Sidehill Farm: a Real Organic One!
The hill towns of western Massachusetts separate the Pioneer Valley on their east from the Berkshire Mountains on their west. Having neither the agricultural soils and climate of the valley, nor the majestic scenic appeal of the mountains, the hill towns are sparsely populated throughout the year. With an elevation of 1750 feet, compared to some of the Berkshire towns at over 2000 feet, and a density of less than 11 people per square mile, ranking it 348th out of the 351 cities and towns in the Commonwealth, Hawley is a typical hill town.
It had the distinction for a number of years, however, of being the site of the largest certified organic farm in the state. The sixth of nine children and a pioneer in the organic movement, Ivy Donovan took over his father’s 800 acre Hawley potato farm in 1987, had it certified organic, and produced spuds for Whole Foods as well as other retailers in the Northeast. For a few years he and his wife Cinni even made and marketed organic potato chips. In 2012, however, they retired and sold the farm to Amy Klippenstein and Paul Lacinski who had been looking for a site for a dairy farm. Ivy died of throat cancer in 2017
Despite his name, Paul is half Italian and grew up in Queens and Long Island in a very large garden tended all summer by his Italian grandfather. Amy hails from New Hampshire. The couple met as seniors at Amherst College, thrown together by living across the hall from each other. Paul was an American Studies major. Amy majored in English and Russian, also completely unrelated to dairy farming.
“Although I have to say,” she admits, “a liberal arts education has been pretty darn useful — having training in critical thinking, in making connections between every different thing, being able to work with people with diverse interests, being interested in a lot of different layers of a project instead of doing the same thing every time.”
“The writing skills have been useful,” Paul offers.
Upon graduation they thought they would be homesteaders, he recalls, not farmers. When it came to that little issue of making a living, the couple started a construction company, building straw bale houses.
But the pair’s passion was to grow their own food. They started out growing vegetables because that was fun and found that it was easy to grow a few more than they needed and sell them. Enlarging the home garden they had in Ashfield, they started selling vegetables to restaurants in 2001. In 2002 they started the Ashfield farmers market and branched out to greenhouse tomatoes and winter salad greens.
“By then I wasn’t home a lot,” Lacinski relates. “I was traveling all over the world doing straw bale construction. I worked in China and Mongolia. That was great, but I was away a lot. We had a little crew and I’d be gone all week. I’d get home late on Friday and get up early on Saturday to be there for the farmers market. After 10 or 12 year running our own company, I decided I wanted to stay home.”
But the couple’s garden space was limited and none of their neighbors wanted to lease them land to expand their vegetable farm.
Paul muses that perhaps that was a blessing: “Trying to grow vegetables for a living in Ashfield, when 12 miles away in the Pioneer Valley there is some of the best soil in the world, and it is also flat and warmer, makes no sense.”
Although the neighbors didn’t want to lease them land for farming, the couple found some willing to let it be grazed. So Paul and Amy sold the construction company and decided to expand by making raw milk and yogurt. In 2006 they got their first cows.
“The vegetables and cows overlapped for three years,” Paul recalls. “We had our first raw milk in 2007, and our first saleable yogurt in 2008. At the high point we were grazing our cows on the land of 14 different landowners in Ashfield. Mostly we walked them back and forth for milking from the closer fields. The heifers and steers stayed on land farther away, and we would move them through trails in the woods.”
The name Sidehill Farm comes from their friend Albert Fuller (now deceased.) Albert lived over the hill from them, milked 3 or 4 Jerseys, made butter, and sold it at the Greenfield Farmer’s Market. His farm was on a long, steep slope of north facing land – a true New England side hill farm. He was one of the first old-timers and locals to take Amy and Paul’s farming plans seriously, and taught them a huge amount about perspective and levity while farming. When they bought their first piece of farm land in Ashfield – a sloping 23 acre parcel – Albert said, as a way of congratulations, “Now you have your own side hill farm!” And it stuck.
