Churchtown Dairy

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It’s a chilled November day and when you enter the long white milking barn of Churchtown Dairy, a certain stillness lingers in the air, as though the Earth has finally settled with itself. The narrow barn forms a neutral palette of dusty whites punctuated by the worn, gray browns of exposed beams and wooden harnesses the latter of which demarcate milking stations baring small chalked names like Olana and Oleander. The dairy cows are in for the season, and you hear nothing except a brisk breeze whistling through the milking corridor and the faint shuffling of hooves in fresh hay off to your left in the adjoining circular barn. Along with these interruptions of silence comes the warming, homely scent of dried grass, softened wood, and decay, that distinctive perfume of farms and farm animals—notes of grass in all its variegated forms: bailed, consumed, expelled.

The packed cement floor of the milking barn and narrow connecting arm gives way to the round barn’s soft, hay-strewn floor, a clean layer of straw meant to absorb moisture and waste. The circular barn is a monolithic, domed wooden structure, a gleaming crisp white on the exterior, made brighter on clear, sunny days, and a warm mass of dendritic columns, limbs, and spindles on the interior, made warmer with the faint glow of pre-noon light. In the dual story structure, curvilinear support beams hover over the cavernous column of open air spanning both the first and second stories, the first story all hay and cows, the second, a wide, lofted balcony space stacked in golden bails, towering this way and that. It’s surprisingly cold despite the shielding structure, and you likely wonder to yourself how this is possibly warmer than outside—until a barreling form, rotund at the stomach, a deeply subdued brown, inquisitively approaches you, and you realize that some bodies carry more heat than others.

There are twenty-eight dairy cows, some eighteen calves, a herd of beef cows, and a sounder of pigs that call this round, white barn and all of its associated structures—the milking barn, the farm store, 250 acres of pasture—home. Judging from the unguarded stance and the playful butting of heads of the feasting females in the round barn, it’s easy to reckon it’s a good one, too.

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If you drive west along New York’s State Route 27 toward that fertile and historic valley framing the Hudson River, a smattering of farms and homesteads will populate either side of you. Most will boast charmingly dilapidated wooden-siding and sturdy metal placards dating themselves to the revolutionary war. You’ll rise and fall through ravines, curve around hillsides and back country roads. Except the interleaved plots of farmland, the area will be carpeted in forest, and your visual attentions will be lost in the tangles of November’s leafless deciduous trees, nestled deep and thick, at the sort of density and wildness that make one question how developed this first frontier really is.

Country Route 27 will soon turn into Country Route 12, flattening out as the forest tapers off. The corner will round where Country Route 12 meets Miller Road, and there, the Earth will lay dismissively prostrate before you, open, flat, expansive. In the distance—the gleaming, rounded white barn of Churchtown.

Built on 250 acres of open meadows in Claverack, Columbia County, New York, Churchtown dairy, despite its freshly painted exterior, could very well have stood there for longer than its now six year tenure. In fact, the land beneath its foundations was once divided amongst and operated on by three independent, family-run dairy farms. But small-scale dairying proved a tough enterprise in the 1980s, and as prodigious dairy surpluses sent milk prices plummeting in the worst farming crisis since the Great Depression, little if any profits were to be made from the demanding, no-days-off job. Many dairy farmers, already struggling to pass farms down to disillusioned children seeking employment and opportunity elsewhere in cities and urban areas, sought exit routes where none existed.

Things may have continued declining in such a way, but in 1985, the 99th congress of the United States enacted the Food Security Act in the hopes of invigorating a heavily stagnate farming industry. The five year omnibus bill, among many things, standardized the price of milk, established income supports for farmers, and perhaps most importantly, offered a dairy herd buyout program. Though few farmers would cede their dairy herds and dairying lives without some hesitancy, the opportunity to exit the industry in one fell swoop was too tempting to pass up when the alternative was ever-realizing financial ruin. As a result of the buyout, many dairy farmers would become former dairy farmers, and many small, independent dairy farms, including the three comprising Churchtown, would fold, accepting the Act’s five year lump-sum payment in exchange for exporting or slaughtering their herds and leaving the industry for a minimum of five years—but most forever.

