by Sushannah Laurange

“We cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about progress and prosperity for our community…Our ambition must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others, for their sakes and for our own.”

~ Cesar Chavez

Hawthorne Valley Farms dairy herd at pasture

Hawthorne Valley Farm’s herd; photo credit: Lawrence Braun

Dairy farming: up with the sun, twice a day milking, on-call 24/7/365, temperamental cows, year-round outdoor work…Not the job description that would make many people line up for a chance to get, and that’s before you even get into the financial aspects of farming.

While it’s true that farming is a profession with a reputation for struggles—against the weather, the soil, the animals, and the marketplace—it also has a rich history of community. Barn raising and harvesting together are just two examples of ways farmers have helped each other out over the centuries.

In today’s modern farming scene, it seems the message is “Go big or go home.” The dairy section of a grocery store often takes up two or more aisles of coolers, with milk, creamer, whipped cream, ice cream, yogurt, and cheese. But despite dairy being a regular staple in American diets, the farmers who do the work to tend the cows that produce the milk are struggling.

In June, Bloomberg Opinion reported that the rate of overall dairy farm closures—conventional and organic—in the United States had increased to 6.9% in 2018, up 3% from the previous year. To put that in perspective, there were 37,468 licensed dairies operating in 2018. Data from 2016 shows that only 2,258 of those farms are operating organically. All these farms are faced with falling milk prices due to a variety of reasons, including higher transportation costs and shifts in the consumer market towards plant-based dairy alternatives.

Further complicating the organics market, recent publications, including the 2018 Dairy Report from the Cornucopia Institute and an article in Civil Eats, have highlighted discrepancies with how the rules for USDA certification are actually carried out by large-scale farms compared to the family-sized farms the industry was built on. For those dedicated farmers who put in the time, resources, and effort to tend their herds in an ethical, regenerative manner, it can be discouraging to face the options of either having to scale up (and possibly compromise on some of those values to stay in business) or to close up shop.

Three farms and creameries in Eastern New York and Western Massachusetts are seeking a different route for viability in this volatile agricultural climate. Their method? Activating that age-old farming lifeline: community.

Breese Hollow Dairy

Chuck Phippen first started dairy farming in Utica, New York, in 1994 with a grass-fed herd of Jersey cows. At the time, grass-fed wasn’t the norm.

“People thought I was crazy,” Chuck said. “But it did well, and I kept going.”

Chuck had been inspired to try the grass-fed method after reading Greener Pastures on Your Side of the Fence by Bill Murphy. He discovered that it allowed someone with no background in farming to start out with little equipment, a cost-savings that helped him become debt-free in just seven years of operation.

In the early 2000s, Chuck began looking for more land for his herd. His farm in Utica was divided by a busy highway, which proved to be a safety challenge for both the cows and Chuck’s growing family of 12 children. He found a farm in Hoosick Falls, NY, and moved there in 2003 to open Breese Hollow Dairy.

Breese Hollow Dairy's herd at pasture

Breese Hollow Dairy’s herd at pasture

Chuck milks between 60-80 Jersey cows each year. The herd was certified organic in 2006, and certified grass-fed in 2013. That certification means cows feed exclusively on pasture and baleage, fermented hay, throughout the year without any added grain. That also meant Chuck was able to get a contract with Maple Hill Creamery, a grass-fed milk operation in New York’s Hudson Valley that produces yogurt and other products.

But then in early 2019, Chuck received a letter from Maple Hill. They were faced with the challenge of transportation and made the decision to reduce their pickup area to a certain perimeter from their processing facility. This meant that about 80 farms lost their contracts, including Chuck’s.

After 25 years of farming, Chuck wasn’t ready to give up his herd. That meant he had six months to find a new outlet for his milk before his contract with Maple Hill expired. Breese Hollow is within eight miles of two dairies that supply Stonyfield, and he had always thought that could be an option for selling his milk. At the time, however, Stonyfield wasn’t looking for more suppliers. So Chuck began to look around the area for smaller creameries that would be interested in high-quality, grass-fed milk, starting with a phone call to an old farming friend.

Hawthorne Valley Farm

Hawthorne Valley Farm started in 1972 as part of a nonprofit learning campus where school children from New York City could visit a working farm for a week to learn about food production and connect with nature. It is one of the earliest certified Biodynamic® farms in the country, and over the years has evolved to include a 60-cow dairy herd, small livestock, and vegetables, with an on-site organic creamery, bakery, natural foods grocery store, and presence at five greenmarkets and four Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) sites in New York City.

Part of Hawthorne Valley’s story has been innovating ways of engaging with the regional food system to provide support to fellow producers while getting high-quality foods to customers at reasonable prices. The Farm was one of the founding members of the Union Square Greenmarket in New York City, and one of the first CSA groups in the country and the first certified organic yogurt in New York State.

Recognizing the challenges of small farms, but also not wanting to follow the big ag model, Hawthorne Valley has sought to follow and support what Fred Kirschenmann calls “Agriculture in the middle.”

That is, the kind of farming that allows farmers to farm in a way that’s mutually supportive of the environment and profitability based on developing understanding of their land over time.

Most often, these kinds of farms are family-owned operations that manage between 100-900 acres, the ones that are too big to survive just on direct-to-consumer markets but too small to be picked up by large distributors.

