“The farm is a palette and our kids are the artists”

Talking to Phyllis and Paul Van Amburgh, it's clear they have done significant reflection on the farm. They have read over 1,000 agriculture books, which is no small feat considering how dense these books can be. They joke about taking three full read-throughs to truly absorb Jerry Brunetti’s “The Farm as Ecosystem.” In the dairy community, Phyllis and Paul are leaders in holistic land use, biodiverse cultivation, Organic dairy herd management, and more. They helped develop the Grass-fed certification program with NOFA-NY and PCO. Even the name they chose–Dharma Lea–is a product of thoughtful consideration: a marriage of “Lea,” the old English word for meadow, with “Dharma,” a nod to “the idea that our battle wounds allowed us to see this idea clearly,” as Paul puts it.

On the farm, the kids name the cows. When asked about what they’ve chosen, Phyllis responds, “I don’t know a lot about anime, but…” they’ve covered anime, Star Wars, and even had a herd of cows named after the characters from Grease. 

Perhaps surprisingly, Phyllis and Paul are both first-generation farmers. As they put it, they came to food first, not necessarily farming. Paul had a background in construction and importing and Phyllis was noticing the gaps between food and “optimum human health” in her work as an occupational therapist. The heart of the issue was the nutritional density of the food, and fulfilling the need to “provide deep levels of nutrition for human beings.” For Phyllis and Paul, as with many farmers, their family is the first to eat anything they produce. Needless to say, their standards are high.

As they began farming, the goal became to replace Paul’s full-time income. From there, it took on a life of its own. Paul jokes that the young couples they see looking to buy a single milk cow should “be careful” lest they get fully sucked in. 

Multiple generations, same land

Ultimately their goals have changed over time. During his 30’s and 40’s, Paul remembers the farm as being an extension of his ego, colored by his projections and desires. But now, watching their 5 kids be even more competent at farming has been “hugely humbling.” The goal has become about transitioning the power and knowledge to the next generation, but as Paul says, “that’s the beauty of multi-generational farming… this piece of ground continues to benefit.” 

In their kids, Phyllis and Paul have a strong leadership team. They range in age from 12 to 21, and each has found their passions, as well as the aspects of farming that they’re comfortable with day in and day out. Grace, their eldest, manages the milking as well as the herd breeding and lineage. Vince runs equipment maintenance and manages the cow’s rations and nutrition based on the varying qualities of the pasture and time since harvest. When there is occasional conflict, the family has a shared ethos: there’s no shame in disagreeing, but everything must be kind, true, and helpful. Otherwise, “keep it to yourself.” 

Paul notes, “watching your kids farm is living the dream,” and that dream should persist for decades to come. Phyllis and Paul are working with us to refinance their purchase of another farm, fondly referred to as “Dharma Lea South.” After 11 years building Dharma Lea “North” –their 50-cow dairy in Sharon Springs, New York–they were approached by an 8th generation farmer, looking to sell his farm just five miles down the road. He wanted the farm to go to a family who would continue stewarding the land. Thus, Dharma Lea “South” allowed them to grow their herd substantially, expand their land by 425 acres, and create enough income for the entire family.

Dharma Lea will be saving significantly on their interest rate while maintaining their long-term mission for the farm. This affords Phyllis and Paul’s kids more clarity from a business standpoint, allowing them to use more creativity and flexibility. As Paul notes, “in many ways, what we were trying to do is more fully embodied in their lives.”

Photography: Phyllis and Paul Van Amburgh