Contemporaneous with this buyout program and the umbrella restructuring of American farms, developers began buying up vast swaths of the newly available lands, planning ambitious housing and commercial projects. In an endeavor to preserve the iconic natural scenery of the Hudson River Valley, Peggy Rockefeller—of the famed oil lineage—began acquiring land throughout the region, some 3000 acres of abandoned farms, 250 of those belonging to today’s Churchtown.

Up until twelve years after Peggy’s passing in 1996, these 3000 acres would continue to be farmed conventionally for grain and hay, and the historic scenery of the Hudson River Valley— that scenery giving rise to great American artists of the likes of Thomas Cole and Norman Rockwell—would be preserved. A northern pastoral projection of that river sourcing in the busiest city in the East would remain unscathed, a stretch of land speaking to a bygone era of small farms and small living.

In 2008, David Rockefeller, Peggy’s husband, began turning over this Columbia County property to his children, one of whom, a certain Abby Rockefeller, requested Churchtown’s then vacant 250 acres. And, like so, Churchtown went from dairy to field to dairy again in a tangled history of economic endowments, public and private. Abby’s sole request going into the Churchtown project—“I want to build this farm [here]. And it has to be beautiful.”

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The property is quiet, the animals peaceful, the unfazed land speaking to none of the human concerns that have occurred on or over it. It’s a beautiful farm, really, like what you would imagine an idyllic dairy farm to be. In the milking barn, the 28 stations for the 28 cows are labeled, and a trough of hay cuts directly into the concrete floors, traversing a cow’s length behind each wooden harness so that the animals might feed after being milked, some by hand, some electronically. The property’s Brown Swiss cows, what with their twisted, regal crowns of horns, prove slightly perilous to milk, hence the occasional electronic apparatus, but the horns are kept in place as part of the farm’s biodynamic principles, a holistic agricultural practice that seeks to work with rather than against the natural rhythms and inclinations of its animals and its land. Along with facilitating the animals’ natural growth and living patterns, biodynamic farming entails limiting the number of cows to how much feed can be grown directly from the land and how much physical barn space is available to house the animals.

Guernsey, and Brown Swiss stocks mean less milk for the farm store, but conversely allow for the animals to subside off of grass-only diets. The docile females eating hay, occasionally staring intently beyond your presence at the cusp of the farm gate and round barn, know nothing of the miscellaneous scraps—from leftover food to chocolate bars—with which other farmers supplement their herds. Maximizing production isn’t the goal of biodynamic farming. Quality, sustainability, and animal well-being certainly are.

Standing against the gate where milking barn and circular barn convene, you hear faint shuffling, this time, not of cows, but the steady one-two, one-two of a person. The steps are soon followed by a warm, throaty voice, “Do you have any questions?"

The voice, a man, joins you at the gate, leaning his body over the top with an untroubled certitude, as though the railing could carry not just his weight, but that of the world. He’s wearing an earth-toned wool sweater—the kind you buy once and never have to again—and though everyone, yourself included, is shivering, he, clad in just this sweater—the sleeves of his work overalls tossed off his shoulders and tied at the waist—appears perfectly acclimatized.

It could be the Friday after Thanksgiving, and Matt, the dairy manager wouldn’t seem to mind being at work. And when he meets you at the gate to the round barn, he looks upon his ladies with a paternal glow, his kind eyes framed by the wrinkles of a face knowing of sun, grit, hardship, yes, but hearty smiles as well. Though the animals had seemed at peace before, Matt’s presence seems to offer a sort of blanketing assurance that all is well. Visible ease emanates from their forms.

Matt, you come to find, spends every day on the farm tending to the animals and their various needs. He heads the farm’s cheese production, hosts weekly farm tours on Sundays at 3:30 PM, and refers to the dairy cows, among many endearments, as “my girls”.

A brief post-visit peruse of his social media accounts confirms his commitment to Churchtown. Excepting three photos of his daughter—two of her with cows, the third of her running through Churchtown’s pastures—his feed is entirely dedicated to the animals, charting new births, new names, and new farm developments. One photo, a backlit female, her horns silhouetted against a setting sun, has the caption, “It is one of those evenings that just brings a smile to your face.”

