Mother And Son Face Heartache Of Losing Ira Dairy Farm

Jul 6, 2017

A sign out front the Milky Way Farm in Ira declares it a "Dairy of Distinction." But another sign may soon read "For Sale," as the family farm is facing foreclosure and must sell its equipment and cows at a public auction on July 8.

The farm sits in a picturesque valley, tucked between the Taconic Mountains southwest of Rutland. There's a white colonial farmhouse, a red barn and about 110 head of cattle.

Mary Saceric-Clark and her husband Robert bought the Milky Way Farm in 1984. She pushes open a white wooden door and walks from bright sunshine into the relative cool of the barn.

"These are our Milky Way ladies," Saceric-Clark says by way of introduction. She stops to gently scratch the head of a brown Jersey with luminous, dark eyes.  

She walks farther down to where a number of black-and-white Holsteins stand. They lean against their stalls, trying to reach her hand.

"This is our milking herd and then the row over there, they range in age from like 6 to 10 months," Saceric-Clark explains.

Mary Saceric-Clark with one of Milky Way ladies, part of the family's milking herd in Ira.
Credit Nina Keck / VPR

Saceric-Clark didn't grow up farming. Her passion was elementary education. She was a teacher in nearby Pittsford and Proctor for years.

It was her late husband, she says, who loved dairy farming.

"He loved every single thing about it," Saceric-Clark says. "It wasn't a job for him; it was his calling."

He spent his childhood working on his uncle's farm near Mount Holly, she says, and studied dairy farming at Vermont Technical College.

"I was probably a typical non-farmer. I saw only the romantic parts of it." – Mary Saceric-Clark, Milky Way Farm

"I think that I was probably a typical non-farmer," Saceric-Clark admits, shaking her head. "I saw only the romantic parts of it.

"I just loved the idea of, you know, your own land and the animals and the freedom to do pretty much what you want to do. Just the whole idea of it," she says, her voice trailing off.

"Then when ... it becomes your life," she says sighing, "it becomes very different. It was very hard."

In 1994, Saceric-Clark and her husband actually sold their cows and got out of farming for several years. But when their son Robbie turned 18, he told them he wanted to restart the farm as an organic dairy and run it with his father.

Saceric-Clark smiles. "You want to support your kids, so we decided to give it a try," she says.

In 2004, Robbie Clark wrote up a business plan and took out his first loan.

"We all decided that this time around we wanted it to be more than just a working dairy farm," Saceric-Clark explains.

She says she hosted school field trips and birthday parties at the farm, as well as fundraisers for local nonprofits.

Robbie Clark and his father, Robert Clark Sr., ran Milky Way Farm in Ira together for 11 years before Robert Clark Sr.'s death in 2015 from cancer.
Credit Courtesy

"I think maybe for the first four or five years things went really well," Saceric-Clark says, adding that the farm was organic and the price of milk was good at this time.

"Robbie got to work alongside his father which was wonderful," she says. "But then things start to happen and things start to change."

The price of organic grain went way up, so to reduce overhead, Robbie Clark switched to selling conventional milk. Saceric-Clark was keeping the books and says at the time, the switch made sense. For a while, prices were great.

But then that changed.

"Traditional milk prices plummeted," Saceric-Clark says. "And so then you start to get into a hole; you just do. And things were not going well."

"Traditional milk prices plummeted. And so then you start to get into a hole; you just do." – Mary Saceric-Clark

The family met with bankers and lawyers who recommended Robbie Clark file for protection from creditors under Chapter 12 of the federal bankruptcy code – it's a relatively new provision designed to help small family farms avoid foreclosure. The family began bankruptcy proceedings in 2012.

"At that same point in time, my husband was diagnosed with metastatic prostate cancer," Saceric-Clark says.

She says she tried to get the monthly reports to the various creditors and attorneys, but got overwhelmed as her husband's illness worsened.

"It was the chemo and then it was the radiation and then it was this scan and that scan. We were driving back and forth to Dartmouth more and more," says Saceric-Clark.

