No Crying Over Spilled Milk: Valley Dairy Farms Innovate to Survive Tough Circumstances

The Valley Advocate. June 25, 2014. By Maureen Turner.

It was not yet 10 o’clock on a recent morning, and Paul Kokoski was already about six hours into his work day.

Kokoski oversees production at Mapleline Farm, the Hadley dairy farm run by his family. On Mondays and Thursdays, that means processing and bottling about 6,000 gallons of products: milk, from skim to whole, plus flavored milks like chocolate and coffee; heavy cream; half-and-half; and, during the holiday season, Mapleline’s popular egg nog.

Kokoski had stopped work to talk with a group of visitors who crowded into the building’s entry way around two large windows overlooking a room where several employees were finishing up that day’s batch of chocolate milk. When the processing was done and the milk bottled, the machines would be cleaned. Heavy cream, Kokoski explained, is especially tough to get out of the storage tanks because “it’s so sticky.” While heavy cream is, typically, about 38 to 38 percent butterfat, Mapleline’s has tested at 45 percent, he said.

By mid-afternoon, the day’s processing and bottling would be done. “This is from start to finish no more than a 10-hour project,” Kokoski said.

No one goes into farming expecting lazy mornings or short workdays. But for dairy farms, the challenges are especially daunting, thanks to milk prices that are set by the government and that, farmers say, are so low that they leave little room for profit after they cover their expenses. Those tight margins have driven many dairy farms out of business: between 2007 and 2012, according to recently released data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the number of dairy farms in Massachusetts dropped by a breathtaking 43 percent, from 258 to 147. In the three Valley counties, Franklin, Hampshire and Hampden, 44 dairy farms went out of business during that time period, leaving just 60.

Those that have hung on have done so through a combination of cost-cutting efficiencies, innovative practices and new business models. In the case of Mapleline, that’s meant taking over the processing and bottling of their milk, which has allowed them to retain a greater, although still relatively slim, portion of the profits—about 10 or 20 percent more than they would if they sold into the wholesale market, according to Paul’s father, John Kokoski, the patriarch of the family farm.

“I think that farming is challenging for everybody, but for dairy farms in particular there’s less flexibility,” Claire Morenon, program coordinator at Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, or CISA, later told the Advocate. Farming in the Northeast can be costlier than in other parts of the country due to higher land values, energy costs and other factors, she noted: “The pricing doesn’t reflect that. That makes it really, really hard for dairy farms.”

The Kokoskis had opened their farm that day as part of an event organized by CISA to give visitors a behind-the-scenes look at a dairy farm. The group included buyers from venues including Florence’s Cup & Top café, Sunderland’s Millstone Farm Market, Northampton’s River Valley Market, Whole Foods and Hampshire College—the “in-between people” who serve as a link between dairy farms and consumers, as Morenon put it.

“We wanted to be highlighting some of what is happening on dairy farms in the state,” Morenon explained. A major component of CISA’s mission is to encourage consumers to buy local—to patronize farmers’ markets, for instance, or shop at stores that carry local produce. With milk, though, it can be more difficult to highlight a direct connection from farm to consumer, since so many dairy farmers sell their milk to the wholesale milk market. “It’s a little bit hard for us as a buy-local organization to talk about dairy farms in a lot of ways, because a lot of dairy farms aren’t really visible because they’re selling into the milk pool,” she said.

Mapleline Farm is a notable exception to that norm, processing and then selling its products, with its own label, at stores and coffee shops and restaurants around the Valley. (Other Valley dairy farms have followed similar paths; McCray’s Farm in South Hadley began bottling and selling its own milk last year, for instance, and a number of smaller farms make and sell their own yogurt and cheese.) Mapleline also began offering home delivery service in 2004. Earlier this year, the farm partnered with Rao’s Coffee Roasting, which now handles that portion of the business.

When John Kokoski’s great-grandfather started the family farm in 1902, it grew vegetables and tobacco. In the 1950s, John’s father introduced dairy cows. “Now I’m at the top of the ladder, so to speak, but looking to jump off,” said John, whose adult children, as well as a son-in-law, work on the farm. All told, the Kokoskis own 150 acres and rent another 75, where they grow feed for their animals.

From the processing plant, the tour group moved to the milking parlor, where more than 100 cows are milked twice a day, at 6 a.m. and 4 p.m., a process that can take two to two-and-a-half hours, explained Zach Woodis, Mapleline’s herd manager. Then the group moved into the barn where the lactating cows are kept. (“Vacation cows”—pregnant cows who are not milked in the months before they are due to give birth—spend most of their time in pasture, Woodis explained.) At the far end of the barn was the nursery, where calves spend the first couple months of their lives until they are weaned. To judge by visitors’ excitement at petting the sweet-eyed animals, this was the highlight of the tour.

Joining the tour of the Kokoskis’ farm that day were fellow dairy farmers Lucinda and Darryl Williams, whose Luther Belden Farm in Hatfield dates back to the 17th century. They’re the twelfth generation to farm the land, and their son recently joined them, Lucinda Williams said: “No pressure, right, after all these generations?”

Mapleline Farm isn’t all that different from Luther Belden Farm, Lucinda told the group. “The smells, the sights, the sounds—that’s our office.”

There is one major difference between the two operations: while Mapleline processes and sells its own milk, Belden Farm is a commercial dairy that belongs to Agri-Mark, a New England dairy farmers’ co-op whose 1,200 member farms range from large operations to small farms.

Among dairy farms in the region, “we’ve got a little bit of everything,” added Darryl Williams. Dairy farmers might process their own milk, sell to wholesalers, or make products like cheese and yogurt. They also find innovative ways to cut costs, often with positive environmental consequences, he noted. Several Massachusetts dairy farms have installed anaerobic digesters that convert cow manure into energy. Mapleline Farm has installed solar panels on its main barn and plans to add more, with assistance from a state program that helps fund energy-efficiency projects on farms, John Kokoski said. The farm also reuses grey water from its bottle washer, mixing it with manure to create natural fertilizer for its fields.

“One good thing about dairy farming in the Valley is, there are options,” Lucinda Williams said. In the same way that there’s room in the economy for small, local hardware stores and mega-retailers like Home Depot, she said, “We really believe there’s a place for all production practices in the dairy industry. …

“Really, we want to say, ‘Drink milk. Eat your cheese, your yogurt.’”

That message, coupled with support from the state and the promotional work of the Massachusetts Dairy Promotions Board and CISA, seems to be having at least modest effect: in 2013, Darryl Williams noted, Massachusetts didn’t lose a single dairy farm—no small accomplishment, given the dramatic decline the industry has seen in recent decades.

The number of dairy farms may have dropped, but they’re still a crucial part of the region’s agricultural economy. According to statistics compiled by CISA, 41 percent of Massachusetts’ dairy farms are in the three Valley counties. Those farms account for only 3 percent of the Valley’s total farm businesses, but their milk sales account for 14 percent of all local farm sales. And a 2011 study by the American Farmlands Trust found that dairy farms make up 18 percent of the Valley’s total farmland.

“They’re stewarding so much land, they’re employing people, they’re generating so much of the agricultural income in this area,” Morenon said. “But they’re not necessarily visible.”