When Amy and Paul were looking to expand again in 2012, Ivy and Cinni’s farm in Hawley seemed ideal. It is a total of 225 acres, with some fields right near the barn which are good for fulltime pasture, some that are far away or very rocky and are ideal for just hayfields, and some in between that can be hay for the first cut, then grazed, or some combination.
The site is scenic (you can see Mount Monadnock and Mount Wachusett from the farm) and very quiet.
“It is so attractive,” says Paul, “that Ivy and Cinni Donovan built their retirement home right over there (points). They built an underground house and Ivy got a real kick out of that. ‘Here I am living underground like a tuber’, he would say.”
The land was under the state Agricultural Preservation Restriction program, so the development rights had already been sold off and that was how the pair could afford it.
“We borrowed as much as we could from the Farm Services Agency,” says Lacinski, “for the purchase. The loan rate then was excellent! We got an EQIP grant to pay for half of the buildings.”
Winters in Hawley are tough, the couple admit.
“It is intense up here,” says Paul, “cold and windy. We like to cross country ski in the woods, but if you make a trail in the open, 20 minutes later it is gone. The cows are in the barn most of the time during the winter, but not in headlocks, just moving around. The manure pack gets higher and higher until the cows are 4 feet up in the air before winter is over. We hire some large equipment to come in and move the manure pack out in the spring (if we did it with our little machines it would take 2 weeks solid work). We windrow it and turn it for compost, then spread it in the fall.”
Although one might think a place like Hawley, with only 337 people and miles from any population center, would be a bad location for selling raw milk, it is not.
“When we first moved here,” says Amy, “I wasn’t certain it would work. But right now we are selling about 120 gallons a week. People in convenient locations may sell more, but this is not a bad location.”
The Hawley location was just right for Sidehill Farm to expand. They bought more cows, hired more people (they have 10 employees now) and their sales have increased dramatically. The farm now ships out yogurt four days a week, with their own trucks making deliveries throughout Western Massachusetts and distributors carrying it as far as Boston.
Amy feels that they have reached a size where they now benefit from efficiencies of scale. “We are now at 250,000 each of quarts and 6- cups of yogurt in a year,” she reports, “and we pay a living wage. We can take this tool that we have here, this creamery, and use it to help more dairy farmers.”
Besides their own milk, Sidehill buys in all the milk from a certified organic dairy farm in Lee. They were bottling their own milk from 30 Jerseys, but trying to farm and process was too much. So Paul and Amy buy it in, pasteurize it and use it for yogurt. They feel they pay well and can help dairy farmers stay in business. They can only buy certain kinds of milk, however.
“Holstein milk is not high enough in protein to make firm yogurt without additives,” explains Amy, “so we can’t use that. There are really only a few breeds that do have enough protein to make a good yogurt –Jerseys are one, Normandies are another. Our herd is Jersey and Normande. Swiss would work, but we don’t know anyone who has an organic Swiss dairy.”
Right now the couple could about double the production they have, given their space and processing capacity. Paul calculates that they might have to use refrigerated trucks as back-up cooler space on some days, however. Amy repeats that if they expanded, it would definitely be by trying to bring in milk from more farms.
According to Paul about 15% of Sidehill’s own milk goes to raw sales, the rest mostly to yogurt. The margin on raw milk is better, and there is just a lot less work that goes into it. Plus, he says, they believe in it. The milk is bottled right from the bulk tank, by hand. But they couldn’t justify anything more auto-mated than that for the volume they do, he says.
“We have groups that come from Wendell (38 miles), Shutesbury (35 miles), and two from Northampton (28 miles),” Amy relates. “They tend to be groups of families or friends who buy for each other and take turns driving. I doubt if anyone comes that far every week.
There was a time when the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR) had strictly enforced the state law which says only the ultimate consumer can buy raw milk, and has to go to the farm to get it. But that time seems to have passed.
