Sunday, April 7, 2013

Up on the Farm

What a wonderful excursion Bonnie and I had yesterday at the new home of Sidehill Farm in Hawley, Massachusetts. Saturday was opening day for the Farm Shop and the occasion for tours of the new buildings. I know this blog is supposed to be about art, but I took a day off from the studio and I wanted to share my experience with you. (Be sure to click on the pictures to enlarge them.)

Patting the great Sylvie. No, she is not a meanie, but she does have a fierce look.

The New Farm
Sidehill Farm relocated from Ashfield, Mass. to their present home, the former Donovan Farm, a 225-acre, stunningly beautiful property at the very top of Hawley, at an elevation of 1830 feet. It was once the largest certified organic farm in Massachusetts and the source of Donovan's organic potatoes. It's a high, open area with a totally visible sky unblocked by trees or buildings. Here's how Amy, one of the owners of Sidehill and an excellent writer, describes the property:

Gently rolling fields of waving grass and a sky that stretches from sunrise to sunset every single day. Such sky we don't see often in our hilltowns - but this is sky where the day is two hours longer than you thought it was. You can bale hay by moonlight. The frogs sing from the pond to keep you company in those late hours, filling that starry sky with their songs that by day are drowned by birds. And different birds! Not our familiar treetop songbirds, but grassland birds swooping behind the tractors, snatching insects from the windrows of hay - bobolinks, barn swallows, redwing blackbirds, killdeer.



The view "down the mountain" just outside the Farm Shop. In the distance, if you know just
where to look, you can see Mt. Monadnock in New Hampshire.




Fabulously beautiful but still really cold with winds sweeping across the open spaces and snow still lingering.

Our Personal History With This Area
More than a dozen years ago, Bonnie and I moved to western Massachusetts. For the first five-plus years we lived in the town of Ashfield, one of the hilltowns in the Pioneer Valley, population less than 1800 people spread over 40 square miles, elevation about 1400 feet. One town over from Ashfield is Hawley, population less than 400 people, area about 30 square miles, elevation 1700-plus feet. I've written about this area before here and even included photos of what-was-then the Donovan farm in that post. We knew Sidehill Farm when it was in Ashfield and we used to get fresh vegetables every week as well as raw milk, sometimes grass-fed beef, and, when they started making it, yogurt.


Sidehill Farm yogurt  - once available only locally but now being distributed in eastern Mass. as well

The Dairy Herd
This wonderful yogurt is produced from the rich milk of two breeds of grass-fed cows at Sidehill - Normande and Jersey. The Normandes are big, mostly piebald cows with distinctive rings or spectacles around their eyes. They are raised for both their rich milk and for beef. This breed is originally from the Normandy region of France and does not have a history of being grain fed as many American breeds do. The Jerseys are much smaller, more uniformly brown with large, dark eyes, and are originally from the Isle of Jersey off the coast of England. 


The brown cow on the left (with head cropped) is a Jersey and the beauty on the right is Sylvie, a Normande.

Here are the two breeds as calves - left, Balsam, a Jersey, and right, Goliath, a Normande. These two were born at the beginning of March.

The Tour
Led by  intrepid co-owner Paul, wearing a sequined, hot pink hat that he had donned to "channel his inner girl" for an earlier task, we set out down the very open road to the new cluster of buildings where the yogurt will soon be made and where the cows are already settled in.


We started the tour at the new farm shop, where yogurt, raw milk, paneer, beef and other goods are sold.


Tour guide Paul in his charming chapeau at the start of the tour


The creamery and cow barn in the distance. It was such a blue sky day although a freezing cold wind was blowing.


Our tour group entering the creamery building.


Inside the creamery with Paul pointing out the new equipment.


Yogurt is still being made at the former location in Ashfield for a couple of weeks while final work is completed here. These buildings were just begun last fall and constructed in December. You can see some in-process photos on Sidehill Farm's Facebook page here.



The jacketed tanks where yogurt will be made.

The milk inside the tanks will be heated to 185 degrees by hot water (heated by solar) in the jackets to pasteurize it. After using the heated water here, it will flow through pipes in the floor to heat the creamery!  Owners Amy and Paul have put so much forethought and planning  into this property that it's inspirational.

Once the probiotic cultures are added to the heated milk, it will be moved to the heating room to firm up into yogurt.. This only takes a day.


The wall heater in the still to be completed heating room.

There is also a huge walk-in refrigerator where the yogurt will be stored and much more equipment yet to install.

