Dairy farming on Martha’s Vineyard

Rip rounds up one of The Grey Barn's Dutch Belted cows. — Photo by Tim Johnson

In stride with local farms selling produce, eggs, meat, and fiber, three Island farms are producing, bottling, marketing, and selling milk in its various forms. From raw to homogenized and even in soap form, the family-owned dairy farms are giving consumers other options when shopping.

Once milked from the cow, raw milk is filtered, cooled, and bottled. It is not processed in any way. Pasteurized milk is heated to eliminate potential pathogens, extending the milk’s shelf life. Homogenization breaks down cream particles that would otherwise rise to the top (cream-lined milk), creating milk with a smoother consistency. Organic milk, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, comes from cows that were fed only organic feed, were not treated with synthetic hormones, and were kept in adequately sized pens.

Eric and Molly Glasgow, husband and wife, and owners of The Grey Barn and Farm in Chilmark, purchased the former Rainbow Farm in July 2009. Mr. Glasgow was a successful oil trader who worked for Vitol, one of the world’s largest independent energy trading companies, according to published reports.

The farm currently has their 19 Dutch Belted cows and produces raw and pasteurized (not homogenized) milk. The Dutch Belted breed is known for their high butterfat content, making their milk ideal for drinking.

For legal reasons , the raw milk is sold only at the farm while the pasteurized whole and skim milks are available at the farm, Cronig’s, Morning Glory Farm, 7A Foods, and Fiddlehead Farm. Some state regulations for selling raw milk include: affixing a label to the container as well as a posting a sign in the area where the raw milk is sold reading “Raw milk is not pasteurized. Pasteurization destroys organisims that may be harmful to human health;” a five-day maximum period for the sale of retail raw milk starting from the time the farmer fills the container.

The Glasgows are in the final stages of the three-year process to have their farm certified organic, which means unannounced visits from state inspectors and antibiotic testing despite there being none on the farm. The Glasgows willingly submit to these technicalities because they are confident in their business and because they believe in organic farming.

“It’s about the end nutrient density of the food not the label,” Ms. Glasgow says. “Milk is an amazing substance and it’s so misunderstood. It has to be produced locally to benefit from the most nutrients.”

A few miles away, on Middle Road, wife and husband Caitlin Jones and Allen Healy operate Mermaid Farm and Dairy. Mr. Healy’s farming experience started in his teens when he worked at the Allen Farm in Chilmark. Ms. Jones’s family bought the land in the late 1960s. While Ms. Jones oversees the farm’s vegetable production and sale, Mr. Healy is the milkman.

While he considers raw milk best, seeing that his cows eat only grass and organic, non-GMO grain, Mr. Healy isn’t pushy in his certainty: “It’s better to be educated and know where your food is coming from,” he says.

Outside the milking parlor, two black and white spotted cows lurk, waiting their turn. “Let’s go girls,” Mr. Healy tells them.

Cows are very much creatures of habit and most farmers will agree that they need to be milked at the same time every day. The Glasgows milk their cows once a day while Mr. Healy milks twice. Milking takes about an hour and clean-up can take the same.

Mr. Healy has stopped selling raw milk until October when his calving cows will be more productive. For now, he uses what’s available for yogurt and feta cheese, which is pasteurized, not homogenized, and can be found at Cronig’s, Morning Glory, Fiddlehead Farm, the West Tisbury Farmers Market, and at the farm. These products are more profitable than milk, which is important since small-scale dairy farming isn’t exactly a moneymaker. Currently, a quart of Grey Barn milk costs $5 at the farm, which includes a $2 bottle deposit that you get back upon returning the bottle to the farm. At Mermaid Farm, yogurt is $6; feta is $9; a gallon of milk is $10, including a $5 deposit on the bottle.

Making zero profit this year came as no surprise to the Glasgows, who knew their young enterprise would need time to grow before reaping any financial benefits. From a business perspective, the Glasgows hope to at least break even, yet they are unwavering about their prices. “Our product needs to be affordable for everyone,” Ms. Glasgow says.

Currently honing her cheese-making skills, Ms. Glasgow says that cheese will be ready for sale by next year. Selling that cheese along with pork, beef, and veal (all being raised now) will eventually contribute to The Grey Barn’s financial success.

Mr. Healy and Ms. Jones at Mermaid Farm sell their beef, lamb, and pork as well as tomatoes, kale, fresh-cut flowers, and more at the farm and the Farmers Market, all of which helps them stay afloat — or keep from going under, depending how you look at it. Mr. Healy is optimistic about the cheese cave currently under way, meaning more cheese next season and he believes that his farm will be more profitable, when milk production increases.

Emily Fischer, whose family has owned Flat Point Farm in West Tisbury since 1939, has taken a different route with her farm-fresh milk. She uses the raw milk from her three goats to make handcrafted, artisanal soaps. Because soap is (hopefully) not ingested, her facility is not subject to strict guidelines, and she is for the most part left alone to craft soaps laced with lavender, lilac, fig, oatmeal, and honey.

Ms. Fischer began making soaps five years ago with her sister Lila for Christmas gifts. The soaps were well received, and Emily decided to keep the business going. Now, when she isn’t chasing her two-year-old son around the farm, she spends three mornings a week in her soap studio, which is conveniently located on the property.

Doug Brush, Ms. Fischer’s husband, does most of the goat chores as well as the twice-daily milkings. Aside from the moisturizing qualities the goat’s milk lends to Ms. Fischer’s soaps, Ivan, Sugar, Belle, Sophia, and Chokie have proven to be excellent landscapers, adept at keeping invasive bittersweet from conquering the farm.

Flat Point Farm soaps sell for $6 to $8 at Morning Glory, Fiddlehead Farm, West Tisbury Farmers Market, Allen Farm, and year-round at Rainy Day in Vineyard Haven. Most of the money generated from Flat Point Farm soaps goes into paying for the maintenance of the goats, though sometimes there is a little extra. Ms. Fischer is just happy not to be losing money, and to be working for herself.

Ms. Fischer’s soaps have started to attract the attention of brides-to-be and other event planners as party favors. Creating individualized soaps has been fun for Ms. Fischer. “It’s a hobby,” she says. “I love thinking up new recipes and marketing ideas.” With potential for her business to grow, Ms. Fischer thinks she’ll be at it for some time to come.

The Grey Barn and Farm: thegreybarnandfarm.com

Mermaid Farm and Dairy: 508-645-3492

Flat Point Farm: flatpointfarm.com; 508-693-2057