Yale Divinity School couple brings farm-fresh dairy to students

December 3, 2012

Remember the days when buying milk meant meeting the milkman at your front door and exchanging smiles and pleasantries as you made your purchase? You probably don’t. For most young people today, this style of milk buying seems an ancient practice, but that generation seems to be getting increasingly more nostalgic for it. Want proof? Just talk to Tyler and Julie Hale.

Tyler is a Master’s degree candidate at Yale’s Divinity School, and Julie is a New Haven social worker. Three months ago, the couple was shopping for eggs at a local farmers’ market when they found themselves asking, what if there was a way to bring farm-fresh eggs to students at the Divinity School? Many Divinity School students trek regularly to New Haven farmers’ markets to buy fresh, organic goods, but Tyler and Julie thought it should be even easier for students to do their shopping. They decided to start a project that would close the distance between Divinity School students and sustainable food.

The Hales began by searching for a farm willing to deliver products to the Divinity School. For two weeks, Julie called numerous Connecticut farms associated with farmers’ markets. She had no luck: the farmers either couldn’t afford the time it would take to travel to the Divinity School, couldn’t produce enough to meet the demand of a graduate school population, or both. Some of the farms wouldn’t allow Julie and Tyler to visit, which violated one of the Hale’s priorities—they wanted to find a farm that was willing to be honest about their practices. They turned down those that weren’t transparent.

At last, the Hales discovered Smyth’s Trinity Farm in Enfield, Connecticut. Smyth’s Farm has been run by the same family for four generations. Farmers from Smyth’s drive to New Haven weekly to transport goods to the Elm City Market and were willing to deliver to the Divinity School as well. They were more than willing to let the Hales visit the farm, where Tyler and Julie met farmers and brothers Sam and Dan Smyth. The Hales’ original plan was to set up a program to sell fresh eggs, but Smyth’s sold only a small quantity of eggs at a local farm stand; the primary goods they sold were dairy products, from milk and yogurt to cream and cheese. The Hales were so eager to work with Smyth’s Farm, they adjusted their plan to fit the farm’s supply.

“Instead of looking for the perfect set-up, we looked for good people,” Tyler says. “It didn’t matter whether they were selling milk or soap.”

After Smyth’s agreed to be part of the Hales’ project, it took about a month to get everything organized. The Hales set up a system similar to a CSA (community supported agriculture), in which consumers pay farmers directly to receive one box of seasonal produce per week. Each week, Julie emails Divinity School students with a list of products available from Smyth’s. Students email her back with their orders. Dan Smyth delivers the food to the Divinity School on Friday mornings. Tyler picks up the food and distributes it in the Divinity School Common Room during the weekly coffee hour.

The Hales’ program lacks many of the usual features of such an initiative. It doesn’t have an official name, a website, or its own facilities. Julie and Tyler don’t even get paid. Since it’s more convenient for the farmer to drop off dairy products and return to the farm rather than selling them at the Divinity School himself, Tyler and Julie pay him out of pocket and reimburse themselves with students’ payments, not keeping any of the $150 they make per week. Sometimes, students can’t pay Tyler and Julie right away, but they never make them wait to take their products. Instead, they let students pay them back when they can, and as Tyler attests, “Most people are pretty good about it.”

When asked why they would go through all this trouble simply to provide people with fresh dairy, the Hales point to their faith. The Hales belong to the Quaker tradition. As Tyler explains, one of the tenets of Quaker spirituality is a belief in “the sacramentality of everyday life.”

“It means that the way you live your life is an expression of your faith,” he says. “For us, that includes our relationship to the earth, to farmers, to the food we put in our bodies…”

This belief motivated the couple’s decision to buy organically produced food and support local farmers. In their eyes, helping other people who have made that decision is just as critical. The Hales have found it especially rewarding to help re-establish a relationship between consumer and farmer. While students do not meet Dan Smyth when he drops off his goods, Tyler and Julie email students regularly with updates on the Smyth family and farm. Smyth’s Farm periodically hosts an open house, so students will be able to visit and explore the farm in the spring. Tyler and Julie also value the chance they have to introduce people to organic products. One part of the program that Tyler finds deeply meaningful is the moment when a first-time organic dairy buyer tries Smyth’s bottled milk.

“Once you see someone try the milk and realize it’s awesome,” Tyler says, “that’s a holy moment. That’s ministry.”

The couple plans to continue the program until Tyler graduates from the Divinity School in May 2013, at which point the Hales will return to their native Oregon to start their own farm. They hope to find other Divinity School students to take over the farm-fresh program. They recognize, however, that it might be difficult to find people willing to coordinate the program without any financial incentive. It might take spiritual motivation to prompt others to lead the project—or, just enough appreciation for fresh, delicious milk.