Still yet, another post documents the arrival of a new member to the herd, Frisco’s calf, Freida. It’s hash-tagged “strongwomen”.

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Through a three-cow-wide, arched opening, light bleeds into the round barn from a pasture behind. Inside, before the coldest days of an early year advance, the herd will be seen traveling between this space and the one beyond. Amongst the larger itinerant bodies, a few smaller ones will intermingle, a large calf always within tail’s distance of its mother. With breeding in late spring and early summer, come November, the freshly-minted members will have mostly passed those first gangly, uncertain days of life. Their eyes will be thoughtful, hesitant, though still too large for their narrow faces, and they will keep at a studied distance from the strangers at the gate while their mothers look on, calm, unperturbed. Though this mixing of young and old feels prototypically natural, expected even to the most unfamiliar of dairy visitors, it’s an unusual practice—keeping calves with their mothers. Many large, operational diary farms, optimizing for each and every drop of milk, separate calves and mothers at birth, the former a drain of the latter’s stores. Churchtown maintains such unions so as to reduce stress on mother and calf at the minor expense of lowered milk production.

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At Churchtown, mixtures of methods, old and new, trickle down from the milking mechanisms —hand and machine—to the structures themselves—the extensive round barn being of modern construction and the milking barn being of reclaimed materials, formerly an 1839 farmhouse in New Hampshire.

As of November 2018, you’ll see a network of unfinished structures scattered around the long, monolithic stretch of barns and buildings forming Churchtown’s main artery. The most recently completed and attached directly to the barns are those of the milk processing area and the farm store.

With its unequivocally white facade and neat, suit-and-tie shuttered windows, walking into the farm store, you are greeted by a large, brick pillar and wood burning stove situated at the heart of a spacious square room. Soft natural light emanates through the windows, wide wooden planks form a forgiving floor below your feet, and furniture arrangements—chairs turned toward one another, chairs gathered around tables—speak to comfort and conversations to be had.

The long wooden farm table to your right has an eclectic garland of seating options encircling it. As you walk by, you might slip your hand over the back of one of these matchless wooden chairs, feeling how it has given in from age, forming a sort of timbered velvet. The store smells oaken, and grassy, a refined version of that perfume of the barn, without those notes of decay.

In fridges, you’ll find glass bottles of raw dairy milk, freshly butchered meats, and various selections of farm-made cheeses. Behind that central brick fireplace, you’ll be surprised to uncover a hallway leading back to a white tile, black slate kitchen from whose wide entrance two farmhands, two of the farm’s twelve employees, walk out with trays of cheese, various accoutrements—local honeys, fresh-baked crackers—and steaming carafes of tea and coffee. They will smile and invite you to stay for a cup and a cube.

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Out back behind the round barn, a small calf rests under the auspices of its mother’s wide warmth- and milk-emanating girth. It’s atypically cold for a late November day, what with the wind, but the sun and the gathered bovine bodies induce a certain locational heat that begs of one’s attention for a while. From the two’s affectionate interaction, you’d never guess the mother was a surrogate. The calf is Tintin, and the adoptive mother is Olana, the same Olana whose name claimed one of the milk harnesses. Tintin’s mother died from hypocalcemia, also known as milk fever wherein calcium reaches dangerously low levels in the blood until the animal falls down and can’t get back up. Matt found Tintin’s mother in the pasture, collapsed on her side. He ran to her, tried everything within his all-too-limited power to help her, but the fallen cow lay fallen, and the calf lay beside her, understanding little, soon motherless.

Olana was hesitant with Tintin and surrogacy at first, but Matt and she “had a talk.” When left alone with Tintin for an hour, the two soon took to one another. Now Olana treats Tintin as her own, and Tintin seeks milk, shelter, and companionship from no one else. As Tintin sucks nutriment from his adopted mother, you’d never guess the relation had been any different.

And when you look around yourself—at the other cows, at the barn, at the farmland—and when you imagine this same place in those early years of the 1900s, you think to yourself, surely this is exactly what this land was meant to be.

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Xx, Katherine