LEE — Perched among cornfields on a hill outside town, High Lawn Farm, with its rather elegant stucco buildings and distinctive hexagonal clock tower, doesn’t look like a typical New England dairy farm. And in many ways, it isn’t.
The last commercial dairy operation in Berkshire County, High Lawn is home to a nationally recognized herd of Jersey cows, a breed whose milk is higher in protein, calcium, and butterfat than that of the more usual Holstein. According to the American Jersey Cattle Association, only about 7 percent of dairy cows in the United States are purebred Jerseys. These brown, soulful-eyed cows are smaller than the familiar black-and-white Holsteins. Says Beth White, who’s in charge of business development at High Lawn, “they eat less food, drink less water, are more sustainable, use less land, and generally have a smaller carbon footprint.”
Adds general manager Roberto Laurens, “And they’re more friendly. Holsteins kick you.”
High Lawn isn’t a large operation. Family owned for several generations, the farm today houses about 400 cows, with about 200 in milk production. Until 1999, the milk was sold strictly through home delivery, and when Laurens, a native of Colombia, arrived in 2002, much of it was still brought straight to customers’ homes. He recalls his astonishment riding along on a milk run: “The delivery guy would let himself into the house, put the milk in the refrigerator, give the dog a cookie, and go.”
Home delivery stopped in 2004, a casualty of the times. But High Lawn still does much of its work the old-fashioned way. The milk is processed and bottled on the farm, in a small facility not much larger than a big garage; overhead pipes carry it from the milking shed to the holding tanks to the processing and bottling rooms. Time from cow to store is one day — something no large dairy can match, says Laurens. “Nobody else processes on the farm,” he adds, standing in a walk-in surrounded by cases of products — whole milk, low-fat milk, skim milk, chocolate milk, half-and-half, butter — ready for loading onto trucks.
The farm’s history goes back more than 110 years. In 1935, Colonel H. George Wilde and his wife, Marjorie Field Wilde, took over her family’s Lee farm, which was part of a larger estate. Marjorie Wilde came from a prominent New York family — she was a direct descendant of Cornelius Vanderbilt, on her mother’s side — who came to farming after Bryn Mawr and marriage. But she was no mere hobby farmer. Working toward improving the breed’s milk production and strength, she garnered widespread recognition for her Jerseys, earning a master breeder award from the American Jersey Cattle Club in 1977.
The Wildes’ descendants are committed to keeping the farm going, says White: “They want to keep it green, and help keep the Berkshires green. That’s the goal.” The farm’s 1,500 acres include 800 of wood as well as cropland that provides most of the feed for the cows. High Lawn may not face the same kind of commercial pressures that weigh on more typical New England farms, but it still can’t be run at a loss. “If we break even, everyone is happy,” says Laurens. The farm’s milk goes to stores, coffee shops, restaurants, and colleges around Massachusetts.
Out in the pastures, where the cows roam freely, it’s clear that these Jerseys are a friendly bunch. Visitors should be prepared to be licked. On a recent late-summer afternoon, near a fence bordering the passing road, a few locals — parents and kids — gather to watch a newborn calf, not more than 10 minutes old, get a tongue bath from its mother and struggle, wobbling, to its feet.
There are no plans to increase the size of the herd, but expanding into new products and new markets, albeit on a modest scale, helps keep the place afloat. In the next month or so, High Lawn will introduce a line of ice cream. Don’t expect anything too modern. Flavors in development are vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry. And don’t expect to see it in every convenience-store freezer in the Commonwealth. High Lawn Farm is small by design and happy to stay that way.
Says White, “We’re more about quality than quantity.”
High Lawn Farm products are available at A. Russo & Sons, 560 Pleasant St.,
Watertown, 617-923-1500; Roche Bros. markets; Volante Farms, 292 Forest St., Needham, 781-444-2351; and some Whole Foods Market locations; or go to www.highlawnfarm.com.