Just two years after they made their first cheese, the Robinsons' A Barndance variety took second place in the American Cheese Society's 2012 competition, and their Prescott won Gold and their Tekenink Tomme earned Bronze at the Big E's 2012 cheese competition.
Photos courtesy of Pam Robinson unless otherwise noted.
At a time when many dairy farms are adding cows and boosting production to try to make ends meet, one Massachusetts farm has bucked that trend and is doing better than ever. Keeping fewer cows, selling raw milk directly to consumers, transitioning to organic management, and producing award-winning cheese has turned out to be a formula for success for Robinson Farm (http://www.robinsonfarm.org) in Hardwick, Mass.
The farm was purchased by Ray Robinson's grandfather in 1892. For much of its first century in the family, it was a diversified operation, with a gradually growing dairy herd that peaked at around 120 fresh cows. Feed for the animals was grown at the farm, with 120 acres in corn and 150 acres of hay.
When milk pay prices plummeted in the 2000s, Ray and his wife, Pam, started exploring other options. "We were looking at ways to get away from conventional dairy because it wasn't economically viable or sustainable," says Ray. Their daughter, Gina, told them about opportunities to sell raw milk directly to consumers.
Massachusetts licenses dairy farmers to sell raw milk directly to consumers who come to the farm to purchase it. Farms are inspected monthly, and the milk is tested for bacteria, coliform and somatic cells. It must meet the same standards as pasteurized milk sold to consumers.
"We really liked the direct marketing opportunity that selling raw milk presented," says Ray. "We could charge a fair price and eliminate a middleman or two or three." Investigating the possibilities further, they discovered that raw milk consumers prefer milk from grass-fed cows, so in 2005 the Robinsons began selling off their herd, eventually getting down to 40 milking animals - as much as their pasture could sustain. They provided as much raw milk as their customers wanted, and the rest was shipped to the dairy co-op they had been part of for many years.
"Selling raw milk directly to customers gives us a chance to talk to people about our product and procedures, and about our values as farmers," says Pam. "It made us think about those things and do more homework." They learned to listen to customers as well, says Ray.
Pam and Ray Robinson successfully transformed a 120-cow conventional dairy into a certified organic, 40-cow, grass-fed operation, selling raw milk and award-winning cheese.
In 2006, they took another step - inspired by their customers' interests and their own growing knowledge about food - and began transitioning their herd to organic management. They completed the certification process in 2009. The transition was aided by a USDA/NRCS grant to help with fencing and converting hay and cornfields to pasture.
While demand for the Robinsons' raw milk was greater than they had expected - they sell more than 6,000 gallons a year to customers who drive as much as two hours to their farm - it still wasn't enough to sell all the milk their cows produced. Since none of the organic milk processors run pickup routes through central Massachusetts, their organic milk was being mixed with conventional, so they weren't reaping any of the benefits of the higher prices organic milk can yield.
Raw milk can command a higher return than just about any value-added dairy product, since less labor and fewer inputs are required, and the Robinsons count on that revenue to keep their farm alive. However, constant concerns about laws and regulations that would change access to raw milk make it somewhat scary to rely on it as their sole product, so the Robinsons began exploring cheese production. They took classes, read lots of books, visited a number of cheesemaking farms, and took a business planning course offered by the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources. They practiced making cheese and tested recipes in their kitchen, and on December 31, 2009, had their last co-op milk pickup at the farm.
"That was really scary," recalls Ray. "But all it had really been giving us was a guaranteed check that wasn't enough to pay the bills." At this point, their cheesemaking skills were improving. "We learned a lot from consultants, classrooms and reading, but until you get your hands covered with curd, you don't even know what questions to ask," says Ray. Their facility still wasn't fully up and running, so while construction progressed, there were a few months when their only income was from raw milk sales.
Construction of the cheesemaking facility proved challenging, in part due to regulations. Although their farm and home are considered residential, state inspectors decided that new plumbing for the cheesemaking facility would need to follow the commercial plumbing code, which meant using cast-iron pipe rather than PVC - at about three times the cost and an additional six weeks of labor. "Forty-eight states don't require that for this kind of a plant," notes Pam, but Massachusetts is an exception. Despite the Robinsons finding plenty of evidence and experts who insisted that PVC would far outlast the cast iron, they eventually had to yield to the demands of the state regulators.
They built the plant to make Alpine cheese, capitalizing on their family name to start out by making Robinson Family Swiss. Since their cheeses are made with raw milk, federal regulations require at least 60 days of aging, but many of their varieties are ripened longer in order to get the flavor they want. Ray makes cheese at least three times a week - about 15,000 pounds of cheese a year - and Pam retired from her job as a nurse midwife to devote herself full-time to marketing and fulfilling orders.
"We've made some very good cheese, and a big part of that is having good quality milk," says farmer and cheesemaker Ray Robinson.
The Robinsons started by selling their cheese at farmers' markets, dropping off samples at stores in Boston, and spreading the word through family and friends. Sales grew quickly, particularly when their A Barndance variety took second place in the American Cheese Society's 2012 competition and two varieties earned awards in the Big E's 2012 cheese competition - Prescott won Gold and Tekenink Tomme earned Bronze. Today they send dozens of wheels at a time to customers like Fairway Market in New York City and the famous Murray's Cheese Shop in Manhattan, N.Y., along with stores in Boston, Cape Cod and Long Island.
Some customers drive more than two hours to buy fresh, unpasteurized milk from the Robinsons' farmstand.
Photo by Michal Lumsden.
Now, just a few years into their venture, they realize they could use more space in the cheese cave, Pam says, particularly as they make varieties that need to age longer. While they could sell more cheese, they're choosing not to.
They have the right number of cows for the amount of pasture they have, and they selectively breed their herd of Normandes, Jerseys and Holsteins to keep the lines that produce well on grass. High components and solids are more important than quantity, Ray explains, since so much of the milk goes into the cheese, and they don't want to buy milk from other farms to make their cheese. "One of the key points to our success is that we have complete control over quality; we know everything about the milk that goes into the vat. We've made some very good cheese, and a big part of that is having good quality milk."
With the growth of the venture, they are now finding ways to increase efficiency - buying more supplies in bulk and tweaking systems to make the business more sustainable. Ray and Pam would like to retire in the near future, but want to be sure the business will be viable over the long term so the land can remain a farm. "Part of us wishes we had made these changes 15 years ago when we were younger," adds Pam.
The transition from producing conventional, fluid bulk milk to organic cheese and raw milk has taken 10 years. The constant change was stressful, but worth it, the couple says. With each new change there was uncertainty. "Trusting that new ways will work is hard," says Ray. After many years of dairying conventionally, switching to 100 percent grass-fed took a leap of faith, but it has paid off.
The Robinsons estimate that the changes haven't resulted in more hours of work for them, but they're not working any less, either. What's important is that the farm is now sustainable. "We're not going to get rich," says Pam, "but the farm is finally at a point where it can sustain itself, and us."
Winton Pitcoff is a freelance writer and coordinator of the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association.