Barstow farm project rewrites dairying economics in Hadley

The Daily Hampshire Gazette. December 16, 2014. Editorial.

Since 1806, members of the Barstow family have risen to long days working land on a rise just east of the Connecticut River in Hadley. In all that time, despite the coming of industry and waves of tech revolutions, one thing remained constant: Milking cows takes people a lot of time.

No longer. In a remarkable development that could strengthen the beleaguered dairy business in Massachusetts, the Barstow Longview Farm is using a robotic milking system that significantly reduces labor costs.

The advance is financed by the sale of development rights to 123 acres of land at the farm. Unlike other preservation deals, this one doesn’t just ward off building on farm fields. It improves the odds for farmers and helps ensure this vital work continues.

Milking time at this Hadley farm will never be the same. Instead of spending 10 hours a day guiding the farm’s 220-cow herd through the milking parlor, members of the Barstow family can attend to other farm business. Once the cows are trained, the animals will move on their own through an area where four devices known as the Astronaut A4 — created by a Dutch company and selling for $150,000 a pop — will automatically clean udders, attach nozzles and extract milk.

That’s likely something generations of farmers have fantasized about. It is reality at the Barstow farm, thanks to the state’s commitment to buy development rights from farmers through the Agricultural Preservation Restriction program.
Full details will be released when the deal is final in January. But the change got a jump start through a short-term loan of $545,000 to the farm from the Conservation Fund and Franklin Land Trust.

Early next year, taxpayers will be heroes on this farm. The Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources will provide funding for the APR deal, along with other public sources including the Massachusetts Department of Transportation’s Scenic Byways Program — the farm sits alongside Route 47, a rural road that is particularly scenic in its run alongside the river — and the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

This innovation for the Barstow Longview Farm is only its latest. In 2008, the family opened a store and bakery on the property run by Shannon and Kelly Barstow that enables the business to pull in retail dollars as well as wholesale ones from bulk milk sales. Last year, the farm installed an anaerobic digester that collects methane from manure and plants and uses that as fuel to produce enough energy to run the farm. Surplus electricity goes out to the grid.

Those are strategic moves for the Barstow clan. The goal is to survive in a business that has seen many opt out. From 5,000 in 1950, the number of dairy farms in Massachusetts had fallen to 180 in 2007, when the state’s agriculture commissioner declared a crisis in dairying and the Legislature came up with $3.6 million in emergency relief. That was a rough year for state dairies because wholesale milk prices, set by the U.S. government, hit historic lows at a time when feed prices had nearly doubled, in part because of the diversion of corn to ethanol production.

To survive, a Dairy Farm Revitalization Task Force concluded, these businesses needed to consider promoting agricultural tourism, developing alternative energy sources and reducing their high fixed costs. The Barstow farm, in tackling all three, stands as a model of the future-minded dairy business. That spirit is captured on a sign at the farm’s entrance: “Looking Forward Since 1806.”

It’s something of a miracle that adult members of the Barstow family stuck with farming — and there’s no guarantee future ones will sign on in the farm’s third century. But with the biggest chore now automated, the odds just got a lot better.