View of attached cowbarn from the creamery.

There were two more important rooms to see before we joined the cows in the barn. First, the milk room, where milk from the milking parlor is collected in tanks. One tank will be for raw milk and the other for yogurt.


Here is Paul in the milk room answering our questions about how things work.


Cow Info For Those Not In The Know
Our questions were not about how the equipment worked, but how the cows worked. For example:

When are cows bred so that they will calf at a certain time of year? The gestation period is about 10 months for cows. Now that Amy and Paul have an indoor location and plenty of room for calves, they will begin breeding cows to calf in January instead of March. 

How do you feed the calves and still get milk from the cows?
Nurse cows can feed seven or eight calves. Cows have been bred to give so much milk that it's more than one calf could possibly need. Nurse cows are cows that are more adaptable to suckling calves or they are cows whose milk has not developed the qualities needed for processing after calving but which is fine for calves. Calves are not fed from bottles when nurse cows are not available but from buckets with four or five nipples. 

How many milk cows do you have at one time?
About 22.

How long do cows give milk/what is their lifespan?
Depending on the cow, usually about 14 years but sometimes as long as 20.

How long does it take to milk a cow/your herd?
Cows vary from about five to 15 minutes for milking. It takes about an hour and a half to milk all the cows.


The Milking Parlor
That has such a luxurious ring to it, doesn't it? Like the cows are all lounging around on chaises and sofas thinking about giving milk when they get around to it. However, I have been receiving Amy's wonderful periodic email updates about goings-on at the farm, and I know that the milking parlor and everything else connected with dairying is really no bovine literary salon.

One of four milking stations. Each station serves two cows at a time.

This was really fascinating. That concrete step in the photo above is 14" high and the cows actually step up there on either side of that rounded railing. Sounds unlikely but it does work. That height of 14" is determined by the appropriate height for the person doing the milking, as you will see later.


Amy showing how the cows stand when being milked.

The cows are let into the parlor from the adjacent barn three at a time through a door at the right operated by a a handle hanging from the ceiling (you can see it in the top left quadrant of this photo). A cow steps up on the platform and then puts her head through a gate that locks her head in place. The cow is busied with a tasty sample of grain to keep her occupied.


Amy is standing at the milking apparatus and about to sit on the swiveling white stool behind her. The little girl in pink boots is standing where a cow would stand, so there would be one cow to the left of Amy and one to the right.


Amy showing the actual milking gear that attaches to the cow's teats (four).

Milk is pumped from the cows into tubing that moves the milk into sealed vats in the milk room. This milking system can tell when a cow's milk has all been pumped and the pumping action will stop automatically. Once a cow is finished being milked, the milker releases the gate holding her head and the cow walks to the right where a second door to the cowbarn is opened to let the cow out. It sounds like a smooth operation but apparently cows have ideas of their own about how smoothly things will go depending on - whatever cows depend on.

The Cowbarn
Walking out the door to the barn from the milking parlor is like stepping outside because of the beautiful light from the ceiling/roof that is covered by a special fabric that is impermeable to rain and snow and casts a softly glowing light over the huge area of the barn. It also smells wonderful - like fresh hay - and you'll see why as you keep reading.


Roof trusses that hold the fabric in place


As you can see, this is just one side of the barn and there is a whole giant area behind the
camera where the calves are kept. This barn is ginormous.
There are a couple of other unusual features about this barn. First of all, the giant windows that also let in light, the fact that there are no stalls and the cows are free to roam around (mostly) and hang out with each other and the floor that is filled with bedding. The floor is covered in hay - three giant bales of it a day - and the layers continue to build up as the winter goes on. Amy said that after an entire winter, the piled up hay could actually be about four feet deep! Underneath the top layers, the bottom layers get compacted and the used hay and cow poop begin to break down into compost. The floor is cushy, warm and great bedding. In spring (if it ever arrives) when the cows can go out to pasture once the grass starts growing, the entire floor will be shoveled up and put out to compost on the fields.


Close up of the bedding floor

Why is this so good besides the great features above? Because it saves our watershed. Amy said that their farm is at the very top of a watershed that runs all the way to Long Island, NY! By not making runoff from cow poop, Sidehill Farm is saving that watershed from pollution. Imagine if this practice was followed by many more farms so that we wouldn't have the stinking giant poop mountains or lakes that the usual farms have.


Show Us The Cows
OK, here are the cow pix.

A black and white Normande with a Jersey pal. I wish I could tell you the names of these cows because all the names are so imaginative and downright funny. The calves are named generationally after their mothers, so that Christmas is the calf of Thanksgiving and so forth. 