"And when the plan was confirmed, the Chapter 12 plan was confirmed, they had certain criteria that you needed to follow. And if you didn't follow that criteria then they could dismiss the plan."

Long story short, that's what happened.

"I just couldn't do it; I got behind," she says, her breath catching.

Mary Saceric-Clark says she didn't grow up farming – it was her late husband who loved dairy farming. But since his death from cancer in 2015, she and her son are fighting to stave off creditors and keep the family farm in Ira.
Credit Nina Keck / VPR

"My husband's oncologist [at] Dartmouth kept telling him not to give up farming, that it was what was going to keep his mind strong and his body strong, and plus he just loved those animals so much. I got scared that if we lost the animals, he wouldn't have anything to fight for anymore," she says through tears.

Robert Clark died in 2015. Since then, Saceric-Clark and her son Robbie Clark have been trying to save the farm, even setting up a GoFundMe site which has raised more than $15,000.

But Saceric-Clark says it's not enough to cover the $152,000 the family owes the Farm Service Agency in loans. And People's United Bank recently filed foreclosure papers in federal court seeking approximately $300,000 the bank says it is owed.

As a result, the family has to sell their farm equipment and their cows. An auction has been scheduled for July 8. Saceric-Clark says she can't bear to think about it and is still praying for a miracle.

"I've raised every single cow out there since the day it was born and they're all different to me. Pearl is different than Sweetness, and Yoko is different than Caroline." – Robbie Clark, Milky Way Farm

Robbie Clark stands in the barnyard as the herd moves out to pasture, patting the rump of a straggler.

"To walk away from them, that's the hardest thing," he says softly. 

"I mean, every one has a name. I've raised every single cow out there since the day it was born, and they're all different to me. Pearl is different than Sweetness, and Yoko is different than Caroline … For me, it's them – nothing else matters."

Robbie Clark stands in one of the pastures at Milky Way Farm in Ira. The farm, which Clark had run with his late father, is facing foreclosure and the cows will be auctioned off July 8.
Credit Nina Keck / VPR

"If I knew where they were going to all end up and that they were all going to be okay, it would be easier to walk away from it all," Clark says. "But I don't know where these cows will end up, and that makes me upset. I hate the idea of an auction."

The 31-year old Clark says he's grateful he got to work side by side with his dad for 11 years doing something both men felt passionate about. And while his mother gets emotional talking about the farm, hoping there might still be some way to save it, Clark is more pragmatic.

"If I knew where they were going to all end up and that they were all going to be okay, it would be easier to walk away from it all ... I hate the idea of an auction." – Robbie Clark

So much of the business of farming is out of a farmer's control, Clark admits.

But the land, the animals, the independence of farming and the connection it all has to his father – that, he says, is what he loves.

"It's not a job, it's a lifestyle," he says matter-of-factly. "Because if you don't love it, it'll eat you alive."

"Because it's every day," Clark says. "I mean my father died at 1 o'clock in the afternoon. That afternoon at 3 o'clock, I had to do chores just like nothing ever happened. And then that next morning, I had to get up at 4:45 a.m. and it had to be done."

You make the best decisions you can, adds Clark, shrugging his shoulders, but sometimes you get it wrong and things just don't work out.

Robbie Clark owns the Milky Way Farm in Ira with his mother. As a farmer, Clark says you make the best decisions you can, but sometimes you get it wrong and things just don't work out. Milky Way Farm is facing foreclosure and Clark's cattle and farm equipment will be auctioned off July 8.
Credit Nina Keck / VPR

The story of Milky Way Farm is not unusual. Since 2010, Vermont has gone from 1,000 dairy farms, down to just more than 800.

Clark says an older neighbor remembered when there were more than 20 working dairy farms in Ira.

"And now there's one," Clark says. "And our days are look[ing] like they're pretty numbered, so there'll be zero."

Another empty barn to dot the landscape, he says sadly.

Vermont Farms: A Shifting Landscape explores Vermont's agricultural economy with the people who wake up early every day to try to make their living of the land. Click here to explore the continuing series.