When I was a kid, nobody ever had to tell me to drink my milk. I loved the stuff. Except in the spring. Every year, around early April, I always detected what I described as “a funny taste,” and for a couple of weeks I could barely force it down. My mother had very little patience for this and basically told me to“Just drink it.”
As it turns out, what appeared at the time to be childhood pickiness was instead an early expression of my discriminating palate. Though it might sound ridiculous to think of milk in terms of terroir, its flavor is in fact affected by the diets of the cows that produce it. In the early spring they return to eating green grassafter a winter of consuming hay, and when I was growing up, I recognized that reflected in the flavor of their milk. (Today, according to Marjorie Cooper of Coopers Hilltop Dairy Farm in Leicester, milk processors are able to compensate for differences in the cows’ diets, so the flavor is consistent throughout the year.)
In those days, too, the cows our milk came from lived on a farm not far from our suburban Boston home. It was delivered by the “milkman,” and if nobody was home he left it in a “milk box” outside our back door. At the time, this wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. Today, not so common.
There are still dairies in Massachusetts—even in the greater Boston area—that deliver milk to customers’ homes, but their numbers have diminished dramatically. And among those that deliver, it is a small percentage of their business.
According to the Massachusetts Association of Dairy Farmers and Massachusetts Dairy Promotion Board, in the past 25 years alone the number of dairy farms in the state—all of them small, family-run enterprises—has dropped from around 827 to roughly150. Julia Grimaldi, of the Massachusetts Dairy Promotion Board, notes that all but six of them belong to cooperatives, through which they sell their milk to larger local processors.
Shaw Farm Dairy in Dracut is one of the six that produce, process, bottle and deliver their own milk, a model known as a direct dairy. Warren Shaw has owned the business since he bought it from his parents 20 years ago. Before that, he worked with them. Now two of his three daughters, Lyndie Zolkos and Sarah Pratt; his son, Mark; and son-in-law, Robert Pratt, work with him. Shaw’s great-grandfather started the farm in 1908, delivering milk by horse-drawn carriage. “Since day one we’ve milked cows and delivered milk,” Shaw says, adding with a gleam in his eye that they no longer rely on the horse. And now they have a store on the property.
Shaw Farm does business direct, rather than through a co-op, because, “I want to be able to make a living,” its owner declares. “It isn’t possible for small dairies to make a living selling milk to big business. If you eliminate the store, all we would have is milk at the wholesale level.” The federal government’s current regulations do not allow dairy farmers who sell their milk wholesale to set their own prices; and its pricing formula does not take the farmers’ actual costs into account.
“Typically, a New England dairy farm loses money on the milk it produces,” Shaw explains. But if it sells its milk direct—through its own store, home delivery and/or to restaurants and markets without going through a middleman, as his farm does—it is not bound by federal pricing rules.
Shaw—who in addition to running his family’s farm has dabbled in local politics, writes a column for the Lowell Sun and has a radio show on WCAP 980-AM in Lowell—goes on to explain that as demand for milk levels and drops off, and large commercial farms produce more milk, there are fewer opportunities for small dairies. “Absent any change in government operation, small New England dairies will go out of business,” he predicts. In fact, the disconnect between falling milk prices and the rising cost of feed has already driven many small farms out of business.
When Shaw bought his family’s farm, he updated much of the business, starting by installing a state-of-the-art bottling facility with built-in food safety improvements. He also built a new barn and store, and added an ice cream stand, open from April through November.
The farm milks 85 Holstein cows, choosing this breed because, Shaw says, “they are the most efficient in terms of turning grass and corn into milk.” The cows are milked twice a day, then the milk is transferred to the bottling facility, where it is pasteurized in a low-temperature vat pasteurizer, which protects the flavor. This is different from the industry-standard high-temperature/short time or ultra-high temperature processes. Shaw likens vat pasteurization to cooking the milk, and the higher-heat methods to microwaving it. He maintains that the flavor difference is particularly noticeable in fat-free milk, which does not have the benefit of cream to enhance its taste.
