By Ashley Thompson
Santa’s feast of choice — milk and cookies — makes him an A-OK guy in Phillip Vroegh’s book.
Vroegh owns Sunny Point Farms, a dairy farm that his father and grandfather founded in East Noel afteremigrating from Holland a little more than 50 years ago.
Growing up on the farm, Vroegh often wondered what life was like outside of rural Nova Scotia. He moved west after school, but eventually decided the grass wasn’t always greener on the other side of the country.
“After I graduated, I didn’t think I wanted to farm, but after I did a few things, I realized it all wasn’t that bad,” said Vroegh.
Vroegh had a vision for Sunny Point when he returned to the farm in 1991— it had to be bigger.
“I wanted my time off too, so, to have that, you have to be a size where you can afford to hire people.”
Vroegh started working with a herd of 80 cows. Now, he’s running one of the larger dairy farms in Nova Scotia with 250 cows, five full-time employees and five part-time workers.
Sunny Point has cows hooked up to automatic milking machines three times a day, starting with a group of early risers at 3:30 a.m., and wrapping around 10 p.m. at night.
Vroegh says a content cow typically produces larger quantities of milk, and advances in medical technology have made it is easier to keep the herd happy in 2012 than it was 20 years ago.
“Calves now give a lot more milk and they’re a lot more healthy.”
Vroegh, who is known throughout the Maritimes for having a high production rate per cow, owns two cows ranging in age from 14 to 15 that have had 11 calves each.
“They’ve given pretty near 150,000 litres — 150 tons of milk — over their lifetime,” he said.
Vroegh says it is uncommon for cows to give him any bull while he’s trying to guide them into the milking station, but it’s not unheard of.
“They do have their own personality,” he explained, with a laugh.
“Some are friendlier than others. Some want nothing to do with humans and… some are too friendly because they’re not scared of ya, so if you’re trying to corral them, they just want a pat and they don’t want to go where you want them to go.”
Cows at Sunny Point are bred at 12 months and, if all goes as planned, calf at 21 months. Male calves are sold, while the females are generally added to the milking herd if there is a need to increase production.
Demand is dictated by milk consumption in the provinces belonging to the P5 market: Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Quebec and Ontario.
“Our milk quota is directly correlated or connected to the consumption of the milk in the five provinces. So if milk consumption goes down, we take a quota cut, and if milk consumption goes up, we get a quota increase.”
Vroegh, a member of the Farmers Dairy Cooperative, says it is wise to plan ahead for fluctuations in the market to keep the farm afloat when consumption is low and expenses are high.
“In the last three years, we’ve got almost a four or five per cent increase in the amount we’re able to ship,” he said.
“Now the markets are flat and they’re actually projecting that we may take a bit of a quota decrease, but that comes with it.”
He says sales of fluid milk are steadily declining, while consumption of yogurts and cheeses is increasing exponentially.
“We get the most money out of milk sold for fluid milk,” the third generation farmer noted.
Vroegh says the dairy farmers of today are facing “record high” feed prices, but there is money to be made if a farm costs are well managed.
“You have to be on top of things, which is no different than any other small business.”
Vroegh says life on the farm with his wife, Lori, and their children — 13-year-old Logan, 11-year-old Cole and eight-year-old Marissa — keeps him on his toes.
And that’s how he likes it.
“The reward to me is being able to get up every morning and know you’re going to do something different. It’s not a repetitive job. One day you’re a mechanic, and the next day you’re a truck driver or a vet.”
He says it is sad to see fewer people connected to the farming way of life, but he won’t be pressuring his kids to take over the reins at the Sunny Point when the time comes for him to retire. He’d like them to explore a bit first and, if they decide there’s no place they’d rather be than Sunny Point, so be it.
“It’s not something that you should do halfheartedly.”