Valley Bounty: O’Brien Farm
Published January 27, 2024 in the Daily Hampshire Gazette
New horizons for a small dairy farm
O’Brien Farm in Orange opt to strategize, not pasteurize
“We do a little bit of everything,” says Andrea O’Brien of O’Brien Farm in Orange. “But mostly we milk cows.”
Running a successful dairy farm requires commitment, perseverance, and creativity. That’s especially true in recent times, as the costs of farming have only increased while the price farmers get for their milk hasn’t followed suit.
At O’Brien Farm, Andrea and her husband Ed O’Brien have all these traits in spades. To provide a stable future for their young family, they’re leaning even further into creativity. The fruits of their labor are visible at their farm stand, open 24/7 at 505 Holtshire Road in Orange, from beef, fresh eggs, and compost to rich, creamy, raw milk.
“It’s just the two of us,” O’Brien says. “In the past 10 years we’ve had three children and Ed’s had back surgery and two knees replaced, but we’ve managed to keep things running mostly just ourselves.”
The rhythm of the farm is tied to milking and caring for their herd of 35 cows, a mix of Holstein and Jersey breeds. They all have names, and many of them trace their lineage back several generations on the farm. The twice-daily routine, beginning at 3:30 in the morning, is physically demanding and unrelenting, but they do it with care for each animal.
“From 1985 to 2013 when I met him, Ed milked every day and night, just him,” says O’Brien. “You can imagine all the things that happen to a person over that time. People die, people are born, and still the cows have to be milked, bedded, and fed every day. That’s one of the reasons I fell in love with Ed. You rarely find someone so dedicated to their animals like that.”
Bedding the cows means spreading fresh kiln-dried wood shavings throughout their barn. They add over four cubic yards of shavings each day to keep the cows clean and comfortable. Old bedding and manure are removed daily and composted to sell each spring, by the yard and by the bag.
“For a long time, Ed didn’t have any signs or advertising,” says O’Brien. “People just knew by word of mouth to come to the farm for compost, and he did an incredible business that way.”
Their bagged compost is seasonally available at Hamshaw Lumber in Orange and at the Greenfield Farmers Cooperative Exchange, but most of it is still sold from the farm. They’ve also started selling more of their milk straight from the farm too.
The O’Briens currently milk two dozen cows to produce about 100 gallons of milk each day. Most of it is sold wholesale, but they now sell on average 20 gallons of whole, unhomogenized raw milk at their farm stand each day. This stands out from your typical grocery store gallon in a few key ways.
For one, raw milk is milk that hasn’t been pasteurized at high heat, a process that denatures potential pathogens along with beneficial microbes and other nutrients. Massachusetts farms that sell raw milk follow rigorous sanitation standards in lieu of pasteurization and must sell straight from the farm. Many who buy raw milk do so for the nutritional differences, and for the direct connection and support for local dairy farmers.
Homogenization is a process that breaks up milkfat molecules to a size where the cream no longer separates and rises to the top. Leaving their milk unhomogenized gives people the choice to skim off the cream themselves, for things like adding it to coffee or using it for baking, or to easily shake it in to enjoy whole milk.
“Because we have so many Jersey cows in our herd, we’re testing at about 5% butterfat,” says O’Brien. “That means our milk is much richer, and I think it tastes much better.”
Selling raw milk is one way O’Brien Farm is diversifying their business, having seen that selling directly to their neighbors yields more profit for their hard work than other sales channels. This is a conclusion many small dairy farmers have come to, including other local farmers O’Brien has spoken to for advice.
“Cliff Hatch from Upinngil Farm in Gill invited me to see and talk about his business,” she says. “He helped me understand peoples’ perceptions of raw milk and the business side of it, and I watched him make cheese too. Almost every day I reflect on that conversation.”
Branching out in other ways, O’Brien also grows some crops for vegetable seed companies, and is interested in growing produce for sale at their farm stand or for a CSA program in the future. The latter remains a hope for now, but other plans are already in the works.
“Next summer I’m also offering a camp on the farm for kids ages 5-12,” she says. “Growing up on a dairy farm is considered an idyllic childhood, so I wanted to share that with other kids too.” More information is available at their website obrienfarmma.com
The economics of running a small dairy farm have always been challenging. Though every farmer’s strategy for making it work is different, most have one need in common: reliable customers. So far, O’Brien is encouraged by their neighbors’ support for their new ventures – raw milk in particular.
“It’s been touching how many people are coming out regularly, even with the snow and cold,” she says. “That’s what we need to succeed.”
Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator for CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture). To learn more about local farms and where to buy local food near you, visit buylocalfood.org.