By Tony Dobrowolski
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LEE — One-by-one, Jersey cows that are ready to be milked take their places beside a milking machine in a barn at High Lawn Farm.
The contraption has robotic arms, and once the cows are in position, the devices attach to the animal’s udders and move slowly up and down.
The volume of milk taken from each cow is tallied on a nearby computer screen.
This machine is the Lely Astronaut robotic milking system, a state-of-the-art device, that runs 23 hours a day, seven days a week. It’s taken human involvement almost entirely out of the milking process at High Lawn.
“Nobody has to be here at 4 a.m. to milk cows,” said High Lawn’s General Manager, Roberto Laurens.
High Lawn Farm is one of last commercial dairy operations in Berkshire County that bottles its own milk, and management’s willingness to embrace technology has helped the operation stay alive in an industry that has deep local roots.
The new improvements — High Lawn also added a milk processing plant in 2015 — mix seamlessly with the history at this 1,600-acre farm on Summer Street, which has produced rich milk and related dairy products since 1923. A farm has been located on the site since the mid-19th century.
The Wilde family has owned the property since the late H. George and Marjorie Wilde purchased what was then known as Highlawn Estate in November 1935.
“We had two choices: close the doors or buy new technology,” said Laurens in a recent interview. “Mr. Wilde said let’s go for the new technology because we want to stay for another 100 years.”
Laurens won’t say how much the new technology cost the Wildes, but the price was obviously worth it.
“Most dairy farmers are operating on very thin margins,” said Sarah Gardner of the Williams College Center for Environmental Studies, who produced “Forgotten Farms”, a documentary on New England’s dairy industry that was shown recently at the Berkshire International Film Festival. “Most of them are just dollars away from going under.”
These calves, who are too young to produce milk, check out visitors in a field at High Lawn Farm in Lee.
These calves, who are too young to produce milk, check out visitors in a field at High Lawn Farm in Lee. (Gillian Jones — The Berkshire Eagle | photos.berkshireeagle.com)
According to Gardner, the typical New England dairy farm sends its raw milk to a co-op to be processed. H.P. Hood, for example, operates a milk processing facility in Agawam that accepts milk from Berkshire County farmers. Dairy farmers also have no control over the price of milk, which is set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture through the Federal Milk Marketing Order, and is often too low to offset the other costs that small operators face when operating a dairy farm.
The presence of large dairy farms that feature huge herds of cows can also squeeze a small farmer’s margins. The average size of a dairy herd in the United States is 135 cows, according to Purdue University’s Food Animal Education Network. High Lawn has 355 cows, but only 120 give milk.
In 1968, there were over 150 dairy farms in the Berkshires, but that number had dropped to 124 by 1984. In 1985 alone six herds of dairy cows were sold in the Berkshires during an eight-month span, according to Eagle files. Currently, there are only 16 dairy farms in Berkshire County that work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency, according to Deb Sanger, the USDA’s executive director for Berkshire County (High Lawn Farm is not among them).
“I came in 1992 and since then we’ve lost a lot of mom and pop dairy farms,” Sanger said. Ninety-nine percent of the 60,000 dairy farms in the United States are family-owned, according to Purdue University.
The low prices that farmers receive for their milk combined with the high cost of feed have been a major culprit in the small dairy farmer’s demise.
“Everyday is push and pull,” Sanger said.
Gardner said High Lawn Farm has an advantage over the typical small dairy farm because it has “capital” due to the Wilde family’s relationship to the Vanderbilts. Marjorie Field Wilde, who died in 1997, was a direct descendant through her mother of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, the 19th-century railroad and shipping magnate who had accumulated the largest fortune in the United States when he died in 1877.
Highlawn Estate was originally given to Marjorie Field’s parents in 1902 as a wedding present by Mrs. Henry White, the owner of Elm Court. George and Marjorie Wilde purchased the entire property, which included High Lawn Farm, from the estate of Marjorie Wilde’s mother, Lila B. Field. Lila Field’s father, W.D. Sloane, had originally purchased part of the Highlawn Farm property in 1887.
The farm was operated as a “hobby” by Highlawn Estate’s owners until the early 1930s, according to Eagle files. High Lawn’s first pasteurizing plant wasn’t installed until 1934. By 1942, a High Lawn Farm cow had set a national record for milk production.
Despite the history and pedigree, Laurens said staying profitable at High Lawn Farm under the current economic conditions is still a struggle.
“This is not easy,” he said.
He said High Lawn Farm’s annual sales are between $1.5 million and $2 million, a roughly 6 to 9 percent profit. The farm didn’t turn a profit until 2009, relying until then on support from the Wilde family, Laurens said. Only about 600 of the farm’s 1,600 acres can be used for farmland (a majority the property consists of a mountain that runs along Route 7).
But High Lawn’s product is unique. The entire herd consists of Jersey cows, which are known for the richness of the milk they produce. Jersey cows were originally brought to High Lawn Farm from their ancestral home on Jersey Island in Scotland in 1918. Marjorie Wilde enhanced the herd, achieving worldwide recognition as a breeder of Jersey cows.
“Mrs. Wilde did it by eye,” Laurens said. “She would say that cow is great, so we’re going to breed that cow with that bull.
“What happens today is you breed a cow with a bull and when the baby is born you take a little hair and send it (to a lab) to get the DNA,” he said. “They tell you when that cow matures and what they’re going to do so you know how good it’s going to be.”
Due to the selective breeding that has been done over time, several cows in the current herd contain genetic material that belonged to the first animals that were brought to High Lawn Farm almost 100 years ago.
“Jersey cows are a very special breed of cow,” Laurens said. “They’re very gentle. They look like pets. They act like pets. They’re very rich in milk. It has more calcium, more protein, more vitamins. The only downside is that (the Jersey cow) has less body than a Holstein cow, but it’s milk is richer, more nutritious than a Holstein.”
High Lawn Farm sells milk to several academic institutions, including Williams College, Smith College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“The support of institutions is what keeps us alive,” Laurens said. “We’re trying to get a portion of UMass, but it’s not that easy.”
High Lawn also makes half-and-half, heavy cream, both salted and unsalted butter, and most recently, ice cream. Products are sold in three states, but 99 percent of High Lawn’s sales come from within Massachusetts, according to Laurens.
Since the farm’s cows can give milk as much as six times a day, High Lawn’s robotic milking machine stays very busy.
“It’s very efficient,” Laurens said. “Before we did 42 pounds per cow. Now, it’s 65 pounds per cow.”
The machine also protects High Lawn’s 26 employees and the herd from getting in each other’s way.
“It’s not that people aren’t friendly, but some people don’t know how to act when the cow gets mad,” Laurens said. “Someone does it by hand and the cow gets upset and kicks the guy, and the guy gets mad and kicks the cow. With the robot, the cow can kick the robot as hard as it can, and the robot is not going to complain.”
Contact Tony Dobrowolski at 413-496-6224.