Farmer Dan Tibbetts tends to 125 dairy cows on Reed Farm in Windsor, and the herd continues to grow. Years ago, a calf was born with a mark shaped like the number seven on her forehead. Naturally, Tibbitts’ children named her “Seven.” Seven’s daughter became “Eight,” but those are the only Reed Farm cows that are identified by number.
“For some people, the cows are a means of getting what they want in life. You know what I mean? You milk your cows and make your money,” said Tibbetts, 64. “But I enjoy it. … I don’t look at it as work. And the cows, I’ve always given my cows names. It’s just my way of making it personal.”
“His girls” go by Sally, Cool, Triscuit, Fruit, Texas, Mabel, Ford, Book, Gum, Boo, AWOL and Jackie. The baseball cow family is Safe, Out, Bag, Plate, Fair, Dive, RBI and Bench. Iraq, Al and Quaida are kin, as are Taxes, Mortgage and Lien. Dish is the mother of Spoon. Lemon and Lime are twins.
Tibbetts is a busy man, tending his cows and working the land; that’s why artist Beth Henderson timed her phone call so she might catch him during his lunch break. She was looking for names to christen the nearly life-sized stucco cow she sculpted this spring for the exhibit “Hooves, Fur and Feathers,” which opened Friday, June 3, at the Maine Farmland Trust Gallery at 97 Main St. in Belfast.
Henderson heard a chorus of mooing over the phone as Tibbetts walked into the barn to look at all the familiar faces and jolt his memory. He then began listing off names, pausing occasionally to note the connection between the cows — mother, daughter, sister and grandmother. He always knows who he’s leading out to pasture.
“Actually, people look more closely alike than cows do,” Tibbetts said. “Cows are very different from the day they are born.”
Many of the cow names were derived from events and act as snippets of communal and familial history. When Tibbetts’ church sponsored a Reach Fellowship community project, his children named a calf “Reach.” Cow Sandra was named after Dan’s wife, who arrived at the farm on the day the cow was born.
Henderson’s sculpture is now decorated with their names, painted in black.
She began the sculpture in late winter. Referring to a tiny rubber cow from Aubuchon Hardware, she used rigid installation material and a glue gun to craft the body, which she then carved and covered with fiberglass mesh. On top of that, she added a waterproof stucco product to cover the skeleton and perfect the cow’s contours before painting the coat in white with black blotches. By the time she could use a paintbrush, she was working outside in the warming weather.
The udder is made from pink plastic gloves; the tail, mariners rope.
“Coming from the Midwest, I’ve seen what the huge farms are like … but what Dan and Maine farmers have done to preserve the farmland and the tradition of farms in any way — given the challenges of industrial farms — I wanted to contribute in a small way,” said Henderson.
The Tibbetts family has a remarkable history of dairy farming: Tibbetts’ great-grandfather had three boys; two of them became dairy farmers and one took over the family farm. His grandfather had three boys, two became dairy farmers; one took over the farm. His father had three boys, two became dairy farmers; one took over the farm.
“Seven years ago, my wife gave me my third boy,” said Tibbetts. “I’m a believer. I believe one of them will take the dairy farm over, but I just hope I’ll live long enough to see it.”
Tibbetts bought Reed Farm from George Reed in 1974 after graduating from the veterinary program at the University of Maine and teaching vocational agriculture at Lee Academy. His father’s farm was just 10 miles down the road.
“I see the Maine Farmland Trust [a statewide organization committed to strengthening farming in Maine] as having an even bigger role in the future in helping to maintain some of these farms and farmland,” Tibbetts said. “When I came here, there were seven dairy farmers in the town of Windsor. Now I’m the only one … Probably one of my biggest goals in my life is to see this continue. I’m not going to be around forever.”
Reed Farm is a 600-acre organic operation, and in addition to the cows, they have chickens, pigs and an extensive vegetable garden. Tibbetts is still expanding herd. Fourteen calves have been born since the start of the year — “an exceptional run of good luck,” said Tibbetts, who is featured in one of the eight “Meet Your Farmer” films produced by Maine Farmland Trust.
Tibbetts looks forward to bringing his young daughter and son to the exhibit to see Henderson’s sculptures and the other farm animal artwork.
Four additional Maine artists — Elizabeth Fraser, Leslie Harris, Holly Meade and Willy Reddick — have artwork in the exhibit.
Many of the works on display by Harris and Meade are illustrations for children’s books. Fraser is a spirited and disciplined daily painter and pet portrait artist from Portland. And Reddick is well-known for her woodblock prints of sleeping dogs and cats on busy, vibrant patterns.