LEE -- Why go back to dairy at a time when most farms have gone away?
For Phil and Jen Leahey, it’s about tradition, lifestyle and rebuilding American food culture.
At the end of Reservoir Road in Lee is Leahey Farm, where Phil Leahey’s family has been working since 1889. Before they came to the United States, Phil said, they were farmers in Ireland.
They’ve sold meat and still do, but the focus this year has been on setting up a small dairy operation -- six milking cows and a processor that can pasteurize 45 gallons in a go, plus some young heifers who will be milked next spring and 30 beef animals.
The Leaheys got their license to pasteurize just a few short weeks ago. They’ve been producing milk and have been experimenting with yogurt, ice cream and frozen yogurt using an American-made machine; earlier this year, they got a $50,000 grant from the Greater Berkshire Agriculture Fund to get things going.
The last time this farm was a dairy was 40 years ago. The 317 acres are in a family trust, and many who can claim Leahey lineage by blood or marriage live on Reservoir Road. Phil and his wife Jen live at the bottom of the road; Phil’s parents live across the street from the barn and a gray house a stone’s throw away from there is where Phil’s father James and all of his brothers and sisters were born. James is a vet; other family have mechanical, carpentry and excavating businesses based on the farm.
The Leaheys shop local because they can’t really leave the farm -- they have no employees, though family members help a lot, so they’re constantly on call. They do everything themselves, from milking to bottling. Jen said their two children, ages 51Ž2 and 21Ž2, are used to plans changing: "Animals are loose, something comes up -- we go with the flow."
The cows are 90-percent grass fed, and the pasture they live in hasn’t been mowed since the 1990s. The Leaheys employ a perennial polyculture system, with little tillage, which means less soil exposure and less erosion. Phil said this mimics what would happen in a natural ecosystem.
"Done correctly, you’re building topsoil and sequestering carbon, even," he said.
The contrast between a small dairy and a very large one is extreme, they said, and the Leaheys said they aren’t going to try to compete with grocery stores. They acknowledge their milk is more expensive than grocery store milk.
"Why is the other stuff so cheap?" Phil asked. "We’ve got a completely different product. It’s the difference between a microbrew and a Miller Lite."
"I think the general public is waking up to the fact local agriculture is important and necessary on many different levels," he said. "We’ve made lots of cheap food. We’re now about to pay for it in other ways."
In the future, they see themselves expanding the herd a little, but remaining small. They said they don’t see leagues of employees or interns in the future.
"This is what we like to do," Jen said. "I’m not doing this so I can go home and sit on the computer and somebody else can run the farm."
The dairy farm is new, but it’s on track to stay a full-time job for the Leahey family.
"If we can follow our business plan and can sell what we want to sell, there’s a living here for us," Phil said.
And anyway, it’s about much more than money -- though money is important.
"We don’t want to make a killing; we want to make a living and follow the tradition of my ancestors," Phil said. "Raising cattle and being farmers is what my family did when they were in Ireland. I really feel strongly to carry that into the 21st century. That, I think, is worth something."
If you go ...
Find Leahey Farm dairy and meat products at:
Berkshire Harvest Farm, part of Meadow Farm Market on Route 102 in South Lee
Berkshire Organics, Division Road, Dalton (meat; dairy coming soon)
Great Barrington Farmers Market, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays
Really, if you haven’t had some local milk in your life, you’ve got to just taste it. I’m not over it yet. It tastes the way milk looks on commercials. Stir some into your coffee, or use just the cream that collects on the top. Make a white Russian. Have a glass with a couple of cookies.
Milk off a small farm is an entirely different version of something ordinary. I was going to build a cake recipe around it, but the shock of it -- I don’t even like milk -- is something to experience and savor.