With this in mind, staff members at Hawthorne Valley in the mid-2000s decided that one way to support the organic dairy industry in the region was scaling the creamery to serve as a mid-level processing facility. To that end, they tested the idea by purchasing milk from Breese Hollow Dairy to use in their certified organic yogurts and cheeses. The ultimate goal was to incentivize dairy farmers to begin using Biodynamic farming practices by providing an outlet.

But as any business owner knows, scaling a business is more involved than just wishing for growth. Not long after Hawthorne Valley began to try to grow its distribution, factors including the need for facilities and milk transportation upgrades, and the trend towards nonfat Greek yogurt caused them to put their plans for becoming a hub on hold.

In early 2019, Hawthorne Valley received a phone call from Chuck Phippen asking if they’d be interested in purchasing milk from him again. The Creamery was in need of additional milk to supplement their herd’s supply, and readily agreed to take about a third of Breese Hollow’s milk starting in May 2019. For Hawthorne Valley, it wasn’t just a question of needing the milk but also a desire to help a fellow farmer keep his lights on, even though that meant creating two product lines.

“We really appreciate that Chuck is an ethically-committed, grass-fed dairy producer,” said Spencer Fenniman, Director of Hawthorne Valley Farm. “There’s a premium to produce milk of that quality, and it’s hard to stay afloat when you’re faced with all the price cuts.”

Hawthorne Valley Farm now makes a certified Biodynamic line of plain whole milk yogurt, Alpine cheese, and raw milk with milk that comes exclusively from their own herd of Normandy and Brown Swiss cows. The rest of their products—maple whole milk yogurt, buttermilk, soft cheeses, and some aged cheese—are certified organic and grass-fed and are made with a combination of Breese Hollow’s and Hawthorne Valley’s milk.

“We determined which products were the best to highlight Hawthorne Valley’s Biodynamic milk,” Jeremy Shapiro, Creamery operations manager, said. “The product mix then gives us more flexibility in processing the non-biodynamic milk.”

Sidehill Farm

Side Hill Farm's Dairy Herd at pasture

Paul and Sidehill Farm’s herd walking to pasture

Goodwill and selling a third of the milk supply isn’t enough to keep a dairy operating, so Chuck continued his canvasing of area creameries. That brought him to Sidehill Farm in Hawley, MA, the only yogurt producer in the states.

Paul Lacinski and Amy Klippenstein started Side Hill in 2000 as a vegetable farm. Five years later, they were ready to lease more land from their neighbors, but those landowners weren’t so interested in vegetable growing. Not ready to give up, Paul and Amy proposed using the land for a dairy herd. After a few years of R&D, they purchased a former organic potato farm in 2012 and started building the infrastructure they needed for a dairy.

Today, Sidehill produces high-quality, certified organic whole milk yogurt, raw milk, and sour cream that’s consciously distributed primarily in Massachusetts. After nearly a dozen years of running both the farm and the creamery, Paul and Amy have decided to strike a more balanced work-life by selling the farm portion of their business to a younger couple and dedicating all their time to the creamery.

“We’ll be able to focus on the yogurt now and have time for sales and marketing,” said Paul. “We’re also trying to create a better workplace situation for our six employees to support staffing and time off.”

When Chuck visited Sidehill and met Paul and Amy, the three hit it off. At the time, however, Sidehill was working out an agreement to buy milk from another farm in Vermont and wasn’t in need of more supply.

“About the time that Chuck lost his contract, our agreement fell through,” Paul said, so he contacted Chuck and made an agreement. Coincidentally, two days before that occurred, he happened to meet Hawthorne Valley’s executive director, Martin Ping, at the Shelburne Falls farmers market. “I thought, ‘If everyone at Hawthorne Valley is like that, I think we can have a good working relationship.’”

Three times a week, milk needs to be picked up from Breese Hollow and brought to a processing plant. Paul and Jeremy touch base every two weeks to determine who will pick up twice a week and once a week, based on need and time off schedules. Having the creameries in communication means that Chuck can avoid being the middle man and focus on taking care of his herd.

Both Hawthorne Valley Farm and Sidehill Farm make whole milk plain and maple yogurt, and the two farms are only about an hour and a half apart meaning that their customers may overlap. For both farms, however, it’s not just about the sales. It’s about supporting their community and representing the quality farming that offers better products to consumers and helps to protect the environment.

Hawthorne Valley Farm biodynamic whole milk plain yogurt

Hawthorne Valley Farm’s plain yogurt; photo credit: Lawrence Braun

“Working with Sidehill is a benefit to our mission to keep other local grass-fed farms alive and thriving,” Jeremy said. “The more we work together collaboratively with other farms sharing our same ideals and values, the better we are setting ourselves up for a sustainable future.”

For all three farms, focusing on locality and quality is key to staying in business.

“Really it’s all about an economy of scale,” Paul said. “If you don’t have to truck too far, then a 30-60 cow dairy can still be viable if enough goes back to the farm.”

Five months into their new collaboration, everything is still running smoothly. Given the dissatisfaction with how broad USDA organic certification has become, such a model as this might be the answer for farmers and producers who value quality and principles of regenerative agriculture more than the higher price per hundredweight such certification offers.

“Many consumers will only care if they see the organic symbol on the bottle,” Jeremy said. “We are trying to change that by providing people with education through our labeling and practice.”

With the dairy industry on decline, it could be that the way to revitalize it is not to go big, but to rather go smaller, with more local dairies and creameries partnering together. Working in a mutually supportive way with your competition may seem counter-intuitive, but as Paul puts it, “If your goal isn’t to own the entire world, then why not?”