Changing with the times
by Laura Rodley
The Robinson Farm has been a continuous family farm since 1892. It was awarded the Massachusuetts Century Farm status in 1992. Fourth generation farmers Pam and Ray Robinson Jr. have made homestead cheeses from raw milk from their Normande, Jersey and Holstein crossed cows since 2010. They’ve won American Cheese Society and the Eastern States Gold Cheese Competition awards for their Prescott and A Barndance. Their Hardwick Stone, Arpeggio and the Robinson Family Swiss also won medals at past Eastern States Gold Cheese Competitions.
The Robinsons pride themselves on raising their cows organically, 100% grass-fed, following sustainable practices on their 270-acre farm in Hardwick, MA. A native son of Hardwick, Ray was raised on the farm.
Prior to 2003, they were a conventional dairy. Then, “We saw greater promise in taking our own path through selling raw milk, transitioning to organic, 100% grass-fed cows, building a creamery and starting a cheese business,” said Ray.
Pam had worked off the farm as a nurse-midwife until she retired in 2010 to help market their latest product, farmstead cheeses. “With direct-to-consumer marketing and sales, we did much better financially and improved our quality of life,” she said.
They bale at least 400 round bales from 90 acres both to sell and to feed their own cows. They continue to sell replacement heifers, and have 14 bred heifers that will freshen in the spring, with another 10 that will freshen the following year, and three calves. Ever diversifying, they offer the guest suite of their house as an Airbnb rental.
Until last year, they had the equivalent of three and a half full-time employees, with one employee who lived in a two-bedroom house with his family on the farm.
Times change. The farm’s fifth generation is not interested in farming, so the Robinsons are selling the farm. “Our heirs have chosen other paths. Farming does not make enough money for the hours one has to put in,” Pam said. “We had a buyer in 2019 but that fell through. Once the farm was for sale, our employees had started rethinking their lives. We couldn’t rehire them.” Their onsite worker chose another career. “We tried to do everything ourselves.”
The small rural town of Hardwick is located about 45 minutes from Worcester, Springfield and Northampton. It’s been trending toward becoming more of a bedroom community. They were the only local dairy left.
“Labor is expensive in this area. There’s not a lot of farming here, so one must compete with other industries that have higher wages and the cost of labor is higher. We were not going to be able to keep people paying lower farm wages,” said Pam. “By September 2019, two long-term employees had moved on because the farm was still for sale. Since it was not possible to find good employees with the farm up for sale, we tried to continue milking and make cheese while the cows were still on grass. It was very difficult, and by the end of October 2019, we dried them off.”
Primarily a spring herd, the milk cows finally sold in January 2020. They had been making 15,000 to 18,000 pounds of cheese a year, but no longer make cheese. They no longer sell raw milk, and their farm store is closed except for customers picking up pre-ordered cheese. They have a very active, loyal online customer base.
According to Pam, their farmstead cheeses are the types of hard cheese that only get better as they age. “Not unlike wine, raw milk cheese reflects the terroir from the grasses of rolling hills of the Quabbin Region where the cows graze,” she said. The couple continues to sell cheese wholesale to specialty shops such as Lee’s Market in Westport, MA, River Valley Market in Northampton and through a distributor, Marty’s Local, who supplies farm products and produce throughout Western MA and the Hudson Valley in New York.
Though they are no longer making cheese, Pam said, “As 2018 and 2019 were very, very good years for cheesemaking, with lots of rain and green grass, we still have tons of this wonderfully aged cheese left to sell,” stored in their cheese caves at a consistent 55º F temperature.
The two-bedroom employee house is now offered as a second Airbnb.
The couple have slowed down a bit, but are still working diligently to feed and provide for their replacement heifers, and making the hay to sell and feed them as well as selling cheese and growing most of their own food.
Pam said, “We will miss our role as stewards of this farmland as we move on toward retirement and new adventures. We hope another family can begin a new century of diversified farming in Hardwick.”