September 5, 2017 at 3:32 p.m.
One such farm can be found on the banks of the Connecticut River in Plainfield, N.H. Pat and Tom McNamara bottle their own milk, distancing themselves from the commodity dairy market.
The farm had its start in 1950, when Pat and Tom's parents bought two cows. Their father suffered an injury when he was 24, which left him with little use of his arms and legs. However, he was determined to farm and the herd grew, eventually reaching 120 cows.
The milking herd was sold in 1968 and the McNamaras turned their attention to racing horses. They competed at local tracks throughout New Hampshire for the next fifteen years.
Pat graduated from Vermont Technical College in 1978 and started milking 25 cows in 1980. About this same time, racing declined after the coming of the state lottery. With Tom returning to the farm as well, the McNamaras decided to focus on dairy again, expanding to seventy cows.
In the early 1990's, the brothers started looking for ways to make the dairy operation more profitable. In 1992, they began bottling their own milk on site, marketing to the nearby population centers in Hanover and Lebanon, N.H.
The brothers continued to milk cows in their parents' old barn until Christmas night in 2003, when the roof collapsed under the snow load. This left 110 cows with no place to go. They quickly built a coverall over the old barn to get them through the worst part of a cold winter.
The brothers built a new barn the next spring. The new facility is a three-row sand bedded barn with alley scrapers, automatic curtains, and an insulated ceiling. When they built the new barn, they decided to replace the parlor as well, and installed a double-10 parallel parlor. Today, the cows, parlor, milk room, and bottling plant are all under one roof.
The farm and bottling business are two separate enterprises. Each brother owns fifty percent of Macs Happy Acres (the farm) and McNamara Dairy, LLC (the bottling business). The separation of the businesses was done mainly to protect the farm from liability that could come from the bottling business. The bottling plant rents space from the farm and buys milk for $20 per hundredweight.
Both brothers play a role in both enterprises. Pat is in charge of bottling, which is done by a team of five people on Mondays and Thursdays. Tom deals with distribution and delivery. They both work daily running the farm. Their mother and Pat's wife, Mary, are in charge of the books.
Although commercial dairy has declined in New Hampshire, they are well situated to sell their milk to the cities that are just a few miles away. Seventy-five percent of their milk is sold within a ten mile radius. Professors from Dartmouth College and doctors from Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center are a great market for milk in glass bottles.
Pat is quick to point out several other factors that work in their favor. The state still has a very supportive Department of Agriculture and maintains its "Current Use" program, which reduces property taxes on agricultural land. Their sandy river valley land can also support 115-day corn, which isn't often seen so far north.
The brothers were hard-pressed to think of disadvantages to their location in New Hampshire, a state with only 150 remaining dairy farms. In spite of the benefit to the bulk tank, the cold winter has proven to be a problem this year. Nearly all of the farm's alfalfa was killed this winter, a problem that plagued several neighboring dairies as well.
"It looks about the same as this driveway," Pat said while talking about his ruined field, "and it was only a two-year-old planting."
The dairy appears to have a strong outlook for the future. Pat has two sons. His oldest, Jason, is in the Cornell pre-vet program. The other, Adam, is about to graduate from high school and will attend Cornell as a food science major this fall.
Tom has three children. His daughter, Liz, recently graduated from Bates College and is teaching locally, although she remains involved in the farm. His oldest son, Jeff, attended the University of New Hampshire and is now back working on the farm. His youngest son, Nathan, is currently a senior at UNH.
Pat and Tom hope to make room on the farm for as many of their children as possible. They have laid the groundwork and intend to let the kids go in whatever direction they choose.
When asked if there was anything he would have done differently, Pat quickly replied, "I wish we'd had the kids sooner and they'd stayed longer. Especially in the last few years since the barn collapsed, they have made a big difference."
The kids' involvement in the farm is very noticeable. In addition to their help with the day to day chores, the McNamara children also run a 1,400-tap maple sugaring operation, which produced 260 gallons of maple syrup this spring. Much of the syrup is sold right in the farm store, alongside glass bottles of milk and cream.
A steady stream of customers flows through the unmanned store, where people record their purchases on a paper ledger. A security camera in the corner of the room keeps people honest.
"It's stupid simple and that's the way we like it," said Pat while explaining the store. "You'd be surprised how much milk we sell there."
The dairy maintains a 21,500 pound rolling herd average with 3.95 percent fat and a somatic cell count under 120,000. They don't test for protein, since it doesn't affect the bottling process. They intentionally produce more milk than the plant needs, ensuring that they are never sold out. Typically, over eighty percent of their milk is bottled on the farm, selling the rest in bulk.
"I'd hate to think my whole milk check was coming from that," said Tom when talking about the milk sold to the commodity market.
The brothers have found a way to move away from the ups and downs of commodity dairying and created a sound future for their farm and the next generation. In the shadow of the White Mountains of New Hampshire, one dairy has found a way to thrive.
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