CANTERBURY, N.H. — Driving down the sloping hills that lead into Brookford Farm, you could easily mistake the lush, emerald-green fields for Ireland. Pigs and cows dot the 600-plus acres here that husband-wife team Luke and Catarina Mahoney have called home for nearly two years. The two 30-somethings, both first-generation farmers and newcomers to the New Hampshire farming scene, live off the land with their four young sons, ages 6 months to 11. They’re joined by 15 employees who have helped turn the Mahoneys dream of a holistic, diversified farmstead into a successful business.
Brookford is unique in that it doesn’t stick to one crop but offers a wide range, from grass-fed beef and pastured pork and chicken to raw milk, eggs, vegetables, wheat, and other grains. The Mahoneys also produce yogurt and kefir, bread, and an impressive variety of cheeses including camembert, cheddar, and quark, a spreadable, German-style cheese. These are sold in the store on their farm, at restaurants, and farmers’ and cooperative markets, and in a year-round Community Supported Agriculture program. The farm has a full-time salesperson. The couple could start from nothing and gear up like this because of a $900,000 loan from chairman and former Stonyfield Farm CEO Gary Hirshberg, whose plant is located a short distance away in Londonderry.
Brookford uses the wheat grown here to bake bread. And unlike most dairy farms, it isn’t part of a dairy cooperative (in the past, it sold to Organic Valley), selling its popular raw milk independently. That’s very unusual, says John Porter of the University of New Hampshire’s Cooperative Extension. Porter, a sixth-generation dairy farmer who helped the Mahoneys with their barn design, says they are hard workers, “very dedicated to the farm and stewardship of the land.”
The farm utilizes biodynamic and organic practices, but it’s not yet certified organic or biodynamic. Biodynamic agriculture aims to create closed, diversified farm ecosystems. For example, the cows graze on a variety of grasses and instead of buying fertilizer, the cows provide nutrient-rich patties, further enhancing the soil. Chickens, 400 layers and 2,000 meat birds, also fertilize the land. Leftover whey from cheesemaking and unusable crops are fed to 100 pigs, and so on.
A biodynamic approach is especially important for revitalizing the soil. The previous landowners had for years used the acreage, prime farmland along the fertile Merrimack River Valley, as a sod farm; the top layer is still recovering from the use of harsh chemicals. “It was the best kind of soil in the worst kind of condition,” says Luke Mahoney one day recently, while fixing a broken tractor. “It’s really starting to show signs of improvement.”
The couple dreamed up the farm near St. Petersburg, Russia, where they met while volunteering at a biodynamic farm that functioned as a place for handicapped adults to work and live off the land. From Russia, they moved to a farm near Hamburg, Germany, Catarina’s home country; she took part in an apprenticeship program while Luke worked with cows.
In 2007, they leased 300 acres in Rollinsford, N.H., until finally landing in Canterbury, a town of 2,000 people. Because of Hirshberg’s financial backing, Canterbury residents overwhelmingly voted at a 2011 town meeting to sell the town-owned land to the Mahoneys, instead of to two young dairy farmer brothers whose family roots in the town date to the 1730s. (The Mahoneys’ story is being chronicled in the documentary “Brookford Almanac,” by another husband-wife team, Cozette Russell and Julian Russell, residents of Lee, N.H.)
For now, the Mahoneys are focused on building infrastructure, buying more milking cows (they have 50, the goal is 80), and developing the grain business. They’d like more people to stop in at the farm store, which is located just off I-93. Luke Mahoney acknowledges the struggles of farming life: long days, backbreaking labor, the need to be resourceful. It’s not just a matter of growing and making the food, he says, but selling it and reminding people that you exist.
“We definitely have our work cut out for us,” says the farmer. “But we enjoy the challenges.”
Brookford Farm 250 West Road, Canterbury, N.H., 603-742-4084, www.brookfordfarm.com. Farm products are available at farmers’ markets on Saturdays at Union Square, Som-erville; and Sundays at SoWa in Boston and Newburyport.