Milk Matters

Story by Claire Morenon | Graph design by Mary Reilly | Photos by Dominic Perri

silo_line1edit

silo_line1edit

One of the things that makes CISA’s “buy local” effort so successful in the Pioneer Valley is the relatively straightforward message. When you hear “Be a Local Hero, Buy Locally Grown,” it’s easy to understand how you can do that: Just swing by a farmers’ market or look for local labels at the grocery store.

But when it comes to dairy, things start to get complicated. The hardy few farms that have navigated the regulatory and financial challenges to processing milk on-farm represent just a sliver of the dairy industry in Massachusetts.

For a host of historical and practical reasons, most of the dairy farms in the state sell their milk wholesale. These dairy farms have an enormous impact on land preservation, the agricultural economy, and everything else that a healthy agricultural system means for our community.

The problem for dairy farms is in the pricing. The wholesale price for raw milk is set at the federal level using a deeply complex system, based on how demand for a range of dairy commodities interacts with international supply, and decided by bidding at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and some federal price support programs. The price farmers receive for their milk is only tenuously connected to the price you pay for milk at the grocery store.

In recent years, wholesale prices for dairy have stagnated, creating a serious gap between the cost of milk production and the amount farmers are getting paid for their milk. CISA recently worked with Dan Lass of the UMass Department of Resource Economics on a study to determine the actual costs of production for dairy farms in the state of Massachusetts. We found that it cost farmers $2.43 to produce a gallon of milk, while the price paid to farmers was stalled at $1.71 per gallon.

So how do farmers do it?

The primary financial factors not shown in the graph are programs like the state’s Dairy Farmer Tax Credit Program and the federal Dairy Margin Protection Program, which are vital stopgaps, if not permanent solutions. Many dairy farmers run diversified businesses and have income streams from other agricultural products. Finally, there are individual financial factors that can make a huge difference to a farm’s viability, such as mortgage debt or a family member’s off-farm income and benefits. Dairy farms, like all agricultural businesses, are seasonal in nature. The costs of production and the wholesale price do vary throughout the year, and when support programs are factored in, the picture from month to month can shift significantly.

So what can conscientious consumers do about all this? Unfortunately, I don’t have a snappy recommendation. Wholesale dairy pricing does, even with its complicated mechanisms, reflect consumer demand, so we can all don our milk mustaches and drink more milk. Various advocacy efforts, from establishing “Right to Farm” communities to pushing for a more localized system of price supports, can help our dairy farms stay afloat.

We’ve already seen that dairy farms are an important part of our agricultural landscape. We have the expertise, land base, and infrastructure to produce, process, bottle, and sell milk regionally, and Massachusetts dairy farms are producing a significant percentage of the milk consumed in the state. The thought that this entire agricultural sector and tradition be abandoned and that dozens of farm businesses should embark on entirely new enterprises, because of a relatively recent shift in the industry’s financial picture, is short-sighted at best.

As dairy farmer Darryl Williams of Luther Belden Farm told me, “Up until people stop drinking milk, I think there’s a future for the dairy industry here. We are committed to making a wholesome, high-quality, healthy product, always.”

Claire Morenon is a program coordinator at CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture). For more details on CISA’s work with dairy farms, visit buylocalfood.org.

The Making of Upinnzellar Cheese

By Nikki Gardner

 

Last December, I called the good folks at Upinngil Farm to ask if I could sit in on one of their artisan cheesemaking workshops. Cliff Hatch, who runs the 100-acre farm alongside his small crew, said “yes.”

On a sundrenched Saturday morning, I walk into the white-walled dairy room dressed in a chef’s jacket and hairnet, ready to learn the secret behind their notable Upinnzellar (Swiss-style) cheese. Within minutes I discover that cheesemaking is both an act of passion and gentle technique. As it goes in most kitchens and science labs, temperature and method matter.

Cliff pours raw milk into the 60-gallon cheese kettle to warm before adding the culture. The Farm’s Ayrshire cattle produce high-protein medium-fat raw milk fit for cheese production. Two hours later, the rennet is stirred in. Once the curd sets, it is cut into uniform cubes then stirred and cooked for another hour and a half. The curd is done when it can be formed into a ball. Curds and whey are separated with cheesecloth. Drained curds go into a cheese mold before they are covered and pressed overnight.

The next morning, the cheese is removed from the mold. Cliff coats the cheese with dry salt and lets it sit before the cheese is wrapped and placed in a two-door “cheese cave” to age for three to six months. After a day spent at Upinngil, I understand the craft behind their cheeses, and feel lucky for both the knowledge and company.

