Cheesemaking Key to New Dairy Farm’s Success in Cummington
By BERA DUNAU – Staff Writer
Daily Hampshire Gazette, July 30, 2021
CUMMINGTON – Max Breiteneicher started Grace Hill Farm with a simple question in mind: Can one man run a dairy farm?
It turns out the answer is yes — with the partnership of his wife, Amy Breiteneicher, a supportive community, helpful neighbors, and government grants.
“We feel so grateful to be able to do it,” said Amy Breiteneicher.
Max and Amy purchased Grace Hill Farm on Pottash Hill Road in 2012, selling their first cheese in 2014. The property hadn’t been farmed for decades, and Max noted that it took some time to get it into shape.
“(When) we bought this place, it was not a dairy farm,” he said. “It was just a house with a bunch of pretty nice land.”
The property is about 120 acres, and the house dates back to the 1790s.
“It’s unusual for someone to start a dairy farm,” Max said, saying that aside from Sidehill Farm he doesn’t know of any new dairy farms that have started in Massachusetts in his lifetime.
Today, the small dairy farm produces several raw milk cheeses, while also selling raw milk and eggs. The farm’s cheese can be purchased at a number of stores, including the Old Creamery Co-Op, both River Valley Market locations and Bread Euphoria. The cheese is also available through Mass Food Delivery and can be purchased at the farm’s stand. The farm also intends to start participating in farmers’ markets again this year.
One of the cheeses the farm produces is Hilltown Blue, a strong blue cheese. “It has big fans,” he said. “And the people who don’t like blue don’t like it at all.”
The farm also makes an English-style cheddar, which Max said is mellower than Vermont cheddar. He said that they chose not to make Vermont cheddar because of the number of places that make it, and the quality of Cabot cheddar cheese.
“I’m not going to compete with that,” he said.
A cheese that was developed at Grace Hill Farm is Cheesecake, which was developed from chaource. Another cheese that is unique to the farm is their Valais, a French-alpine-style cheese.
“I can claim those cheeses as indigenous to this farm,” he said. “You cannot get those two cheeses from anybody else.”
Another of the farm’s offerings is Philbrick, a tomme-style cheese that is washed with Artifact Cider that is unique to the farm.
“It’s just like a delicious cider-washed cheese,” he said. Artifact Cider, which has a tap room in Florence, also sells the cheese.
Neither Max nor Amy grew up in the Hilltowns, with both hailing originally from the eastern part of the state. However, Amy is a graduate of Hampshire College.
“The skills that I learned at Hampshire were very helpful,” she said.
The milking herd at Grace Hill Farm is currently only nine cows after one of the cows was recently sent off to auction. Max has named all of the cows, and they respond when he calls out to them.
“I know each of one of them quite well,” Max said. “We have a very close relationship.”
The herd is a mixture of Normans, Ayrshires and Jersey crossbreeds, and Max said that the high udders of the herd’s breeds are well-suited to the farm’s terrain.
Max said that Normans are the standard cow in France for making Camembert cheese.
Except in the winter, the cows spend all of their time pastured. The animals are grass-fed, with local grain only being used as an enticement to get them to come in for milkings in the farm’s milk parlor or for tasks like separating out a cow.
Amy is in charge of doing all of the bookkeeping on the farm, as well as taking lead on raising their young son, Charlie. And while she doesn’t play a major role in the cheese-making process, she did note that “I do eat the cheese.”
Max and Amy don’t have farming backgrounds, but when Max interned at Jasper Hill Farm in Vermont in the early 2000s, a dairy farm and cheese-making operation, he got hooked.
“I just fell in love with the process,” he said. “Fell in love with the cow side of it and especially fell in love with the actual cheese-making side of it.”
Max also acknowledged that cheese has generally been his favorite food. And he said that selling value-added products like cheese presented a reasonable price per input for their scale of farm. Locally, Max also has interned with Chase Hill Farm and Sidehill Farm.
Max said that the community in Cummington has been amazing, from their neighbors to the Board of Health.
“There are so many ways that this could have just failed,” he said. “So many of those steps were aided by the community. It’s hard to even claim that I did it.”
Amy also expressed gratitude for the community in the Hilltowns.
“Our neighbors have been so helpful every step of the way,” she said.
Government grants also have been essential to the farm’s business. “We’d be limping along without them,” Max said.
The pandemic was nearly a disaster for Grace Hill Farm, shutting down its presence in farmers’ markets. However, Grace Hill Farm was an early participant with Mass Food Delivery, which emerged on the scene as a way to get farm-fresh food delivered directly to people’s doors.
“It absolutely sustained us,” Amy said.
Max said that his typical day from April until about Christmas is waking up at 4 a.m. and working until 7:30 p.m. “Seven days a week,” he said.
However, from around mid-December to April, the cows are not milked, giving Max and Amy a bit of a break.