NORWELL — It’s hard to believe Hornstra Farms is surrounded by modern housing subdivisions and busy Route 3 is less than 2 miles away. The dairy farm is postcard-picturesque, with old stone walls bordering green pastures where wild turkeys congregate. In the distance, a herd of cows moves slowly over a lush hillside. It’s a tranquil, peaceful place where the loudest sound is the occasional deep guttural voice of a cow mooing while grazing in the fields.
“Who would’ve thought a farm was here?” said John Hornstra, the 49-year-old fourth-generation farmer who runs the place.
Dairy farming has a long history in Massachusetts that goes back to 1624, when early settlers first brought cows to Plymouth. But the number of dairy farms in the state has dwindled since the 1950s. Sixty years ago, Massachusetts had 7,331 working dairy farms, and today there are 155. Hornstra Farms, founded in 1915, is one that has managed to survive.
This has been a big year for the 80-acre farm: It was recently named the “Massachusetts Outstanding Dairy Farm” of the year, and it’s expanding its operations to include homemade ice cream, and plans to open a retail store this winter. Meanwhile, it continues to deliver milk the old-fashioned way, in reusable glass bottles, to
thousands of customers all over the south suburbs.
There aren’t many farmers — dairy or not — anywhere south of Boston, never mind Norwell, an affluent bedroom community where the median household income is in the six figures and the median home value is over a half-million dollars. Real estate is an expensive commodity in this town.
“I watched a lot of farms close over the years,” said Hornstra.
If dairy farmers have a uniform, Hornstra dresses the part. He wears faded blue jeans, a dark green Hornstra Farms baseball cap, and a pair of well-worn work boots. Eyeglasses hang from the collar of his long-sleeved button-down plaid shirt. The belt around his waist is emblazoned with images of cows.
Dairy farming runs in his blood. His family’s business was started by his great-grandparents, who emigrated from Holland with their six children in 1912. The Hornstras started out working
for a small dairy farm on Fort Hill Street in Hingham. On May 1, 1915, they bought that farm and thus began Hornstra Farms. The family later bought a larger farm in Hingham — Jordan Farm — that had nearly 100 acres and a barn that could hold 85 cows.
Hornstra grew up in Hingham, and when he was in junior high school, the family sold much of its land to developers who built The Meadows subdivision.
In 1985, Hornstra took over the family milk delivery business. It had only about 150 customers back then, and he worked hard to build up the business. But he also had his eye on an old farm in Norwell, at 246 Prospect St. Loring Farm had stopped operating in the early 1980s, and when the opportunity came up to buy the farm in 2009, Hornstra jumped in.
“I’ve always wanted to buy this farm,” he said.
Luckily for him, he didn’t have to compete with developers. The previous owners had placed a
permanent deed restriction on the property to keep it as farmland through the state’s Agricultural Preservation Restriction program. The Plymouth Registry of Deeds shows that Hornstra paid $1.5 million for the property.
Hornstra went to work restoring the defunct farm to its original glory, rebuilding the old stone walls and constructing a new building that will soon house a retail store. A restored hay barn dates back to the 1700s, as does the farmhouse, he said. There are two new silos.
“It’s been a work in progress,” he said.
It’s also been a labor of love for Hornstra, who says he’s seen too many local farms shut down over the years and is frustrated watching agriculture disappear around him.
Amy E. Mahler, spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources, cited several reasons for the dwindling of dairy farms in the state.
“Development pressure, mixed with federal pricing and economies of scale, have contributed to this decline, as they make it extremely difficult for [Massachusetts] dairy farmers to compete with the large dairy giants out west,” Mahler said via e-mail.
In recent years, she said, the number of dairy farms has stabilized somewhat because of initiatives like the Agricultural Preservation Restriction program, which pays farmland owners the difference between the fair market value and the agricultural value of their property in exchange for a permanent deed restriction.
When the program started in Massachusetts in 1979, it was the first of its kind in the country, according to the state Department of Agricultural Resources.
Bridget Alexander Ferreira, executive director of Southeastern Massachusetts Agricultural Partnership Inc., a nonprofit based in Wareham, said dairy farms are few and far between in the region. She grew up on a dairy farm in Montana, and knows the importance of having access to them.
“It’s just really nice to see the cows in the fields, and see the process of how the cows are milked,” she said. “One kid may see those cows and become one of the next generation of dairy farmers.”
Milk delivery is an important service, and the peace of mind knowing exactly where the milk comes from is “something people appreciate these days,” she said.
Hornstra Farms today employs 15 people, and its cows produce about 500 gallons of milk a day. The farm delivers milk to 3,500 families in area towns including Braintree, Cohasset, Duxbury, Hanover, Hanson, Hingham, Hull, Marshfield, Norwell, Pembroke, Plympton, Scituate, and Weymouth.
Hornstra’s day begins at 5 a.m. and ends around 9 p.m., and involves a lot of hard labor. But he says he believes it’s worth it. He is gearing up to open the new store, which will carry milk, eggs, homemade ice cream, fresh produce, and firewood.
“We’re excited about it,” he said.
He hopes to make Hornstra a destination for field trips and school outings, so children, especially, can experience life on a working dairy farm.
“It’s an important piece of our heritage,” he said.
Emily Sweeney can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.