CULINARY ADVENTURES: The Leahey Family, committed to organic dairy farming
Lee — June is national Dairy Month, a time for people who drink milk, eat yogurt, take cream in their coffee, eat ice cream or engage in other lactocentric activities to salute our dairy farmers. Not that there are all that many of them left to celebrate. Consolidation in the dairy industry has reduced the number of American dairy farms to 52,000 from 80,000 in 1992. But luckily one of those surviving farms is in Lee, where the Leahey family continues to produce milk.
The steep decline in dairy farms is a byproduct of the dominant agricultural theory of the 1960’s-1970’s. It was Republican Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz, whose “get big or get out” dictum hastened the rapid decline of small-farm agriculture. His solution for farmers was to plant “from hedgerow to hedgerow.” This method was guaranteed to despoil the land in less than a generation and thus force millions of farmers to find new jobs. One result was that thousands of small family farms got gobbled up by large agricultural corporations.
But some family farms survived. And one of them, Leahey Farm in Lee, is being transformed into a thriving dairy farm by Phil and Jen Leahey The Leahey family has been farming there since 1889 and it seems something of a miracle that this farm has not only survived but is reinventing itself. Another miracle is that for the last three years the Leaheys have been making enough money to allow Phil to work full-time on the farm.
Phil informs me that at one point there were 150 dairy farms in Berkshire County. Now, there are only 149 dairy farms in the whole state of Massachusetts, and 22 of them are in Berkshire County — about 15 percent. Given that dairy farms typically had at least three adult males working on the farm, that means that 450 men worked on dairy farms in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But in the 20th century industry came to the Berkshires and hired many of the farm hands. Unfortunately for the Berkshire economy, those factory jobs did not last all that long. But by the time these large companies deserted the Berkshires, most of the dairy farms were gone. Currently, 4 percent of the farms in Berkshire County are dairy farms, but they account for 44 percent of agricultural sales.
What happened here in Berkshire County happened all over the U.S. “The Unsettling of America,” a prescient book by the Kentucky agrarian writer, poet, and farmer Wendell Berry, provides copious detail and cogent theory about contemporary agriculture. And it’s not a pretty picture. As Berry points out, the skill set needed to run a farm includes being a mechanic, an agronomist, a chemist, a vet, and a real glutton for punishment by working all day every day. Difficult as that seems, it’s the farmers m.o.
Phil Leahey, who majored in plant and soil science at the University of Massachusetts, is an ardent believer in the importance of good manure. “Brown gold,” as he describes it. “Soil is the most important part of our farm,” he says. Manure on the Leahey farm is not just a superior fertilizer, but is organic, too.
Manure on a farm the size of the Leaheys’ — 300 acres — is an integral part of the growing process. But manure on a 70,000 cow farm is toxic waste. Earl Butz’s dictum — “get big or get out” — has resulted in turning much of the nation’s farmland into areas dangerous to humans and animals alike. If ever there was a reason to support locally sourced agriculture, this is it.
Water is one of the most precious natural elements on a farm. And as Phil points out, no more water is being produced. I did not fully grasp the importance of water to a farm until I learned how much water it takes to grow individual crops we eat on a daily basis. According to a recent New York Times op-ed by Nicholas Kristoff, for example, it takes 53 gallons of water to produce an egg, 468 gallons to produce one pound of chicken, 880 gallons of water to get one gallon of milk, and 1,800 gallons of water to create one pound of beef. On human-sized farms, these amounts are imaginable. On industrial farms, the mind simply boggles.
Currently, the Leahey farm is home to 37 cows. They stopped breeding pigs because the dairy needs all of their attention. They also keep horses and donkeys, but they are more for pleasure than profit. Phil’s father, James, a longtime veterinarian, was concerned that draft horses would become extinct, so they keep a team on the farm to show people what they are like.
Phil acknowledges that grass-fed animals are a hot commodity now. “Yogurt and grass-fed are the shining spots in the dairy industry now.” The Leaheys sell their whole milk at Guido’s, the Berkshire Co-op, Berkshire Organics and at smaller venues throughout the county.
The Leaheys have devoted 250 acres of their farm to trees. That land is in a forest stewardship program, and is logged in a manner conducive to environmental protection. And a goodly portion of the farm is in a watershed.
Both Phil and Jen Leahey attended the University of Massachusetts. The couple met when Jen was the coordinator for agriculture at Sturbridge Village and Phil worked for New England Heritage Breeds. The two organizations had a partnership, which led to a relationship with a very happy ending.
The next generation of Leaheys includes Brenna, 7 years old, and Thomas, 4 years old. The children work on the farm as much as they like, but they are at an age when rabbits and ducks make more sense than cows.