Robots take over Barstow family farm in Hadley

The Daily Hampshire Gazette. December 5, 2014. By Dave Eisenstadter. 

After receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars to preserve their seventh generation family farm, the Barstows are using the money to populate it with robots.

While negotiating the sale of the Agricultural Preservation Restriction rights on 123 acres of their dairy farm, the Barstows have installed four Astronaut A4 milking robots. Sold and developed by the Netherlands-based Lely company, the robots sense when the cows are nearby, clean their udders, attach milking nozzles to the teats and extract the milk.

Milking their herd of 220 cows would take five hours twice each day at the farm’s milking parlor, built in 1984. The robots will be able to milk the cows 24 hours a day at the cows’ own leisure. They just walk up and the robot does the rest.

“We’re always looking forward to the next newest thing,” Barstow said at the farm Thursday. “On a lot of farms, if they don’t have the next generation coming to take over, the old generation is always going to do things the way they’ve been doing them, and the next thing they know they have become antiquated.”

Barstow, 33, works with his father, uncle, and sisters at the farm. The sign at the end of their driveway says “Barstow Longview Farm: Looking Forward Since 1806.”
Each robot costs about $150,000, according to Barstow, and without selling the Agricultural Preservation Restriction rights, the family would not have been able to afford them.

That’s where Amherst-based Kestrel Land Trust came in. The trust’s mission is to conserve land in the Pioneer Valley and the Agricultural Preservation Restriction prevents owners from developing land for nonfarm purposes, according to Kestrel Land Conservation Specialist Ben Wright.

“By paying a farmer to give up the development rights, the land’s highest and best use is then farm land, and it can be sold as farm land,” Wright said.

Instead of having a farmer sell off a piece of land when times get tough, the Agricultural Preservation Restriction program allows the farmer to get money, but still keep their land, Wright said.

In exchange, farmers must use the land for agricultural purposes, according to program coordinator Ronald Hall.

The Conservation Fund and Franklin Land Trust provided a bridge loan of $545,000 for the project, which covers the bulk of the sale, according to Wright. He said the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources would not disclose the full sale amount until the deal is closed in January. Most of the funding, which will pay back the loan, will come from public sources including the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation Scenic Byways Program, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

In the case of the Barstow Farm, preserving the land is helping them move forward and modernize their farm.

The Barstows own about 200 acres and rent 200 more for their dairy operation as well as their approximately 40 beef steers. The robots are only their latest innovation.

Last year, the family installed an anaerobic digester, a machine that takes methane out of cow manure and plants and burns it for energy. The digester powers the entire farm and there is enough electricity left over to sell it to the utility company for net metering credits, Barstow said. He noted that the farm is a member of the Agri-Mark dairy cooperative, which produces Cabot Cheese, and the farm sells its credits to Agri-Mark.

“They are churning butter and making cheese with electricity that comes from this farm,” Barstow said.
Barstow’s sisters, Shannon and Kelly Barstow, operate one of the farm’s other innovations — the store and bakery. Opened in 2008, the store sells breakfast and lunch along with bakery items and meat and dairy products from the farm. They also sell their uncle David’s brand of T-shirts called “Harsh RealiTees” containing maxims like “Don’t be offended by the evolution of ideas.”

“My family is definitely committed to making sure we stay farming here,” Kelly Barstow said from inside the store. Beside her are tables where customers can get WiFi while enjoying a view of the mountains. The quiet café atmosphere invites community members to visit and interact with the farm without walking among the barns and heavy machinery, she said.

The café opened in 2008, right as the financial crisis was affecting small businesses, Kelly Barstow said. The beginning was a struggle, but their customer base has grown.

“We just had our sixth anniversary and we’re finally starting to feel like we have more of a handle on everything,” she said.

Through the store, the farm hosts Christmas parties, caters office parties, and rents out the facility for special events.

“People like the food and the baked goods and they like being able to support the local economy and a small family-run business,” Kelly Barstow said.

Steve Barstow said the family farm has always been eager to innovate. His father and uncle were instrumental in convincing their elders to switch to the milking parlor, he noted, so they understood the need to continue the innovation. Prior to their efforts, all milking was done by hand with buckets, Steve Barstow said.

Both Steve and Kelly Barstow said they tried other vocations but returned to the family farm. For Steve Barstow, the allure of being his own boss was the greatest incentive. His sister said she likes to feel like a part of something.

“It is nice to have a big close family to be able to do this kind of stuff,” she said. “Sometimes it is a lot of hours and extra work, but in the end we’re able to keep this family on this piece of land and it’s nice.”

As for the next generation to take over the farm, they are yet to come, Steve Barstow said.