A Happy Herd at Appleton Farms

Appleton Farms

Images by Katie Noble

As I turn onto the long dirt driveway at Appleton Farms in Ipswich, I immediately envy people who live close enough to this place to visit on a regular basis, much less buy food here. Old stone walls lead me toward the heart of the property where a cluster of newly-restored barns and outbuildings cast long shadows in the late afternoon light. Geese honk somewhere in the distance and the moment I set foot on the land I feel the kind of peace that comes from truly connecting with a place.

I pass through the dairy barn as its herd of 38 registered Jersey cows finishes the day’s second milking. Most of them lounge in their stalls, but at the end of one row a full-figured heifer named Effie holds court, nodding and sizing me up with an impish look in her brown eyes, and I can’t help but laugh out loud.

“They’re the monkey of cow breeds,” says Scott Rowe, Appleton’s Dairy Manager. “They’re sweet but stubborn, and they get into a lot of mischief.” Jerseys also produce the richest of all cow’s milk, with the highest percentage of butterfat.  It’s ideal for making cheese and butter, the newest offerings from the country’s oldest continuously operating farm.

Appleton Farms

Appleton was founded as a subsistence farm in 1636 and run by its namesake family for nine generations. Its heyday as a dairy operation came in the late 19th century, when the Appletons used a royal connection to bring a herd of Jersey cows from England to Massachusetts. “That was what was going to make Appleton Farm stand out,” says Cindy Brockway, the farm’s cultural resources manager. “They were doing something different, producing this rich, creamy milk.” In 1891, a heifer from that early herd named Eurotissima famously won the title of record butterfat producer at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

The Appletons had a flag stop on the commuter railroad to Boston, which they negotiated as part of a deal to let the tracks pass through the middle of the farm, and they used it to put their dairy products on the train for sale in the city. Over time, two World Wars and the Great Depression were hard on the farm. Joan Appleton, the family’s last remaining heir, had no children so she donated the 1,000-acre property to the Trustees of Reservations (TTOR) in 1998.

Four years later the farm launched a community supported agriculture (CSA) program with 100 shareholders. Today it’s one of the largest in the state, with 550 members and a five year waiting list.

The latest addition to the farm—a new onsite dairy processing facility and creamery —was completed in 2011 after a 10 year fundraising push to raise the more than $2 million dollars needed for the extensive construction. “We had to build or restore just about all the dairy infrastructure needed to reintroduce dairy farming at Appleton,” says David Beardsley, Director of TTOR’s Ipswich Center for Enterprise and Engagement, which oversees the farm’s operation. “There was a dairy barn with milking stalls when Mrs. Appleton donated the farm to us, but we had to install two pasteurizers, a pipeline to transfer raw milk from the bulk tank to the pasteurizers, a cheese vat, a butter churn, a yogurt filler, and three refrigerated rooms for aging cheese.”

The dairy operation was the final phase of TTOR’s plan to restore Appleton as an economically viable, self-sustaining operation that compliments the area’s other agricultural ventures, but does not try to compete with them. Now, in addition to eggs and beef, customers can shop year-round at the farm’s tiny but well-stocked retail store for a range of dairy products processed and produced entirely onsite, including cultured and uncultured butter, Greek-style yogurt and a growing selection of cheeses. A bottling facility is in the farm’s future; until then milk for drinking is processed at Puleo’s Dairy in Salem and sold at Appleton by the half-gallon (skim, 1% and whole) in delightful glass bottles.

Appleton Farms

Most of the milk from Appleton’s Jersey herd is made into cheese. “Right now we’re trying to focus on a handful of staples,” says Arlene Brokaw, Appleton’s Master Cheese Maker and Assistant Dairy Manager. She’s wearing slippers when we meet in the front hallway of the Old House, the Appleton family’s former home and the farm’s newly renovated, LEED certified visitor’s center.  The 29-year-old Ohio native tells me she left broadcast journalism to start her career in cheesemaking five years ago as an apprentice at Olde Oak Farm in Maxfield, Maine. “I was always the one behind the camera telling other people’s cool stories,” she says. “I wanted my own story.”