“MDAR has been great,” says Lacinski. “Ever since Scott Soares (Massachusetts Commissioner of Agriculture from 2009 to 2012) said: ‘Hey, if people can eat raw oysters they should be able to drink raw milk’, that clarity has made it clear where the state stands. I think they understand that the only dairies in this state that are breaking even and not mining out their infrastructure to keep going financially are the ones that are selling raw milk.
“They have totally backed off trying to prevent group buying of raw milk,” he continues. “What they got upset about, and I don’t really blame them, was people who were making a business of it — people who were going, picking it up, charging a fee, and essentially selling it on, without calling it that. That was basically being a distributor, but it was completely unregulated. They didn’t want to penalize 4 or 5 neighbors who took turns coming with coolers.”
Sidehill’s cows come in from the pasture at 6 am and 5 pm to be milked. After milking they proceed to the barn where they gather and eat hay (with a little molasses topping they love), before going out to pasture again in the next paddock. The cows in the barn are in headlocks for this stage because otherwise the first ones to come out will eat all the molasses.
The actual milking takes place in a four stall milking parlor from which vacuum pipes take the milk right to be cooled in the bulk tank. The raw milk can be bottled right from the bulk tank, but milk for yogurt has to be pasteurized, by federal law. Besides, it won’t get as firm unless other competitive microbes are killed off.
“So the yogurt milk goes by pipe to the vat,” explains Paul, “where it is heated to 185 ˚F for pasteurization, and inoculated with the cultures when it cools to 103 degrees Then it is incubated at 101 degrees for the cultures to work.”
Lacinski has always loved yogurt and felt he and Amy would have a cow and make it for themselves. But learning to make it on a commercial scale was daunting.
“We’ve gone to all the NOFA workshops on cows and animals,” he says. “When we pitched the idea to our neighbors of leasing their land for grazing, they were all for it. We had been making yogurt in our kitchen all along, doing R & D.
“But the transition from the scale of a kitchen operation to having a 50 gallon vat to make yogurt was a surprise,” he continues, “and distressing to us. We tried to scale up what we had been doing in the kitchen and it was not working. We had already spent all our money making a little creamery, but the yogurt wasn’t coming out right. The interns that year ate a lot of yogurt we didn’t want to try to sell!”
Biological processes are inherently more variable than industrial ones, the pair feel.
“We get new yeast for every batch,” Amy states. “If you try to keep a starter, it changes from batch to batch – even over short periods like a week.”
“The yeast is actually a mix of five different cultures,” Paul explains. “If you keep a starter, inevitably you will favor one or the other yeast just because of the conditions during that period. That is just the way biology works. Of course the milk changes quite a bit also, through the seasons. Over the winter it is reasonably consistent, but in the summer it can change a fair amount, depending on what the cows are grazing. There is a tolerable range as far as firmness goes. We tweaked incubation temperature, duration of heating, pH, different cultures. There is not much point in perfecting your system if you are not consistent with it. Another variable is cooling. It is one thing to put little containers in your fridge. It is another to have racks of quarts you are rolling into a walk-in!”
One problem that is plaguing the couple, perhaps because of their isolated location, is finding staff to care for the cows. The problem is so bad that they are culling some of their cows to reduce their numbers.
“We’re milking 14 times a week ourselves,” sighs Paul! “We’ve spent years trying to solve the staffing problem. We have no problem finding staff for the creamery end of it. We have a spectacular crew of them, a lot of people who have been here a long time. But on the farm end of things, I don’t know.”
“I think part of it is that we are really focused on finding the balance between quality and efficiency,” suggests Amy. “It is something that everyone who works here thinks is fun – how can we get more efficient and keep the quality? – it’s kind of a fun game. The people who stay here are people who like that kind of thing. But among the people who like to work with cows there is a pool of people who are young and qualified, but they are ambitious and are going to go on to have their own farm. They only want to be here for a while.
