Valley Bounty: Chase Hill Farm
Published June 18, 2022 in the Daily Hampshire Gazette
By Jacob Nelson
“How many people get a chance where someone walks up to you and says, ‘do you want your dream?'” asks Laura Wells-Tolley. In 2017, she and her partner Ben were offered that chance when they took over Chase Hill Farm in Warwick from the Fellows family, who founded it back in the 1950s.
“Chase Hill Farm is a diversified livestock farm with a 100% grass-fed, organic, raw milk dairy at its center,” explains Wells-Tolley. Nestled in the hills north of route 2, they raise cows, pigs, chickens, and goats on 270 acres, producing meat, eggs, prepared foods, and 100% grass-fed, certified organic, raw milk, which they also use to make cheese.
As Wells-Tolley tells the story, their family was chosen for this. Not only is dairy farming their calling, but they were literally chosen by Chase Hill’s previous owners to shepherd the farm into the future.
The tale starts years prior at Simple Gifts Farm in Amherst. “Ben was an apprentice working with their livestock,” Wells-Tolley says. “The owners, Dave Tepfer and Jeremy Barker Plotkin, welcomed us into the farm family, and we raised some of our own animals there. As soon as we had our first family cow, we were like, ‘this is it,’ We want to raise cows and have a dairy.”
Soon after, Ben Wells-Tolley began working at Upinngil Farm in Gill, where the couple learned more about small-scale dairying. Then they purchased their own small herd and opened South Wind Farm in Northfield. “That’s where we first got licensed to sell raw milk,” says Wells-Tolley.
Raw milk is milk that hasn’t been pasteurized at high heat. Some people prefer raw milk because it provides a different nutrient makeup than pasteurized milk. In Massachusetts, raw milk can only be purchased directly at the farm. The Department of Agricultural Resources licenses few dozen farms to sell raw milk, and all follow strict food safety protocols.
At that point Chase Hill Farm was run by Mark and Jeannette Fellows, who inherited the farm from Mark’s parents. They transitioned the dairy from more conventional practices to producing 100% grass-fed, organic, raw milk, and were among the first in recent decades to make aged cheeses right on the farm. Their system and success impressed the Wells-Tolleys, and when they saw Chase Hill Farm was offering a tour, they jumped on it.
“We drove our family up to Warwick, got there, and it was just us,” Wells-Tolley recalls. “Mark Fellows – a legend in our world – gave us his afternoon, showed us the farm, and answered a million questions. Pulling away, I vividly remember Ben and I looking at each other like … if we could ever have a farm like Chase Hill, that would be our dream.”
A few years later, Mark and Jeannette Fellows were looking for successors to carry the farm and its legacy forward and offered the Wells-Tolleys that dream. The younger couple said yes, and began working alongside the Fellows, learning the farm’s ins and outs. “We pushed though challenges in the early years, but we had amazing support from our families, the Fellows, and other farmers,” says Wells-Tolley. “Now 5 years into full ownership, it’s like we’re flying. I walk through the fields, no one else around, and sometimes I still grin with excitement.”
The Wells-Tolleys merged their cows into the existing herd at Chase Hill, and now keep about 40-50 cows, all Normande and Jersey breeds. Usually about 20 are in milk at any one time, with a handful nursing calves and the rest producing milk for people. They give about 200 gallons a week, with half sold as raw milk and the other half diverted to cheesemaking.
Wells-Tolley sees milking as a relationship of giving, rather than taking. “You have to make a connection with the cow, because really they’re adopting us when they give us milk,” she says, noting the maternal nature of the act. “Our cows have adopted a whole community.”
If Chase Hill Farm were a wheel, the cows and dairy business would be its hub – the stout center around which everything else turns. The other animals would be the spokes. They’re valuable on their own for what they produce, but even more so for how they support the central hub and the farm as a whole.
As a dairy first, the priority is providing cows abundant grass. As Wells-Tolley explains, the other animals help with that. Each year the farm raises over 1000 chickens and 30-40 pigs for meat, keeps a few dozen laying hens, and recently added a small herd of goats to the mix. The chickens move through open pasture after the cows, foraging and leaving manure. Pigs root up brushy areas and goats mow down invasive plants like multiflora rose.
Through carefully managed rotational grazing, the Wells-Tolleys use these animals to expand the now 70 acres of open pasture on the property, fertilize them with manure, and boost soil fertility and grass growth. “When I walked our cows out into their summer pasture this year, the grass was literally up to my chest,” she says. More grass means happier cows, more milk, and more cheese, plus they’re selling products from the other animals too. All of this is good for the land and the business.
Chase Hill Farm makes several kinds of cheese, from smoky blue cheese and salty feta to longer-aged varieties like cheddar and the softer Tomme de Normande with its delicate rind. The entire process – from soil to grass to cow to milk to cheese – happens right there on the farm using only their own raw milk.
Chase Hill’s farm store at 74 Chase Hill Road in Warwick is open every day, 7am to 7pm. That’s where customers can buy fluid raw milk, along with eggs and a wide range of cheeses, meats, and prepared foods like soups, stocks, and take-and-bake meals. They also attend the Amherst Farmers Market on Saturdays, 7:30 – 1:30, and sell their cheese at Simple Gifts’ farm store in Amherst. Some products are available at stores and markets in eastern Massachusetts too.
Managing a multi-dimensional farm like this is challenging. Says Wells-Tolley, “sometimes I think about the jump from homesteading to farming – why not do what we’re doing at a homestead scale if it’s so much easier?” For her and many farmers, there’s joy in the higher calling of feeding others.
“Not everyone can have a cow in their backyard,” she says. “We farm to nourish people beyond just our family.”
June is dairy month. To learn more about local dairy farms near you, visit buylocalfood.org/find-it-locally.
Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator for CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture).