“I start at 5 a.m.”
“I’m usually here at 5:30.”
Chris Lourie and Jeff Grennon are used to early mornings and the 12 to 14 hour workday. As herdsmen for Pleasant Valley Farms in Richford, Vermont, they’re responsible for the health of the dairy’s 3,000 cows. Forget sit-down lunch breaks. They eat while walking through the barns.
“I average between 11 ½ and 13 miles a day, walking,” Chris says. “And that’s just inside the barn.” He motions to a tracking app on his phone.
“25,000…35,000 steps,” Jeff adds. “I had a Fitbit in my pocket for awhile. Then I lost it. Just as well!” Both men laugh.
Sitting in a break room at the farm—so far north in Vermont you can see the Canadian border on the horizon—the herdsmen pause during their busy Saturday morning for an interview with Phoenix Feeds. Chris, in a ball cap and Carhartt vest, rocks back and forth in a chair. Jeff, in coveralls with his name in cursive on the pocket, drums a tabletop. The pair are fidgety—perhaps guiltily so. They’re not used to being off their feet.
When asked to talk about what they do on a daily basis, they visibly relax. At 54 years old—they’re the same age—both men have had long careers in the dairy industry, respectively. They’re experts in this subject.
“It’s like a big city,” Jeff says of Pleasant Valley Farms.
“That’s how I’d describe it,” Chris agrees. “People die every day; Cows die every day. You’ve got people sick; You’ve got cows down. People having babies; Cows having babies.”
Chris explains that his main job is to identify sick cows. Jeff’s main job is to treat them. Of course, there are a million things each man does to accomplish these jobs. And in all of this, there are lessons to be learned.
“I tell everybody that works here we learn something new every day,” Jeff says. “Something. Either it’s on the computer or with a sick cow or how to handle somebody.” The herdsmen agree dairy farming teaches life-long lessons. Here are a few courtesy of Chris and Jeff.
Lesson 1: Show Up; Work Hard
“I don’t miss work if I don’t have to and I help wherever I can,” Chris says. “When I see a new guy, I shake his hand and tell him two things: Show up on time and do what you’re told. If you do that, you’ll go a long ways.”
Jeff agrees. “I worked in Burlington for 21 years and I got there every day coming from Franklin. 45 miles one way, in snowstorms and everything. I’m not saying I didn’t take a sick day now and then, but everybody knew if I was. I never not showed up after 21 years.”
“If you’re not showing up, somebody’s gonna fill the gap, and that’s what we stress around here,” Chris says. “Even something simple as pushing feed—somebody’s gotta be on it.”
Lesson 2: Prioritize Your Daily Tasks
At Pleasant Valley Farms, there are 50 to 70 heifers calving each week, each cow is milked three times a day, and multiple milking parlors are up and running 24/7. Keeping things on schedule is crucial.
“You gotta learn to prioritize,” Chris says. “You gotta do things on schedule. You gotta work around that schedule. And sometimes you’re not gonna get stuff done that you want to get done.”
“You always have the emergencies that come up,” Jeff adds. “Down cows or calving…it never stops.” So, the herdsmen agree, it’s best to tackle priorities first.
Lesson 3: Work Well With Others
“In a place like this, you got a whole lot of different types of people and personalities,” Chris says. “People say: ‘what do you do all day long?’ I say ‘I deal with thousands of personalities— doesn’t matter two legs or four legs. Still dealing with personalities.”
Jeff brings up The Golden Rule: “You gotta treat them like how you wanna be treated.”
Lesson 4: Leave Work at Work
“Here’s one thing that’s helped me a lot over the years,” Chris says. “When I get out to my truck in the morning, I turn my key on and think about the farm. When I get home at night and turn off my truck, I turn off thinking about work.”
“You have to turn it off,” Jeff says, adding he does the same thing. “And some days it’s not easy to. But that’s just how it is. We’re all human.”
Lesson 5: Save Some Money
Jeff and Chris are both fathers to big families, so they’re used to teaching this lesson.
Jeff is married with five kids and now has four grandkids. Chris is married with eight kids, one of which just started working at Mc- Donald’s the week before this interview.
“The biggest thing is saving money,” Chris says. “I told ‘em half of the first check is going in the bank whether you like it or not. The other half you can do with it what you want. But you need to learn how to save money.”
Lesson 6: Take Time Off
Jeff takes Sundays off. Chris works 12 days on and 2 days off, so he has every other weekend off. Both men take vacations with their families and emphasize that time off is important.
“You may be burned out and need to go away for a week. Rejuvenate,” Chris says.
“Yep, get a different look on it,” Jeff agrees.
Lesson 7: Be Proud of What You Do
The morning of Phoenix’s interview, Pleasant Valley Farms’ summer interns are outside with farm owner Mark St Pierre, throwing tires on a bunker. Chris and Jeff chuckle that neither of them has to do this work today.
“It’s nice to be able to say to the kids, ‘we got where we’re doing by doing what you’re doing right now,” Chris says. “We didn’t just step into this high stress job. We had to work a lot of years to get to the stress level we’re at and maybe you don’t want to be there.”
“Once in awhile I’ll sputter to my wife,” Jeff says. “And she’ll go ‘You wouldn’t want it any different,’ and I go, ‘no!’ She’s 100 percent correct. I enjoy what I do.”
“I was just talking with my wife,” says Chris. “I was born at 4:35 in the morning and I’ve been getting up every day at the same time as long as I can remember. You walk down the stairs and you say to yourself, ‘how many more years am I gonna do this?’ But I love my job.”
The herdsmen aren’t shy about taking pride in the results of their hard work.
“I like walking through the barn and counting 10 cows,” Chris reflects. “There should be at least seven chewing their cud, and you get nine out of 10.” “I like to see cows give a lot of milk,” says Jeff.
“I like to see the per cow average right up there. When it’s up there at 75/80, I’m pretty happy. We’ve got some milking 150 to 160 pounds a day— an individual cow! That’s a good feeling to see them do that.”