“We have had good cow people stay for as much as three years,” she continues. “A lot just stay a year. That is hard because there is a lot of training we have given them. We found with older people who are interested in working with cows that they generally grew up on a dairy or have been milking their whole lives and they are not as interested in that quality/efficiency balance. They are interested in doing what they have always done. Our core values don’t fit well with people who have a lifetime of dairy experience.”
Since Sidehill sells raw milk, which must show low microbial thresholds without pasteurization, their quality standards are really, really high. They are super concerned about having clean cows and clean milking standards – which is a hard thing for people who have not been doing that. So it is a struggle.
“People who come without much experience don’t see it as nagging,” Paul says, “they see it as learning to do it right. We try to be clear at the beginning about what we want. But people who have been doing it all their lives feel: ‘Just leave me alone, will you?’ But we don’t. We want a certain standard and insist on it. We have a lot of families with little kids coming into this yard and we don’t intend to kill any of them!
One of the things Amy and Paul are insistent upon is management intensive grazing,
“We do two paddocks each day,” Paul explains, “one after each milking. When it gets hot we sometimes do as many as four or five. We have found that we can keep them eating and they will break up their bunching up pattern. ‘Grass follows cows’, is an old adage. In other words, overstocking is beneficial. Not over-grazing, but overstocking. Plants evolved with ruminants so the more they are being grazed, up to a point, the more they respond with growth. But you do need to move them and manage the intervals correctly. We’re like OCD about doing an Alan Savory-type system with paddocks, and moving the cows quickly onto new grass.”
Although most of the cows’ feed is grass, the couple do feed a little grain. They feel it is possible to do a 100% grass dairy, but it takes spectacular quality grass and spectacular quality management. They are not there yet.
“With decent grass and management,” Paul states, “you can easily grow plenty enough protein for the cows. But getting enough energy into them is way harder. It is possible on paper, but very hard to actually achieve. There is a tendency for milk from 100% grass dairies to be out of balance, with too much protein. You can see it in what their manure looks like – green liquid. The flavor is also often ‘barny’.”
Sidehill struggles with that problem the first week or two in May when they put the cows out on grass. May grass has a very high protein content, something like 30%. So it takes them two weeks to transition the cows off of winter feed and onto a primarily fresh grass diet.
“The ways cows evolved,” Amy reasons, “was to raise one calf and enough milk to feed that one calf. But we are talking about dairy cows who now produce that calf and enough milk for another 5 or 6 calves. The energy demand to produce 5 or 7 or 8 gallons of milk a day is gigantic. We as humans are demanding so much more than that grass-fed diet can deliver.”
Paul feels that ‘100% grass-fed’ is a wonderful thing, and there is a market for it, but it is a fundamentalism, too. It is attractive in the same way that fundamentalism is, it oversimplifies.
“We don’t feed that much grain,” he states. “We feed an average of 5.6 pounds per day. A conventional dairy with Holsteins might be feeding 30 pounds. If you figure about 45 pounds of dry matter intake a day is what they get, the grain is maybe 12 or 13% of that, which is pretty low. It’s about one scoop a day for a 1200 pound animal.
“We are trying to support their genetic inclination to produce milk from grass,” he continues, and trying to keep them from getting skinny. We’ve seen lots of skin and bones Jerseys on farms that are trying to not feed any grain.”
Amy and Paul believe a big limiting factor here in terms of grass production is that it was a potato farm. Ivy said in his dad’s time and his they never limed the land. Potatoes like a low pH he said, because it helps with scab. So the couple have been spreading high calcium lime every fall, trying to bring up the pH and the calcium.
The right number of cows to milk at Sidehill is about 40, they feel. This farm could carry more, Amy says, but 40 seems right. Every year they build up the land base and get more hay off the same fields, so they’re increasing the potential.
Besides dairy products, the farm also sells beef and pork. Some of the beef is from culled milkers and some from male calves. Jersey calves don’t have much meat on them so, Amy says, Jerseys aren’t usually bred to Jerseys. They are bred to Normandies, because the Jersey bull calf is going to cost you the trucking to send it to the auction. Normandies are a true dual purpose milk and meat cow.