In 2007 Shaw Dairy earned its organic certification, making it the only Massachusetts dairy farm producing and selling pasteurized organic milk. Initially, only six of the farm’s cows were organic; now 12 meet the requirements. Though none of the cows in Shaw’s herd are fed antibiotics or growth hormones, the organic cows are birthed by certified organic mothers and only eat grass and organic feed.
In Lunenberg, Garrett Stillman and his brother, Griffin, represent the fourth generation of their family to be involved with Stillman Dairy Farm, which they run with their father, Garth (known as “Bud”). “When my father was in kindergarten or first grade, around 1960, he remembers 20 to 30 farms in Lunenberg that sold milk direct,” Garrett says. Today Stillman is one of only two dairies left in town—which the family does not see as a good thing. Echoing a sentiment expressed by Warren Shaw, Garrett Stillman notes that among local dairy farmers, “There’s no competition. We all have a good relationship; [we] readily share information.”
Initially, the family sold all their milk wholesale. But in 1993 they built a small store on their property and bought back some of the milk to sell there, “with an eye toward processing and selling our own milk,” says Stillman. The business became a direct dairy in October 2000. The family made the switch, Stillmanexplains, because the volatility of wholesale prices means that sometimes farmers don’t even cover their costs. “By selling direct, it gives you the opportunity to set your own prices. You have a little more control.”
“Building a processing plant, doing it all ourselves, there was a lot of risk and a lot of investment, but we felt it was necessary if we wanted to stick around,” he continues.
The farm milks 50 Jersey cows. “They give less milk than Holsteins but it’s richer, denser and higher in protein,” he says. “The raw milk, in June and July, is almost yellow there’s so much butterfat.” Stillman maintains that milk from Jersey cows is also higher in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), an essential fatty acid and antioxidant; omega-3s; protein; and vitamins A and D. Even their skim milk, he says, is richer in flavor, protein and CLAs.
The Stillmans’ cattle graze in open fields on the 360-acre farm. They are largely grass-fed, supplemented with a very small amount of grain, for protein. During the winter they eat both baled hay, which is dry, and silage-fermented hay, which retains more moisture. Each has different nutritional value and adds diversity to the cows’ diets when they are not able to go outside to graze.
Stillman Dairy does not produce any organic milk, but “we’re pretty similar to organic in a lot of respects,” according to Garrett Stillman. In addition to the cows’ diet, they fertilize the grass only with manure. “Lots of our customers used to buy organic milk. Now they buy here. It’s a small farm. You drive up and see the cows. You see the grass they eat. It’s not just direct, it’s a really short distance,” he says of their operation. “Lots of time it came from the cow that morning. That afternoon it’s on the shelf or we’re delivering it to your house.”
The dairy began offering home delivery to Lunenberg and surrounding towns—Leominster, Lancaster, Bolton, Townsend and Groton—in 2004. Griffin Stillman is responsible for deliveries, rising every morning at 3:30. The farm also provides milk for Gibbet Hill Grill in Groton and sells it through the Harvard General Store.
Marjorie Cooper and her three brothers, James, Richard and David, operate Coopers Hilltop Dairy on land their grandfather purchased in Leicester during World War I. A machinist who had always wanted to be an orchardist, he planted apples, plums and peaches. His wife bought a cow to provide milk for the family. And their three sons became dairy farmers.
The Coopers’ father, Harold, bought his first milk route when he was 9, and added more over the years. He built the dairy, with its processing room, in its current location in 1933. The growing popularity of supermarkets made milk routes much less so, so the Coopers began to sell their milk from the cellar of their house in 1958.
Today the family milks 40 to 50 cows per day and sells the milk, which they vat pasteurize because, Marjorie Cooper says, “it retains more of the taste,” through their farm store. “We’ve chosen not to expand our herd, which we would need to do if we were selling wholesale,” Cooper explains. They have done away with home delivery altogether.
The cows feed on the farm’s 200 acres, plus additional land around town that the family rents. The family works toward growing as much of its own feed as possible, in the form of corn and grass, so it can rely less on grain. “The grass is stimulated by cows chewing it,” Cooper says. “Sustainability becomes more important. You’re controlling more of your input as the world around you doesn’t know where it’s going.”
