A Transition to Success
by David Pazmiño
Most statistics give a grim view of Massachusetts’s dairies. According to the Massachusetts Association of Dairy
Farmers there were 829 dairies in the state in 1980. By 2007, that number had dwindled to 189.While dramatic, this decline can be linked to one reason: commodification of milk prices that unreasonably pits small family dairies here inMassachusetts against larger ones across the Midwest and West. But this isn’t another story about failed policies or market struggles. It is about how one Massachusetts dairy has embraced the challenges of dairy farming in the 21st century and turned its farm (and cows) away from the brink of extinction and toward a viable future.
One sunny day inMay I traveled from Boston along Route 9 to Hardwick to visit Robinson Farm. Set in the rolling hills of Worcester County, Hardwick could easily be mistaken for any number of New England rural communities with its idyllic town center, whitewashed steeples and local country store.
Nestled about a mile from the town center is Robinson Farm. At first glance, it looks like many New England dairies with a central barn and feed stalls connected to a dairy parlor.This central barn is linked to several outside areas where the cows can come and go when not being milked.
While I have visited many dairies in Vermont, at Robinson Farm I noticed one thing: the absence of any cows.Most commercial dairies keep their cows near the feeding and milking parlors, minimizing the amount of time that the cows actually are on pasture—a so-called modern convention in dairy herd management. But why were there no cows here?
That’s when I ran into Ray Robinson. Born on the farm, Ray is a fourth-generation dairy farmer. His great-grandfather Joseph Robinson bought the land in 1892 and started dairy farming soon thereafter. You could say that milk runs in Ray’s veins. After a handshake and introduction to him and his wife, Pam, I wanted to resolve this nagging question in the back of my mind. So I asked Ray:Why the absence of cows? Chuckling, Ray told me that their 35 Holstein, Normandy and Jersey-crossed cows were down on a lower paddock enjoying fresh green grass.
The one thing that is different about Robinson Farm than most other New England dairies is that over the past five years they have been slowly diversifying their dairy products, starting with offering raw milk. This is what has drawn me out here. For the past three years I have been buying raw milk through several different milk-buying clubs. Robinson Farm milk has always been one of my favorites and I wanted to know more about this extraordinary farm.When I tell people that my family and I drink raw milk, I often get two responses: Are you crazy, and is that really safe?The short answer to that is: no and yes, but more on that in a bit.
Robinson Farm is only one of 25 farms inMassachusetts that offers the public the option to purchase raw milk directly at the farm. According to the Northeast Organic Farming Association survey completed in 2009, these 25 farms produced over 80,000 gallons of raw milk from 1,000 cows during 2008. For a farm inMassachusetts to do this, it first must be a licensed dairy, which in and of itself is not an easy task. I can’t just get a cow, milk it and sell the milk. The state has all sorts of very strict regulations on how the cows are milked, the equipment that is used and, most importantly, how quickly the milk is cooled. If that wasn’t enough, to sell raw milk, the farm is required to be tested for bacterial pathogens, somatic cell count, raw count and coliform more stringently than other dairies where the milk is to be pasteurized. In short, the milk has to be cleaner and so the farmer must do a much better job. But why subject themselves to more tests and headaches due to regulations when they could simply sell bulk milk commercially?
That was another question for Ray and Pam. And their answer: Ray’s daughter Gina. After coming home from college, Gina, like most college graduates, wanted some changes. She loved her parents’ dairy but was tired of seeing them struggle with what are artificially depressed milk prices.While at college, she became invested in healthy food, organics and raw milk. She did not want to spend the same amount of time milking cows that her father did. She was looking for a better lifestyle and hoped to change her father from commercial milking. In 2006, the average price of milk sold was $1.14 per gallon, according to the Massachusetts Association of Dairy Farmers. Gina’s novel plan was to sell raw milk. In simple terms, the milk would sell for much more. Back then, most raw milk sold for about $5 per gallon.
It seemed like a great plan but like most New Englanders, Ray was skeptical at best. So Gina started her raw milk venture with four cows. With a bit of marketing and advertising, she began to sell her raw milk, and not just to local people. Some people were traveling from as far away as Boston. That’s when Ray began to take notice. Could it be possible to do a retail business on the farm?
If the farm were going to switch to direct retail sales of raw milk, there would have to be a few radical changes. First off, the cows would have to be grass fed. Although most people have an iconic image of a cow grazing in a field of ankle-high grass, the reality is that commercial dairies feed cows a nutrient-dense meal consisting primarily of corn supplemented with some hay. Why is this? It is simple economics: Corn feed increases milk production. A cow eating about 35 pounds of corn per day can produce about 85 pounds of milk. A pasture-fed cow, supplemented with about four pounds of grain per day to maintain an adequate weight, only produces 25 to 30 pounds of milk.
When milk prices are at historic lows of $1.14 per gallon, keeping the cows in a feeding barn and feeding them corn seemed like a better economic bet than the labor of putting them on pasture and producing hay for the winter months. Switching to grass feed meant more labor— moving the cows from paddock to paddock. But on the upside, the commercial confinement system requires a lot more fuel—thus a higher carbon footprint, as Ray claims. That made me think: Really, what Ray was doing was going back in time to the way that his great grandfather used to run the farm. Really not radical at all.
So why the switch? Ray told me he was tired of seeing his hard work get compromised by prices that he had no control over. But to make the switch, they needed to raise capital to convert their farm back to one that produces grass and hay.
