Six and a half years ago, we announced in this newsletter the most exciting news that we could possibly imagine - that we had bought the Donovan Farm in Hawley, the magical piece of big sky country where we farm today.
Since that time, we have poured our whole selves into this special and spectacular farm. We built a light and airy barn for winter cow housing, and a modern creamery for yogurt production. For our regular applications of lime and manure, fish fertilizer and trace minerals, the fields have thanked us with increasing yields of high quality grass . Our farm shop has grown from raw milk and yogurt to include our grass-fed beef and wild forest pork, plus cheeses, ice cream, pickles and other tasties from local farms. We certified the entire operation as organic - both cows and yogurt. Our crew has grown to 10 folks, who in that six and half years have celebrated weddings, bought houses, given birth to babies, and are raising kids who think that store milk tastes funny. The yogurt business is thriving, and we are delivering Sidehill Farm yogurt all over the state. Our mission has always been to provide healthy, affordable food to everyone, and with help from our crew, we have refined that mission to focus on the quality of our products, the efficiency of our systems, and gratitude for all living beings and resources that support our work. (Plus having a good time doing it!) And so, six and half years on, we are very excited to announce the next phase in the growth of Sidehill Farm.
We are selling the farm.
WHAT! HOLD ON! Selling the farm? How is that exciting?
Let me explain...
Approximately two years ago, Paul and I were invited to sit on a discussion panel following a showing of the film Forgotten Farms. The film shines a light on traditional dairies here in New England. These are not dairies with a public face - no cheese in River Valley Market, no glass bottle milk for home delivery. They are the farms that have been milking cows, sometimes for generations, wholesaling bulk raw milk to co-ops. They are at the mercy of commodity milk prices, and they are all masters of operating on razor-thin margins. These folks are incredibly hard working, clever, persistent, and loyal to their animals. But value-added processing is something they either do not want to do, or cannot afford to do, so they operate in the shadows of the local food movement.
We have always felt that the success we have enjoyed as Sidehill Farm should be a tool for positive change in our community. As we have grown, we have been committed to supporting our local food pantry, sponsoring fundraising events for land protection, donating yogurt to events at local schools. After watching this film, Paul and I realized we could use this unique Sidehill Farm tool in a new way - by supporting other dairy farmers. If there are dairy farmers whose deepest passion is milking cows and producing high quality milk, well then, we want to work with them. Instead of pushing to milk more cows here, and straining the resources this farm has to offer, we began looking for farms producing high quality, grass-fed, certified organic milk to partner with us. As a result of that search, we supplement our own milk with milk from Leahey Farm in Lee. Phil Leahey grew up on his grandfather and uncle’s farm, and always wanted to milk cows. With his wife Jen, and two kids, Phil began milking cows on his family’s farm, and bottling their milk for sale at Guido’s and other Berkshire county stores. In the end, they realized that what they loved was milking cows, and that the milk bottling was killing them. So they called us. It was a perfect fit - Phil and Jen’s jersey cows are grass-fed, certified organic, and raised with the care and attention that we give to our own cows. We now buy all the milk they produce, for a price that is a living wage for the family. Sidehill Farm Yogurt grows and expands, and the Leaheys get to milk cows. It is a fantastic arrangement all around.
But this summer, local newspapers reported that conventional milk prices had fallen so far, dairy co-ops, including Agrimark, the milk co-op most local dairies sell their milk to, were sending out phone numbers for suicide hotlines along with their milk checks. Long standing organic co-ops like Organic Valley began putting production quotas on their family farms, and more recently, have started dropping pay prices. Horizon Organic abruptly cancelled contracts, leaving some farmers with nowhere to sell their milk. No co-ops, conventional or organic, are offering new milk contracts. For young farmers looking to get started in dairy, there are almost no options. Unless you are inheriting your family’s farm and contract, the door is closed to you.
Here at Sidehill Farm, we have been insulated from many of these changes. We sell our milk to ourselves, and pay ourselves a decent, living wage for that milk. Our farm here in Hawley produces all of the milk that is sold as raw milk in our farm shop, and the bulk of the milk that goes to our yogurt and sour cream. That milk alone could represent a good living for a family-scale dairy farmer. And that farmer? That farmer doesn’t need to be us. It could be another family who is committed to the same quality standards and organic practices. Say, a young farm family looking to get started in dairy. Started with a solid raw milk business, and a guaranteed milk contract to Sidehill Farm Yogurt for an excellent pay price.
In this vision, a young farmer gets a chance to build equity, with the safety net of a secure milk contract. We get to buy top quality, grass-fed, organic milk. The creamery would stay right here in Hawley, on the farm, with the bulk of the milk being produced right here. Paul and I get to focus on growing the yogurt business so our team of employees, and now farmers, gets paid well and fairly, and we have guaranteed access to the quality of milk that we are accustomed to. The farm shop continues under the management of the new farmer, so raw milk, beef, and pork will still be available. And maybe with fresh energy, some new products, as well.
But the other piece? Dairy farming is way of life that requires commitments and sacrifices every day of the week, possibly every hour of the day. It is not a job. And it is most definitely not a neat fit with a business requiring regular hours, production schedules, and delivery deadlines. We have brought Sidehill Farm much farther than we ever expected by pretending that reality did not apply to us – that we really could do both pieces well, without running ourselves into the ground. But you know what? It’s not true. Our mission is to support the health of our community on all its myriad levels. If dairy farmers are considering suicide, and young farmers are being shut out - that is a part of our community that needs tending to. We have a tool to help address that. Our responsibility is to the bigger picture, not to our dream of being dairy farmers.
So while we cannot deny that the process of releasing the dream is wistful, we are really excited about the possibilities! In our vision for this partnership, cows still live satisfying lives acting like cows, the soil biology here in Hawley continues to improve and gain fertility, dairy farmers make a living milking cows, yogurt makers make yogurt and provide for their families, and loyal customers buy fantastic organic grass-fed yogurt made at Sidehill Farm. And maybe we all get a vacation. That sounds pretty exciting to us.
And if you know a committed young dairy farmer who is looking for a farm, please pass this on:
Amy and Paul
If you want more information about the reasons that dairy is (yet again) in crisis, please read this excellent article: