“Why Did You Move to Maine?”

Ben Gotschall, Wolfe’s Neck Center’s dairy and livestock manager, made the trek from Nebraska to Maine in November 2020. Soon after, he was joined by his wife, Tammy, and their daughter, Charlotte. In May 2021, his herd of cattle made the 1,800-mile journey to Freeport, as well. In a piece written for Field Notes, our annual print and online newsletter, Ben shared his thoughts on what the relocation meant for him, his family, and his cows. 

On May 5, 2021, I loaded my entire herd of cattle on a semi-trailer in Nebraska and watched it drive away.

As the truck tires kicked up dust from the gravel road and the roar of the diesel motor grew faint in the distance, my stomach churned, and my hands began to sweat. The hollow feeling of anxiety as I watched my life’s work disappear on the horizon lasted almost two days until, 36 hours later, I unloaded them into the seaside pasture below the Pote House at Wolfe’s Neck Center, 1,800 miles away from where they started.

It seems I have never been without my cow herd. I got my first Jersey at the age of 10, and for the past 31 years have been building, re-building, and re-defining it. My cows have seen me through all of my life’s transitions. They have moved with me wherever I have gone, from our shared roots along the banks of Holt Creek in the Nebraska Sandhills to the Missouri Ozarks and now to the coast of Maine.

The arrival of my small herd of Jerseys at Wolfe’s Neck Center has brought closer the idea that this place is my new home. While I have been living and working here since November, the first two months were spent without my wife, Tammy, and our daughter, Charlotte, who both came back with me after Christmas. Even then, the cows remained behind, in the care of a neighbor in Nebraska. Friends, former customers, and co-workers all asked me, “Why did you move to Maine?” I usually replied, half-jokingly, “I ask myself the same thing every day.” But it isn’t a half-joke. It is a statement. 

Written in black marker on a flip-chart paper stuck to the wall in the Wolfe’s Neck Center break room is the question, “Why are we here?” And then, below it, is a related question, “Why are you here?” I encourage my team members to think about themselves in the context of the bigger picture. I ask them to contemplate how their own goals and values interact with the goals and values of Wolfe’s Neck Center as an organization as well as within the broader context of our regional and national agricultural landscape. 

For me, the main reason I am here is to teach young people how to learn to be successful in the field of grass-based dairy production. Life-long learning is important to me and I am enjoying helping others make the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship program at Wolfe’s Neck Center the best it can be. I believe that by working with nature, utilizing research, and enabling innovation, members of the dairy team here can become leaders in the exciting future of regenerative food production.

Why did I move to Maine? The best answer I can give is that I don’t know yet. I don’t know if my ideas or methods will work here. I don’t know if my cattle will thrive, if my breeding plan will be able to re-shape the Wolfe’s Neck dairy herd into a high-functioning, well-adapted group of grazers. I don’t know if I will be able to transform my relationship with farming and food or enable others to do the same. But when I see cows with their calves beside them on pasture against the backdrop of the coastline or when I watch the apprentices taking forage inventories and setting up the next paddock cross-fenced, I see something taking shape here, and it gives me hope. This place, its people, and its potential give me the confidence to say: “It was worth it.”

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