by Joan LeBlanc
The saga began more than 60 years ago when Antonius (Tony) and Adriana (Mien) Rommens emigrated from Holland to Canada in 1956. With a determined desire to be a dairy farmer, Tony worked on several farms in southeastern New Brunswick prior to the couple purchasing their farm in Melrose, N.B., in 1959, naming it Roga Farm in honour of the couple’s family names – Rommens and van Gaans.
Throughout his entire life, Tony preferred purebred Holsteins for his growing dairy herd and was a longtime member of Holstein Canada. He was an avid gardener as well, often working alongside Mien.
Times were tough in the early years and it was Mien’s skill as a seamstress that at times kept the wolf from the door. The couple also grew their own food, often selling extra to area residents.
While working to expand the farm, the couple raised their six children, with the eldest, Con, along with his wife Rose, taking over the operation in 2005. Mien died in 2016 and Tony died the following year. The younger couple talked about their operation at the farm recently.
“Mom and Dad, they worked hard, but they loved the farm,” said Con. “I remember Dad mowing hay and while it was drying in the windrows he’d go into the garden and hoe. I still have his hoe – the only one he ever had – and it’s worn down to almost nothing.”
In later years, his parents also grew many types of gladiolas, adding a profusion of colour to the farm each year, and Mien and Rose operated a farm bed and breakfast for about 15 years.
Con and Rose talked about the building of their dairy operation and the many changes that have taken place during the past 60 years.
“It was tough for them when they first came over (from Holland),” said Con. “Neither of them could speak any English, but they soon learned. Dad used to talk about the first farm he worked on, in the Shediac area. The owner would throw a hat at the cows and the cows were so bony that the hat would hook over the bones sticking out. That bothered Dad, so he started feeding the cows more and the owner couldn’t understand why the cows were giving more milk. Caring properly for his animals was important to Dad and he made sure all of us kids understood and did that too.”
The Roga Farm property had just one old barn when the Rommens moved in, and it wasn’t until 1967 that the family was able to build another larger one. Since that time, several others have been constructed to house the growing dairy herd, forage grown on the farm, and machinery.
Tony brought the first Holstein cattle with him to the Melrose area in 1959, Con noted.
“Another dairy farmer just down the road, Alvin Mitton, had purebred Jersey cows and they used to tease each other about it,” said Con. “Alvin said you could throw a penny in a pail of Holstein milk and it would sink to the bottom, where Jersey cows have more cream. But Dad did well with the Holsteins.”
Con added with a grin, “I brought the Jerseys when I took over. At the time, we had a lot of talks about that.”
Through the years, the Rommens have built three milk parlours. The third – currently still in use – is a double-five herringbone system. They are also considering the installation of better technology to help make milking their herd of 81 cows much easier.
Milking cows since he was about 12 years old, Con said that out of his parents’ six children, he was the only one interested in taking over the farm. “I like what I do,” he said. “I like the animals, I like working on the farm, so it was just natural that I bought the farm when Mom and Dad retired.”
After having a hard time getting their cows bred, Con studied and became an AI specialist in 1976 and has been doing their own cattle breeding since that time.
“Dad was really against it at first,” said Con. “He was scared that I would crossbreed. But I’d never do that. We’ve always had registered Holsteins, and we still do, now along with the registered Jerseys.” He added that he’s a member of both the Holstein Canada and Jersey Canada associations, as well as the New Brunswick Soil and Crop Improvement Association.
Bull calves are sold and shipped to Quebec, with some also retained for family use.
The farm comprises 365 acres, including some woodland, but most is grass and pasture. They grow 25 to 30 acres of forage, which usually fills their animals’ needs. However, poor weather last fall resulted in a smaller crop, forcing them to buy silage to feed their stock.
Approaching retirement, Con and Rose both say they still can’t imagine not working on the farm. But they admit that 40 years of a twice-daily milking schedule is becoming more than they want to do every day. The couple brought up their combined family of five and all have since grown and developed their own successful careers off the farm.
Each day starts at 4:30 a.m., with milking precisely at 5 a.m. and 5 p.m.
“I don’t mind five days a week,” said Rose. “Now I’d like to have a couple days off each week to do other things.” Con agreed.
They’ve hired a couple of local young men to help out part-time, and that has eased the load, but more modernization of the milking system and renovations to the barns as well as enlarging the sewage lagoon are needed to keep up with new trends.
Cow comfort is a priority for the couple. They both work daily to ensure their animals are well cared for. Humane treatment of animals works better for everyone, said Con, adding, “If you treat the animals right, they’ll treat you right.”
Rose agreed, while admitting that Con has more control than she does when it comes to working with the stock. “I work with the calves, but they behave better for Con,” she said with a smile. “They like to push me around, but if I make my voice deeper, like Con’s, they behave better.”
Despite technology making things better, Con and Rose said excess paperwork cuts heavily into their daily work schedule.
“We do so much of it, it’s sometimes hard to get it all done,” said Rose. “I really think they’ve gone too far with it. Milk quality is very important, but some of the paperwork we do just seems to be a waste of time.”
Looking ahead, the pair said they still want to make the farm bigger and better. Carrying on the family tradition, it’s just what they like to do.