For the pork, Paul and Amy were raising a crop of 20- 25 pigs every year. Getting them all back at once from the slaughterhouse (they use Vermont Packing-house in North Springfield, VT — owned by Black River Produce and certified for organic slaughter — which is the closest USDA approved processor) taxed their storage. They had to plug in a freezer truck for three months until the pork was sold.
Now they have a young pig farmer raise the hogs for them. They send him colostrum, so he is raising them as they did – on forage and organic grain. He staggers his pork deliveries.
Sidehill has a farm store where the raw milk, dairy products, and meat can be picked up. They could expand and carry other things there as well, says Amy, but she’s not sure they need more to do!
Amy and Paul have strong values, but running a business has made them thoughtful about how far they can live them and stay viable.
“For example, the state just passed this $15 minimum wage law,” says Paul, “which we approve of, especially since we don’t have to implement it tomorrow. But with it was the family medical leave act. It is a good thing – decent and humane and civilized — but for small businesses like ours it is terrifying. We have to give people up to 26 weeks off. You get 12 weeks for bonding with a new child, fathers or mothers, 20 weeks to take care of a sick family member, and up to 26 weeks for a sick family member who is a veteran. You can only take paid leave if you pay into a trust fund to put the money there, and we don’t have to pay into it because they have exempted employers of less than 60 people. But we need to fill in while those workers are gone.
“We are big on vacations, also,” he continues. “Once you have been here a year you get a week, two years two weeks, three years three full weeks off. We have actually been discussing giving four weeks for five years or longer, and the goal is to get to six. Right now, when someone takes a week we try to get ahead on yogurt the week before so we can have a little bit of a lull that week. But you can’t do that for 12 weeks, or 20. So a big piece of this is just to have a big enough staff than some can fill in for others who are gone. Otherwise, if someone is gone for 20 weeks, it is going to seem like a real emergency.”
“Plus,” adds Amy, “we are going to be paying everyone else overtime to fill in, and the base minimum wage will be $15. Plus if you only have one person doing a certain job, and they go on leave, are you going to hire someone else to do it, train them, and then let them go when the first person comes back? Tell them they have to leave now?”
“An interesting thing about the business end of things,” concludes Paul, philosophically, “is that it is a real check on the degree to which you are capable of living your values. If someone asked us in the abstract whether we supported these things we would say: ‘Oh, yes. Definitely!’ But if someone says: ‘Okay, now you have to figure out how to make it work on the business end,’ You say: ‘Do I really support this? I want to. But can I make this work?’”
The couple is very conscious of the difficult situation in which many American dairy farms find themselves.
“What has brought American dairy low,” declares Amy, “is this idea that you can just produce as much as you want and somebody is going to buy it. But demand is going down now, so of course prices are not going to stay up.”
“From what we know of it,” adds Paul, “it seems like the dairy quota program that they have in Canada keeping down supply has worked really well in keeping family farms viable. They do it with a 250% tariff, I think. But now that is ending under American pressure. I guess now we have to force Canadians to buy American milk under the new trade treaty.”
Paul and Amy have been of two minds about organic certification. They have always certified their land, both earlier in Ashfield and now in Hawley. That was cheap and easy. I cost only $450 a year and they got back most of that in the cost share program. The cows and dairy operation, however, although managed organically, were a different matter. The cost of certifying them was based on sales, and the cost share payback maxed out long before covering most of that fee. Also, the pair was not sure certification was necessary.
“We felt everyone who bought our yogurt knew who we were,” Amy explains, “and could come and ask questions. So it seemed like access to your local farmer trumped paper work.
“But when we started distributing in Eastern Mass,” she continues, “we realized we were going to have customers who had no idea who we were. They were never going to come out to the farm and they needed some sense of who we were. They needed some criterion by which to choose their food. It seemed like certifying the product was the obvious way to do that. Organic embodies our core values. Our final yogurt certification just came in during August, with the certification of the other farm that we buy milk from.”