Brokaw came to Ipswich in October with a mission to make a marketable commodity from Appleton’s overabundance of cream. “We have so much of it that I can just play,” she says as she leads me into the farm’s gleaming test kitchen. She sips tea as I taste each of the cheeses she’s laid out for me, starting with the aged Carriage Barn Cheddar. She makes it in batches by an old-fashioned two-day process, using buckets of water and boards to press and form the 10-pound wheels. “It’s such high-moisture that the flavor is taking longer to develop,” she explains.

Next the wheels are aged for at least a month (or up to a year) and their natural rinds are scrubbed clean before packaging. The final product is a soft, mild cheese that Brokaw says is technically a tomme. “It’s not something you’ll find at Shaw’s,” she jokes. Brokaw says a cheese press is in the works (thanks to the farm’s team of retired volunteer handymen) so she’s looking forward to making firmer cheddar with more traditional sharpness.

Appleton’s most popular cheese so far is its luxurious brie-style Sunset Hill Triple Crème. It has a “bloomy rind” of soft white mold that’s carefully encouraged in an aging room. The cheese spreads easily on a slice of baguette and I close my eyes to enjoy its ultra-rich, buttery flavor. It’s hard to believe such a decadent creation is the product of a fledgling fromagerie and I’m helpless to resist another sample.

Appleton’s third mainstay is its Broad Meadow Farmstead Cheese—a soft, fresh cheese that Brokaw forms into rounds and rolls in a blend of whatever herbs and spices are in season. “This summer I want to do a pesto flavor with our own basil and one with our own dill,” she says.  The plain, slightly tangy cheese is the perfect vehicle for her gourmet concoctions, like one made with za’atar—a Middle Eastern-style blend of ground sesame seeds, sumac berry, and thyme—and garlic. Other recent flavors include tarragon-onion, coriander-lemon balm, and marjoram-elderflower. “We have staples in the dairy store that people come back for and include in their weekly food routine, but I also want them to find some surprises, too,” Brokaw says.

Appleton Farms

We move on from cheese to another upside of the farm’s cream surplus—Appleton’s ultra-rich butter—sold cultured or uncultured in thick rounds the size of pancakes. “We make it in small batches so we can control the quality,” says Brokaw. The result tastes smooth and sweet with a perfect balance of richness and flavor.

She also makes plain Greek-style yogurt that’s delicious on its own, though it begs for fresh fruit. Brokaw has plans to make maple yogurt after the farm’s new maple syrup operation taps trees on the property this year. I’m delighted when Brokaw hints that there may also be ice cream in Appleton’s future. As she shows me around the creamery she says offhand that the milk the farm produces is among the highest quality in the Commonwealth (which the Massachusetts Dairy Program later confirms).

The farm’s all-Jersey herd is the only one on the North Shore and one of few in the state. “I see this as a model for what you can do with a small herd in New England,” says Dairy Manager Scott Rowe. “The dairy industry in this region is dying, so a place like this strikes home that you can make it work.” Rowe believes happy cows make the best milk, and with just over a few dozen to care for he’s able to watch over the health and well-being of each animal. His Jerseys spend a lot of time outside, taking long naps and eating for about six hours a day. They’re mostly grass-fed, grazing in huge, organically-managed pastures during the growing season and on Appleton’s own hay in winter months.

The farm says its herd produces healthier, better-tasting milk than cows that eat mostly grain, and that Jerseys metabolize grass and hay more efficiently than other breeds, lowering their carbon footprint by 20 percent. That savings, coupled with other green advancements like solar panels and biodiesel tractors, has helped Appleton become an almost carbon-neutral operation.

TTOR also wants the farm to engage its neighbors and visitors, so Appleton offers a range of classes, from “Canning 101” to a new cheese making class it will introduce this summer. “We want people to have a real roll-up-your-sleeves, grass-to-table experience,” says Holly Hannaway, a longtime Appleton educator, and the farm’s public relations manager. “The education program is the backdrop for the main event—our cheese making program—which is what our community has been waiting for.”

There’s so much more to see and do at Appleton than one afternoon allows, and dusk is falling by the time I finally pull myself away from the farm. Warm yellow light streams from the windows of the creamery and the dairy barn, dotting the darkening landscape. With my fill of cheese and butter I stop by the farm store for some milk, then head back toward the main road and the noise and bustle of the city. Leaving the farm behind I remind myself that it’s less than an hour from Boston… close enough for a spontaneous return trip, and just far enough away to feel like an escape.

Appleton Farms
Route 1A 219 Country Road
Ipswich, MA