Upinngil Farm, 411 Main Rd., Gill
Farm Store, open daily, 8am to 7pm

----------------------

Clifford Hatch can be reached at 413-863-2297
Check Upinngil.com for detailed information about upcoming cheesemaking workshops. Currently scheduled:
Soft and fresh cheeses for beginners on April 11
Hard, pressed and aged cheeses on April 25

 

Nikki Gardner is a writer and photographer whose work has appeared in Artful Blogging, The Huffington Post, Smithsonian’s Food & Think, and The Daily Meal. She shares seasonal vegan and vegetarian recipes on WWLP’s Mass Appeal and in her cooking classes at Different Drummer’s Kitchen in Northampton. Find her online at Art & Lemons, where she chronicles everyday life in food, photos, and stories.

 

In Season: Values, Dedication Flourish at Taproot Commons Farm

By Leslie Lynn Lucio | Photographs by Leslie Lynn Lucio and Dominic Perri

High in the hilltowns of Western Massachusetts there is a raw-milk dairy farm in the small town of Cummington. Taproot Commons Farm was established by Sarah Fournier-Scanlon, then 23 years old, and her father. Though they choose to live differently in many ways, they share many of the same values, and so it made sense to farm together rather than apart.

Sarah didn’t grow up in Cummington, but spent time on the same land as a child. Her father, who is a pastor, used to spend time with the family on the same very spot when the land belonged to the United Church of Christ.

While walking around the farm, you can’t help but notice the serene beauty and peaceful sounds that embrace it. As Sarah herself says, “I came to this farm all the time as a kid; it’s one of those weird full circle things. I used to come to these wetlands and think how crazy would it be to live in a place this beautiful ... and here we are!”

Sharing this space with others, including her father, has felt good to her, as she believes in intergenerational living, and has intentionally chosen to live this way. At the age of 20, Sarah suffered the painful loss of her mother. Sarah and her father were determined to make the most meaningful use of life insurance funds her mother left them. Though people told Sarah to use the money to finish college, she and her father chose to purchase the land that is now Taproot Commons Farm.

“It was all our money, people thought it was stupid because I had to hustle and I couldn’t just let things float” said Sarah. It’s clear when speaking with Sarah, that her heart belongs to this special place. “I wanted to do this and learn from the land, I wanted to give back to the community.”

Visitors can immediately see how much appreciation is given back to the land. The farm encompasses 130 acres, but it’s mostly wetlands and woodlands. After establishing the farm, the first thing Sarah and her father did was put the land under a conservation restriction, so it would always be protected. Part of this includes a public access waterfall trail and trout fishing near the wetlands.

It’s clear that Sarah is committed to her community and the farm.

Taproot2.jpg

“I am kind of thrown by how specialized everything is in our society today and I really wanted to learn how to farm in a way that didn’t hurt the planet. I wanted to learn about all these things, but I couldn’t really find another way to do it. It just seemed the best way was to get into it and just figure it out.”

Sarah began working in her late teens, when she became passionate about dairying. Sarah has done thousands of milkings: She keeps Swiss and Jersey cows for their protein- and butterfat-rich milk.

Taproot3.jpg

“We calve all year round because we have to keep the milk flow steady. We’re not a seasonal dairy because I really believe in giving my community good milk all year round. Winters are really hard because we do the exact same thing that we do in the summer, but it takes 18,000 times as long!” She treats her animals well, even taking them on long walks with the help of others.

Sarah is excited for the future growth of Taproot Commons Farm. Plans are underway for a small folk school that will offer affordable classes on traditional farming and foodways.

“The folk school is where my heart is. I’ve wanted this for forever and just really want people to feel empowered, to think differently about what they want to be doing with their time, and to free people up.” In addition to the school, Sarah is restoring a barn on the farm as a home for community gatherings and celebrations.

For six weeks of the year, Sarah and a few others plan on hosting weddings back to back, each weekend. As Sarah says, “If you look at when you can have a true local-foods wedding in our area, it’s August through September. We’ll facelift the barn for those weeks and make it really pretty and just host a wedding every weekend!”

It’s easy to see the dedication that is being put into Taproot Commons Farm, either as a CSA member or farm stand visitor. Sarah Fournier-Scanlon knows she was given an opportunity and wants to give back as much as she can.

Walking around this piece of land and seeing what is being built for the community, there is no doubt this is an exceptional place. As Sarah says, “I want people to be able to think about livelihoods connected to the land, which builds community and serves community and to look at this tricky time as opportunity. It’s an exciting time ... it’s unprecedented, there’s nothing to lose anymore.”

Taproot Commons Farm

11 Porter Hill Rd., Cummington ◆ 413-634-5452

TaprootCommons.org

Leslie Lynn Lucio has enjoyed cooking and baking since she was a small child, as well as being an involved member of the local community. She can found running Beets & Barley Catering (BeetsAndBarley.com) and at LeslieLynnLucio.com. She can be reached at info@beetsandbarley.com.