Travis pushes open the door and it’s all there- the stanchions, the vacuum line, the gutter. Sure they’re rusted, crumbling in places, and covered in spider webs, but you can feel the buzz of the once thriving dairy that used to be there.
Travis explains that him and Mariah actually want to convert this space into a cheese cave, where they’ll age rounds of raw-milk cow cheese. As we continue to walk the property, he explains the rest of their dream for North Sky Farm while gesturing with his hands- converting those 60 acres to natural prairie, building a creamery and parlor there and starting with ten Jerseys, then slowly growing to a herd of twenty. It’s an ambitious plan, especially considering the audacity it takes to start up a small-scale dairy at a time when our neighboring dairy state, Wisconsin, is grappling with the loss of 40,000 dairy farms over the last 40 years. With this new start on land they have purchased in Harvard (McHenry County), Travis and Mariah have joined the ranks of the tenacious few looking to bring local small-scale, raw milk dairies back to Illinois.
The Milk Capital of the World
Harvard, Illinois has a long history with milk. Back when milkmen rode horse-drawn wagons to deliver milk door-to-door, there were seven dairy companies within a 15-mile radius of Harvard. More milk was produced there than anywhere in the United States. Harvard proclaimed itself the ‘Milk Capital of the World’ and began hosting what would become the longest ongoing hometown festival in Illinois – Milk Days.
They’ll be celebrating the 81st year of Milk Days this summer, but the festival is now more a relic of the past than a representation of the present. Small-scale dairies have largely disappeared from Illinois’s landscape, thanks in part to consolidation, over-supply and an adherence to the “get big or get out” mentality.
Because of its history though, Harvard has good bones for a resurgence of local dairies. Young, beginning farmers like Travis and Mariah who bring technical experience, a healthy blend of optimism and realism, and sheer willpower, have a shot at contributing to that resurgence if they can obtain land. Travis and Mariah have shown it can be done.
A Cross Country Land Access Success
For the past five years, Travis and Mariah had been running a grass-fed livestock farm on rented land in Charlottesville, Virginia. They had a herd of 45 Dutch Belted cattle, 10 heifers, a large flock of hens, and a five-year lease. The main problem with this arrangement was the incompatibility of short-term leases with the long-term investment of permanent infrastructure required for their livestock operation. Additionally when the landowner listed the property for a whopping $9 million, Travis and Mariah knew the long-term security they’d need to invest in infrastructure would never be affordable on this property. So they sold their cows and chickens and began the land search in January of 2021.
The land search took them from Virginia to North Carolina to New Mexico and eventually to Harvard, Illinois. They were looking for a property with a home, some semblance of infrastructure for livestock (namely water and shelter), and access to a big market.
“When we were looking at farms in Illinois, there’s just a lot of really big flat squares of commercial grain cropping. We looked at some, but it’s like you’re buying a 20 acre square in the middle of glyphosate spray land. It’s just not appealing,” Mariah said.
It seemed like the right property for the right price just did not exist, but then they visited the property that would become their future farm. This property had a different feeling than the big, flat squares Mariah described. It’s hilly and shaded with huge, ancient trees, plus there’s that old white barn that’s not only picturesque, but perfectly useful for a dairy operation. With land prices up 26% in Illinois since April 2021, it wasn’t an easy decision. After their lengthy and comprehensive land search though, Travis and Mariah knew how few opportunities exist that have infrastructure for a small-scale dairy plus proximity to a large city. They closed on the property in February 2022.
“When it boils down to it we just ended up spending and borrowing a lot of money. We are privileged and fortunate to be able to afford to buy this land and feel very grateful,” Travis says.
In addition to spending and borrowing a lot of money though, they were smart and hustled to apply for any applicable grant program they could find to fund the immense start-up costs of building a dairy. At the beginning of May, North Sky Farm was awarded the Dairy Business Innovation Alliance grant from the University of Wisconsin along with two other small-scale dairies in Illinois. There’s still years of handwork ahead, but with this success Travis and Mariah got one step closer to bringing local, small-scale dairy back to Harvard.
Travis and Mariah are two determined young farmers who have been around the block. They have experience with leasing land, assessing countless properties, and using FarmLink sites in three states. Based on this experience, they’ve gained some land access insights that are helpful to consider, whether you’re a beginning farmer or a landowner. To read more, click here ->