Though the dairy does not sell organic milk, like Garrett Stillman, Cooper says their farm’s practices are not that different. “We’re close to organic. What we’re doing is local, taking care of fields in town and of the animals.” And they don’t use any growth hormones.
The question of whether to offer organic milk “is a discussion point with our customers,” Cooper notes, adding, “We’re lucky we can talk to our customers. We’re not the farm on the hill that you drive by. We’re the farm that you come to and you’ll usually see at least one of the family doing something.”
In addition to the four siblings, the next generation is involved with the farm. Richard Cooper’s two sons are part of the business and his daughter studies animal sciences at University of California at Davis. “You reach points in farming when sometimes you think, this is a dead end, and then things come along,” saysMarjorie Cooper. “Now I see a really strong group of young farmers. It’s opening a whole new area. In poor economic times, sometimes farming does better.”
Not all dairy farmers who want to do business direct can afford to survive solely on that business model. Pearson’s Elmhurst Dairy Farm, which sits on 300 acres in Millbury, is unusual in that it straddles two worlds. Owner Robert Pearson’s father started the farm in 1934, the year Pearson was born. Like most local dairy farmers, the Pearsons started their commercial operation delivering milk to the community. The customer base evolved to include small local markets, and the family built a farm store that accounts for about 25% of sales.
Ten years ago, Pearson says, he began to sell roughly half of his milk through a local co-op. Pearson’s two sons, his daughter and one daughter-in-law are all part of the business and they could not sell enough milk to support the extended family through the farm store and home delivery. Though Pearson says he“would prefer to do more direct, the whole thing changed. Deliveries got more expensive with the increase in gas prices. [Milk] is so available now it changed the whole delivery system. Unless you’re a grocery store on wheels, home delivery is almost obsolete.”
The farmers milk 50 cows daily, and receive different prices—sometimes dramatically different—for the milk they sell direct and the milk they sell through the co-op. “The co-op varies monthly, but it’s quite a bit less,” Pearson says. At the time of this writing, the dairy received about $1.86 per gallon for the co-op milk and charged $4 direct.
These farms all sell similar products—whole, low-fat and skim milk. Most also sell flavored milks, cream and butter. Shaw and Coopers sell ice cream, and Stillman is considering it. (Garrett Stillman took the highly regarded Ice Cream Short Course at Pennsylvania State University.) Shaw, Stillman and Cooperbottle a significant portion of their milk in glass bottles, like the ones many of us grew up with, because many customers prefer it, and it makes good economic and environmental sense. Though raising cows and selling their milk has been a way of life for generations of these farm families, to many of today’s consumers the appeal of the old is relatively new.
I was still in elementary school when we stopped having our milk delivered. My mother can’t remember why, exactly; she thinks the dairy went out of business. So she started buying milk at the supermarket, like everyone else we knew. No more glass bottles. No more change in flavor.
My own children never knew what fresh milk from local cows tasted like because, I’m a little ashamed to say, they were already grown by the time I realized that the big local dairies whose milk I’d been buying while they were young were processing milk from cows from as many as 1,000 different farms and pasteurizing the flavor right out of it. This is far from a crime, but having tasted fresh local milk again, I now realize that there is no comparison.
If you haven’t checked out a local dairy yet, what are you waiting for? Get milk.
Coopers Hilltop Dairy
515 Henshaw Street
Pearsons Elmhurst Dairy Farm
342 West Main Street
204 New Boston Road
Stillman Dairy Farm
991 Lancaster Avenue
For more information on Massachusetts Dairies, visit the Massachusetts Dairy Promotion Board at www.massdairy.com.
Andrea Pyenson writes about food and travel. Her work has appeared in several print and online publications, including the Boston Globe, the Washington Post, Edible Cape Cod, Fine Cooking, msn.com and oneforthetable.com. Her first cookbook, Wicked Good Barbecue, written with local chef Andy Husbands and Chris Hart, was published in March. Andrea can be reached at email@example.com.