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Thomas Farragher

Dairy farms across New England are disappearing. This one isn’t.

At their farm in Orange, the Hunt family perseveres through hard work and tenacity.

George Hunt, Jr., is part of three generations of dairy farmers at the Hunt Farm.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

ORANGE – It sits hard by Route 2, a rolling landscape of barns and silos, grazing cows and heaps of hay – a picture-postcard of a place worthy of a Currier and Ives engraving that fairly screams New England.

But look closer.

Here’s what it really is: a place of tenacity and hard work that stretches back 141 years and six generations – back to Reconstruction and world wars, through economic calamity and boom times, to the dawn of the digital age that for all its whiz-bang technology has not supplanted today’s early-morning milking sessions seem almost quaint.

It’s the story of the Hunt family and its legacy farm that – against all odds – is nothing less than a soaring-and-scrappy emblem of survival. A story of evolution. And adaptability. And hope.

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“My father was a butcher, a cattle dealer, a dairyman and he also sold vegetables in the summer,’’ George Hunt Sr., 82, told me the other day in his parlor where he sat beneath his great grandparents’ framed marriage certificate from 1868.

“My grandmother sold pies out here,’’ he said, pointing to the road outside his window here at Hunt Farm. “Apple pies. Blueberry pies. Whatever was available. Eighty-five cents, I think it was. I was in a restaurant the other day and got one piece of pie. It was 5 dollars and some change.’’

Change is a small word in that sentence. But it’s the critical ingredient that has saved the Hunts from a fate that has befallen thousands of dairies that used to dot the New England countryside.

Over the last half century, New England has lost more than 10,000 of its dairy farms. Some two-thirds of Massachusetts’ dairy farms have closed down since 1997. By mid-2018, there were just 134 dairy farms left in the state.

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One of them belongs to George Hunt. And his son, George Hunt Jr. And his grandson, Jimmy Hunt, who holds a bachelor’s degree from Cornell University, where he studied animal science.

Jimmy Hunt, 29, and his two sisters grew up on the farm here, learning that when a big snowfall canceled school for their classmates, there was never time off from the work that awaited on the farm.

“I never pictured my life without some connection to a dairy farm,’’ he told me the other day. “I would say there were some struggles finding commonality or even agreeing with what other people’s idea of a weekend was. Their idea of a weekend was playing video games and getting up at noon. Mine was: At 7:30 you had to be down at the barn. If you couldn’t make it at 7 in the morning on Sunday, you’d have to be there even earlier the next day.’’

And now he is back. And the work is still there. Still there across 500 acres of land his family owns here and in nearby New Salem. They have 116 lactating cows. The females average five births across their lifetimes. They are Holsteins, known as the world’s highest-production dairy animals, yielding eight gallons per day each day.

“This is my little piece of the world,’’’ George Hunt Jr., told me on a tour of the farm the other morning, where a tanker truck stood ready to haul away 1800 gallons of milk.

It is not the same place it was when his father took it over. And it won’t be the same place when his son is fully in charge some day soon.

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“My mindset was to diversify,’’ said Hunt, now 62, ‘’which is a sad thing that you have to do in a job that is virtually 24/7. Where you have to be here Christmas, New Year’s. Even a firefighter doesn’t work both holidays. So we’ve sold compost and cow manure. We’ve sold firewood. Fortunately, we’ve gotten into solar energy.’’

The Hunts lease some of their land for those panels, which produce 3.299 megawatts for the city of Lowell– a critical part of diversification that subsidizes the vagaries of the dairy business.

“If somebody told me 30-plus years ago that the price of milk would be the same 38 years from now, I never would have believed it,’’ George Hunt Jr. said. “When we put the new barn up in ’82, the barn was bringing in just about the same as it is today. It’s been the same price for 30 to 35 years.’’

His octogenarian father said he’s had to bite his tongue as he’s watched his own son follow in his footsteps, making the identical decision he did back in the 1960s.

“To be a dairy farmer, you’ve got to be pretty independent minded,’’ George Jr. said. “You’ve got to be terribly independent. You always have to have a back-up plan for when something breaks or somebody doesn’t show up. You’ve got to be pretty resilient and tenacious.

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“It’s not a business for the faint-hearted or somebody who, when the wind changes, bails. You raise a calf for two years before she gives birth. And you start – you start – to recover your investment. That’s almost worse than anything on Wall Street.’’

And so he has watched warily as his son has followed him just as he followed his father.

Still, he wonders. Is his son prepared to work for minimum wages at times? Is he prepared for a job that can consume your life? How will he pay those bills that keep coming.

But the father knows the son has prepared himself for a changing dairy industry, where technology is nearly as important as old-fashioned intuition. And he’s happy he never surrendered to the siren call of developers who lusted after his land.

“I don’t feel right selling something that I inherited,’’ George Hunt Jr. said. “If I inherited it, maybe the next guy should inherit it.’’

His son is walking into the family business with eyes wide open, fully aware of the economic storms that can batter life on the dairy farm which has become his economic destiny.

“Dad said it and grandpa said it: We never make the sale of the land a retirement plan,’’ Jimmy Hunt said. “Diversification is the next best thing – making sure you’re keeping the dairy going and thinking about other revenue streams. Dad did a lot of cord wood, a lot of solar. Myself? I grow pumpkins, gourds. I have a sweetcorn business that we sell from the farm. We started a corn maze and we’ve had really good support.’’

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He was raised here. So long hours and hard work do not surprise or upset him.

“If I hadn’t grown up here, it wouldn’t be that appealing,’’ he said. “There are easier ways to make money.’’

So he’s trusting his gut. He’s relying on his education. He’s leaning on the solid foundation laid out before him by his father and his grandfather.

“You look at this thing that your family has created,’’ he told me. “Sometimes you have to be reminded. It is pretty cool. It is very unique.

“When my girlfriend and I go into Boston and we’re riding the T to a Red Sox game, I look around and say, ‘What are the odds there’s another dairy farmer on this train?’ ’’

When I told George Hunt Sr. that story about his grandson, he wore a satisfied smile as he sat in his den, wearing a blue flannel shirt against the brown-and-white afghan draped over his favorite chair.

“I’ve been blessed and I thank God for all I have,’’ he told me. “Legacy? Well, there’s a lot of hard work here. I’m unsure what a legacy is.’’

But there it was spread out before him just the same. He could see it just outside the window as a cold winter wind swept over the land his family has worked – and has kept -- for nearly 150 years.


Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.