A pretty Jersey girl. (Way better looking than any of the girls from that reality show.)


Gentle and curious Jerseys surrounding a visitor who didn't mind getting his knees dirty.

The distinctive "spectacles" on a white-faced Normande. Notice how full her udder is getting.

The wonderful Sylvie giving me the eye. Note her horns that had to be cut because
they kept growing and were aiming into her head.

These are the young bulls and the cows that are not milking/haven't calved yet. Notice
that the only thing keeping them away from the others are those two thin wires. Those
wires are electrified but apparently the "fence" doesn't always
keep the boys on their side of the barn if they want
to check things out on the girls' side.

This is a cow enjoying the saltlick and minerals that are kept unpooped-on in this
rubber-topped floor container. There are a few of these containers around and the cows use them continually.

A child viewing some of the calves

The youngest calf, born just three days earlier. The calves are kept in enclosures by age
with older calves in one pen and the youngest kept by themselves.

Two older calves - Jersey and Normande, respectively.

The Equipment
Farms are full of the greatest machines. Being a city slicker type, I have no idea what most of them do. Here is one that was pointed out to me - the bale chopper. This is what is used to go into the field behind the old cemetery on the farm (see my 2009 post here), pick up one of the giant, plastic-wrapped bales of hay, bring it back to the barn, unwrap it and then chop up the hay so it can be spread on the bedding floor.


Chugging down the road with a speared bale on the way to the barn.

An unwrapped bale prior to chopping.

Inside the bale chopper.

Finally, I couldn't resist taking a photo of this wonderful blue tractor against the red barn.

A color study

All I can say is that after this life, if I come back as a cow, I know where I want to end up - Sidehill Farm.




But while we're all still in this life, don't forget to look for the great Sidehill Farm yogurt at Whole Foods, farmstands, CSAs and farmers' markets near you (here's a list from their website). It is guaranteed (at least by me) to be the best yogurt you have ever tasted. After learning all this about how carefully their cows are fed and treated, I understand even more how they make the fabulous product they do. Believe me, it's like eating ice cream, only better for you.Try it, you'll LOVE it!


Inside our refrigerator.

15 comments:

Lynette Haggard said...

Oh this is a terrific post! I love dairy farms, having spent most childhood summers working on one in Vermont. Never saw a Normande before, very cool. Do they milk the cows twice a day? Thanks giving us a little photo essay with fun narrative. You know I LOVE that yogurt!

Nancy Natale said...

Yes, they milk twice a day - morning and night. Their morning is way earlier than mine I'm sure. I didn't know you worked on a dairy farm as a kid but I do know that you love this yogurt! Thanks for commenting, Lynette.

Catherine Carter said...

Great post! Love the little calves (and seeing the human kids enjoying the tour!)!

Carolyn said...

Loved. This. Post.

Joanne Mattera said...

I love how you start with the cow and end with the yogurt in your fridge.

Nancy Natale said...

Thanks, Catherine, Carolyn and Joanne. This was a long post to write but In enjoyed putting it all together. I'm glad you enjoyed reading it.

Karen Frazer said...

Loved reading this post. The calves were so sweet. It makes me happy to know people are running their business and producing food in such an environmentally responsible way. If I had access to the yogurt I would try it. Alas, none here in NC.

Nancy Natale said...

Sorry, Karen! This yogurt deserves to be sampled by everyone, but unfortunately, the small size of the manufacturing plant prohibits that. On the other hand, the small size and hands-on production makes the product what it is. Thanks for your comment!

Christine said...

But I want the yogurt in MY fridge!! Seriously. Great post Nancy.

Nancy Natale said...

Thanks, Christine! I wish it was in your fridge, too.

Lynn said...

Thank you for this wonderful post! It perfectly captures what it was like for us too!

Wendy Wolfe Rodrigue said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this, Nancy! Thank you for this fabulous tour- my first ever of a dairy farm. Your descriptions and photographs are wonderful, and you can bet I'm going to find that yogurt somewhere. Such a terrific post! What I wouldn't give to meet Sylvie and pet her as you did-

Nancy Natale said...

Thanks for your comment, Wendy. I hope you somehow do get to taste the World's Best Yogurt and to give the very distinguished Sylvie a pat.

Vernell said...

This is cool!

Martha Marshall said...

Thank you for that wonderful post! I love when artists show us what else they're doing. I felt like I was right there, and those cows are beauties.