Paul and Amy are not very happy with the National Organic Program, however. They feel it has discredited itself by failing to uphold the values it represented and by allowing industry to get their fingers into it.
“This Spring,” Amy relates, “we found out about all these problems – Aurora Dairy not grazing their cows, the shipment of fraudulent organic grain from Turkey… All this stuff that was positioned to undermine the customer’s faith in the organic label started coming out in the press. We asked ourselves: ‘Is this the wrong thing to do?’ Here we are certifying organic and the NOP is getting all this bad press. All of a sudden it felt like USDA organic was not representing the values we had or the way we farmed. We had this panicky moment when we wondered if this was what we wanted to do.”
But this Spring was also when the couple heard about the Real Organic Project. It sounded like exactly what they wanted. Those are the values they bring to farming.
“They haven’t worked out the technicalities of the project,” admits Amy, “how they label the products, how they publicize the program. But for people who take the time to find out about it, ROP is the program that I think they want. It is what we thought we were getting with the USDA label. Those are the people we are trying to provide food for.
“We would be open to helping promote the ROP label if it would help,” she continues. “There are so many farms transitioning to organic now for the paycheck or premium, but our journey has been all about values and how beings should be treated. It seems like the Real Organic Project could be this shining light that can save things. But if it falls flat, that is the end of organic. People just won’t trust the word anymore.”
They are also impressed with the people who are involved in ROP. They feel that with such an outstanding list of participants, excellent farmers and people of integrity, it will be a quality program.
In addition, the ROP doesn’t require and changes from Sidehill. All their requirements are things that they are doing already.
There are some who support the ROP as a way to help small farmers against the big corporations that have recently been allowed to use the organic label – the Auroras and Wholesum Harvests. But Paul and Amy don’t think organic should be limited by issues of scale or lifestyle. For them it is simply about having good rules and following them.
“It is not that we are against corporations getting involved in organic,” Paul insists. “Fundamentally, that is a good thing. It means that there is enough demand that the big people, who are really smart about business, are interested. In our system that leads to positive change on a big scale, not just fiddling around the edges.
“ And I don’t really see organics as lifestyle,” he continues. “I see it as a way of producing food that proceeds with tremendous respect for the soil and for the health of people. You can make whatever kind of lifestyle you want within that. There are some corporations out there with some pretty good values. Patagonia for example. Stonyfield is actually a pretty good company too. I think they actually care about trying to do the right thing.
“I think there is going to be room in the marketplace for all different scales as long as we all follow the same rules,” he concludes. “Aurora is probably always going to be able to produce milk cheaper than a hundred family farms in Massachusetts because of economies of scale — mechanization is cheaper than paying for labor, even if the labor is getting low agricultural wages. Our experience has been that if you make the right investment in a piece of equipment, it can add an order of magnitude to a person’s productivity. An example would be our yogurt filling machine compared to trying to fill cups and quarts by hand. We can package 300 gallons in just under 2 hours. We probably could do 50 gallons in two hours when we did it by hand. That’s a six times multiplier.”
Amy supports Paul’s argument with another example: “I used to wash and fill every single one of our glass milk bottles by hand. I got a little submersible whirlly brush and that improved things. Then we bought a bottle washing machine out of Canada that washes 20 bottles at a time. It sets the right temperature and does it in 5 minutes. And you aren’t killing your back bending over a sink!”
“Most people can’t actually enjoy the privilege we have had,” she continues, “to grow our own food. They are going to have to buy it. They can research what they buy, make good choices. But not everybody can control that by growing it. We have a substantial garden, but we certainly eat corporate products. We don’t can our own tomatoes anymore. We buy organic tomato sauce — and it’s delicious!”
“But it is the trying to change the rules that is the issue,” Paul concludes, “compromising the values, not actually grazing the cows, big dairies like Aurora are not following the same rules as we are. That makes the store brand organic milk that they are producing that much less expensive than the name brand organic milk.”