, and roller-coaster ride of market prices, not to mention the often unpredictable and violent moods of mother nature, and legal red tape, why would anyone want to buck the trend and hang on to a dying ember?
But, of course there are those who refuse to allow that ember to be extinguished; keeping it safe from the hurricanes of change that blow and destroy indiscriminately; believing that there is something irreplaceable; something priceless, in what is gained by having a stake in a family farm.
Mountain Green is the home of the Poll’s dairy farm. Operational between 1942 and 1995; As more and more people moved into the area, and the complaints started coming in about the smell, manure, and the daily blocking of traffic on old Highway road in order to move the cattle from one pasture to another, the decision to sell the herd was made.
But the ember symbolizing self-reliance, responsibility, discipline, and a connection to the land that naturally goes with the teamwork necessary to run a family farm, is being carefully nourished and planted in the fertile minds of the next generation.
Like the stewards of history that archive information into libraries for future generations to learn from, Dennis Poll is preserving his knowledge of dairy farming through his progeny. Even though the dairy is no longer functioning as a commercial dairy, Dennis is keeping the tradition alive by passing along his expertise and know-how that can only be attained through participation.
Dennis grew up in the original red brick farm house located on the corner of Poll’s drive and Old Highway Road; just a stone’s throw from where he lives now with his wife, Jill, and their children. The old stanchion barn stands on the adjacent corner; the silo standing like a sentry; keeping silent watch over the green valley; holding the memories of lifetimes and acting as a living library of knowledge to those who walk within and learn from its history.
The farm was originally homesteaded in 1860 by Alonzo Robinson along with his wife and twelve children. The Robinsons then leased it to Dennis’s grandfather, Ralph Warner, and in 1944 Dennis’s father, Verl, purchased the farm from Alonzo. The torch was then passed to Dennis, the youngest of Verl’s sons; and the rest, as they say, is history.
Dennis has fond memories of his father and the way of life that influenced the adult he became and he tenderly recounted a memory of his father. “It was my dad’s life. He knew his cattle, and their birthdates, and their registration numbers, and their bloodlines better than he knew any of us kids… We used to tease him… Once when we went over to buy deer hunting licenses for all of us… out of his five boys, he didn’t get any of our birthday’s right… But he could tell you any of the cow’s birthdays, and probably what the weather was like when they were born… He planned ahead for years… I didn’t realize how intelligent he was, and how much planning went into it. For different breeding lines he would contract with people in Connecticut with a cow that he really liked and pay them so much to breed them to a certain bull, and then that bull calf, he would buy. So he had breeding bulls lined up for quite a few years even after he passed away. So you can see it was more than just a dairy farm… It was a lifestyle.”
The barn was designed after one that Verl Poll had seen in Canada while scouting for new stock. It was equipped to handle 37 cows at a time. They used bucket-milkers, and had to dump each bucket by hand into a holding tank as they worked. At one time, the Polls even had their own milk route, but later had a milk truck come every day to pick it up.
When it was time to sell the 70 head of cattle, Dennis went back to school to become a physical therapist. But he kept a few of his breeding stock and continued to milk three or four cows. Dennis continues to do the job with the old bucket-milkers that are powered by a generator. The baby calves are fed with bottles, then the pigs are fed, and Dennis supplies his family with milk as well. He also raises his own beef, pork, and eggs.
His brothers have wondered why, after working full time, and taking care of his family, he wanted to add to his already full schedule by keeping some of the cattle. Didn’t he have enough to do? “My older brothers couldn’t understand why I kept a couple of the cows around,” said Dennis. “Now, two of my brothers have bought their own heifers.”
Dennis also supervises several kids, including his own, with 4-H projects; helping them to raise pigs to show and sell at the fair each year. He uses the milk that his family doesn’t drink to mix with feed for the 4-H pigs, which is about 35 gallons a day. “I wanted my kids to have the same experience with the animals that I did,” said Dennis. “I don’t think there is a better way of teaching kids responsibility… teaching them about life. That’s why we kept it.”
Most people verbalize how they would like the world to be; standing atop a shoe box pointing and shouting at all that is going wrong. While others, like Dennis Poll, quietly go about their life, doing: living, and being exactly who they are; no words needed; the example alone being all that is necessary to fuel the ember back to a brilliant flame through the hearts of observers who learn from it.
Times may be changing; but, the principles of the small farmer are alive and well in Morgan County.