Keeping it in the family

The Lucas Marsh family pose on a favorite John Deere tractor at their Ashaway dairy farm. From left, Hunter (red shirt), Lucas holding son Kenyon, Grace (green shirt), Morgan on the steps holding Case, and Melissa.

 

HOPKINTON — Lucas Marsh, a shy, stocky, fifth-generation dairy farmer, stood in the sweltering summer sun one afternoon last week — along with his wife, Melissa, and five of the seven children in their blended family — on the land his family has owned since 1889, when his great, great grandfather Kenyon started Elmrock Farm in Ashaway.

Lucas, who grew up in North Stonington and graduated from Wheeler High School in 1998, works the farm with his parents, Gary and Trina Marsh, who live on the property. Lucas, Melissa and the children live in Westerly, on the horse farm that Melissa’s family has owned for generations. Lucas treks up to Ashaway every morning to help his mom, Melissa said. In the summertime, they all make the journey whenever possible.

“My mother was a Kenyon,” said Lucas. “She grew up here until she married my father and moved to North Stonington.”

They moved back a dozen or so years ago to make sure the farm remained in the family, he said.

Elmrock Farm, set on 275 acres in Ashaway, is one of only seven remaining dairy farms in Rhode Island. The farm is a member of the Agri-Mark dairy cooperative, which also owns the Cabot Creamery Cooperative, and also a member of the Rhody Fresh Cooperative, which markets and promotes local milk, cheese and butter.

Today, the Marshes have 60 cows, which produce roughly 160 gallons of milk per day.

“My mother milks the cows and I basically take care of the cows and do the field work,” said Lucas, who started showing cows at regional agricultural fairs as a 10-year-old.

“I love cows,” said Lucas, 41, as he watched his youngest child, Case, play with a small, black and white calf at a colorful toddler water table. “I’ve always loved cows and I’ve always wanted to be a farmer.”

As Lucas made his way toward the stanchion barn where the cows are milked each morning, 4-year-old Kenyon, trudged behind, mimicking his father’s every movement, a perfect miniature version, save for Kenyon’s blonde head of hair. Five-year-old Grace, curly-haired, and wearing pink shorts, a pair of rubber boots and a green T-shirt that read, “My Daddy drives a tractor,” followed along, stopping to pet the baby cows.

“I’ll be the guide,” volunteered a smiling Morgan, 11, as she led a parade of her siblings to the field where a group of cows with names like Big Mama and Muffin and Suzie, stood gazing at the children.

“I’m his bestie,” Morgan added, as she glanced up at Lucas, a look of admiration spreading across her face.

“It’s funny how things have changed over the years,” said Lucas, after admitting that stopping to talk about his work and the life of a farmer, placed him squarely outside his “comfort zone.”

“When I was in high school, most of us were farmer boys. We’d go to the farm after school to work ... to the Lewis Farm or Palmer’s.”

He’s never known life without farming, Melissa said. “It’s woven into the very fabric of his being.”

These days the Marshes talk a lot about how to keep the historic family farm going. They’d like to educate the community about all that happens on the family property, about how much they love their animals and how well they’re cared for, and how the milking process works.

“We do our best,” said Melissa, who grew up with horses, and chuckled when she described the difference between the two animals.

“Cows play with toys,” she said with a laugh. “They’re like big dogs and they all have personalities.”

Elmrock Farm, named after the American elms that dot the property, lies down a long, bumpy dirt driveway that runs alongside Interstate 95 in Hopkinton, Melissa explained a few days earlier.

Only a “curtain of trees” separates travelers on I-95 passing from Connecticut to Rhode Island, she said, travelers unaware that just on the other side of the tree line lies a large piece of land that helps Hopkinton keep its “country” feel.

“There’s a lot of curiosity” about her husband, she added, “people want to know who he is, what he does and why he does it.”

When they tell people about the farm and the cows and the milking, Melissa said, they always have so many questions ... “about what my husband does and how the farm operates.”

On a typical day, she explained, he might be out in the fields mowing hay or planting corn, or driving down the road on his tractor to get fuel, slowing down traffic on Route 3 and forcing drivers “to actually follow the 25 mile per hour speed limit through Ashaway.”

It’s a treat, she said, for people to get to ask him questions directly, about milk, milk processing, haying, and farming in the 21st century, instead of turning to Google for answers.

They like to ask “the man behind the milk,” she said. “The questions initially ... seem so strange to my husband, because he has never know life without farming.”

“He loves it,” she said, “It’s his passion.”

“My grandfather used to have flowers and pigs and chickens,” Lucas said. “He’d peddle down in Watch Hill. He’d go to the back doors of those houses and drop off the chicken for dinner and flowers for the table.”

“We’d like to shift back to what my grandfather used to do,” he added, but that requires time and money ... and the barn needs fixing.

While he’d love to be a fulltime dairy farmer, Lucas said, it’s close to impossible to make a living as a farmer.

“It’s a lot of work for a little money,” he said, “It’s gotten harder and harder over the years ... we don’t want to lose the land.”

“We all have other jobs,” he continued.

Lucas is a cabinetmaker and has a woodworking business with his father, Lucas’s mom has worked for years at a local casino and Melissa does a number of small jobs in between caring for their combined brood whose members range in age from 12 months to 17 years.

“I created a Facebook page for the farm,” said Melissa, who constantly ponders ways to make the farm more open and family friendly. Flowers, maybe, or tours, she said, or maybe beef. She’s come up with a hashtag, “#thegirlsofredranch.”

“Sometimes we feel like we’re banging our head against the wall,” she said, “but we keep moving forward.”

“The kids love it too,” she said, “we’re just trying to figure it out ... we all have ideas.”

Sometimes, said Lucas, there are misconceptions about their plans for the property and the struggles they face. He’s not going anywhere, he affirmed. He’s a farmer who loves what he does, love the work and is just looking for ways to make it work.

“We’re always evolving,” he said, looking wistful. “Farmers are different. Different types of people.”

Would he take the family on a big expensive vacation if a windfall landed in his lap?

Nope. If he had the extra money, he said, he’d buy more cows and a new tractor.

When the dark days come, he said, “We learn to roll with it.”

“When the days that are pleasant,” he continued, “we learn to appreciate them.”

nbfusaro@thewesterlysun.com

 

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