First off, they sold over half their herd. They went from about 110 head of cattle to about 50—a huge financial risk. But it actually proved to be quite smart. The money from the extra cows allowed them to purchase extra haying equipment, improve cash flow for the farm and allow the remaining 50 cows adequate grass on the 280 acres.
Second, they applied for a grant through the National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), a branch of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), to convert the cornfields to pasture and reclaim fallow pasture. This now gave them enough space to grass-feed the cows throughout the year and produce enough hay to feed them over the winter without having to rely on the vast amounts of corn they used to both produce and purchase. Plus, most people who drink raw milk want it to come from grass-fed cows.
Ray and Pam had made the switch. Now came the hard part: getting people interested in their raw milk. This meant marketing, advertising and setting up networks that would promote their milk.While Gina’s contacts were a start, if this was going to work they needed more interest. What helped even more was a growing awareness among people about where their food comes from. While the local foods movement has improved awareness of many raw milk dairies, it has been the work of the Weston A. Price Foundation and Sally Fallon that has created an undercurrent of awareness about dairy. Sally’s seminal book, NourishingTraditions, emphasized a need for people to go back to unpasteurized, unhomogenized milk for health benefits.
The claims that pasteurized milk is more difficult to digest and contains fewer nutrients that are bio-available have resonated with many people. But most people still have the fear: Is it safe? While no one can unequivocally guarantee raw milk to be safe, it certainly is no more dangerous than drinking pasteurized milk. In fact, the most recent case of death in Massachusetts from drinking milk was caused by unclean equipment transmitting the Listeria bacteria into pasteurized milk. The last thing that a dairy producing raw milk wants to do is to harm its customers.
The first thing that helps a dairy are happy cows. When switching to pasture, each cow on Robinson Farm went from producing over 85 pounds of milk per day to only 25 to 30.While I couldn’t tell a happy cow from an unhappy one, Ray assures me that after working a lifetime with them, he has never seen his “ladies” any happier. Second off, producing less milk means they are down to two milkings per day. Ray and Pam tell me there were times in the 1990s when the cows were pushed to produce so much milk that they needed three milkings.
Having also reduced their herd by half, this means that the milking parlor is easier to maintain and keep clean. After the cows are milked, the milk passes though a filter, then a plate cooler that takes it down to between 50 to 60 degrees in seconds. It then passes into a bulk cooling tank where it goes below 40 degrees within a few minutes of whenthe cow is milked.While theMassachusetts Department of Agriculture comes monthly to take milk samples for bacterial pathogens, somatic cell, raw count and coliform counts, the Robinsons also take and freeze two samples from each and every milking. In the five years that they have had direct raw milk sales they have never had a problem. While direct raw milk sales are important, they still sell their remaining milk via bulk sales to Agrimark. In addition to the state testing, Agrimark also tests the milk three times per week. Labor intensive, yes, but worth it to their customers.
After getting the grant from the NRCS for converting land back to pasture, Ray and Pam used a second installment of money to improve their fences. While most outsiders would think of the Robinsons asdairy farmers, in reality they were becoming grass farmers.To maintain a healthy herd the cows would need to be on two different paddocks daily, needinga two-week rotation on each paddock. That is a lot of grass production. Add to that, they were not only interested in their raw milk production but in switching to organic. While it only takes one year to certify their herd as organic, it would take over three years for their land. This is where they hit a minor snag.
The cost share grant from the NRCS required that the fences they put up have a minimum life average of 15 years. For most farms that would mean getting pressure-treated lumber to build their fences. But that would have denied them the organic standard, since the arsenic and chemicals used in treating that lumber would leach into the land. After muchsearching they found a solution: lumber from black locust trees. After some networking, Pam and Ray found a local person who had just cut down several black locust trees, and using some good old Yankee ingenuity, they had those trees milled into fence posts. Problem solved.
The last part of the conversion means getting water to all the paddocks. Most dairies simply have watering ponds that the cows can easily use to drink water, but there are a few problems. These common ponds often create erosion, degrade the soil and suffer fecal contamination. In the next year, the Robinsons are again working with the NRCS to make these final improvements to keep the cows healthier (and happier) by bringing fresh water to each and every paddock.
The Robinsons aren’t stopping there. For the last two years they have been takingMaster CheeseMaking classes at the VermontInstitute of Artisan Cheese (VIAC), at the University of Vermont, with such cheese luminaries as Allison Hooper of Vermont Butter and Cheese and Cindy Major of Major Shepard’s Farm. After the intensive course, they made the decision to funnel some of their excess milk production into a cheese-making business. After looking at the market they decided that an aged Alpine Swiss–style cheese is what they wanted to produce— aptly calling it Robinson Family Swiss. The cheese should be available in the next couple of years.
In addition, Pam has started to sell eggs from her chicken, and herbs, vegetables and flowers from her now expanding garden. She is able to sell these products along with local maple syrup, cheese-making supplies, beef from their cows and T-shirts to folks when they stop by for milk.
Along with their organic certification due on Sept. 23, the Robinsons have taken a five-year gamble that is paying off. They are making the same amount of money as when they had a larger herd but they now have a lot more potential. Direct retail sales of raw milk have allowed them to have a more sustainable business compared to when they were commercially producing milk. Their cows are happier, they have a stable customer base that values their product and they now have a future in farming that is truly their own.
42 Jackson Road
Hardwick, MA 01037
David Pazmiño is a chef instructor at Newbury College in Brookline, Massachusetts. He has also worked as an associate editor for Cook’s Illustrated magazine. When he is not in the kitchen, he enjoys hanging out at his community farm and foraging for mushrooms. David can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org