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Peabody’s last dairy farmer

Ted Dunajski has kept his dairy farm alive in the Boston suburb.

Peabody is not unlike other Boston suburbs: busy and hectic.

This isn’t a place where you would expect a dairy farm to operate. But drive down narrow Buxton Lane —past the Cape Cod-style homes, kids playing in the streets and dry boats in people’s yards — and you’ll run into Dunajski Dairy, a farm that proves that, yes, “There are cows in Peabody.”

Ted Dunajski is the third generation of his family to farm in this dense Boston suburb. At 78 years old, he very well might be the last.

Dunajski has seen farming’s decline in Peabody. Most farms sold out long ago, and of the five dairy plants that once called this city home, his is the last one standing. But he doesn’t want you to feel bad for him. He wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

“I want to be a farmer. I evolved around the whole thing, so how do I get away from that?" he says.

Resilient family

Dunajski says that many of his farming friends who live far from Peabody think he’s crazy to continue milking cows in the middle of the city.

But Dunajski is resilient. Some might think he’s stubborn. Whatever it is, he traces it back to his grandmother, Magdalena, the first generation of his family to farm in Peabody. She had an orchard, vegetable garden and even a small herd of cows to feed the local Polish community in the city.

“I don’t think they milked more than 20 cows, sold the raw milk,” Ted says.

When Magdalena’s husband, Fred, died of leukemia, she was left to raise seven children on her own — the youngest being 1, the oldest 18. Somehow, she kept the farm going with her kids.

“It’s always been a struggle” for the family, Ted says.

Ted Dunajski Sr., his father, took over the farm after Magdalena died, but he didn’t live long. He died at the age of 59 in bad health. Still, he left a legacy as he and his brothers built the farm’s milk plant.

Ted Jr. went to Essex Agricultural School. He started farming at 10, helping out on the milk truck and delivering products to local customers.

He remembers something his grandmother told him before she died. “You will get sick of it, and when you get sick of it, you’ve got my permission to sell it.”

But his family’s resilience always stuck with him as he, an only child, took over as the third generation.

Growing strong

By the time Ted took over, Peabody and Essex County were changing rapidly. “Essex County used to be the cradle of the Guernsey breed,” he says, and there were five milk bottling plants in the city.

But all the other plants eventually closed, leaving his plant as the last one standing. As his customer base got older, Ted decided that to survive he needed to get into stores instead of direct sales to local consumers.

In 1978, he helped launch the Pure Country label for his products and started selling wholesale. The area’s growing Hispanic community grew to love his farm’s milk, and local Hispanic stores were a big outlet for his products. He soon became known as the “lechero,” which means milkman in Spanish.

“I found that they were the same as Poles, but just spoke a different language. But they liked dairy and ice cream,” Ted says. “So they liked our milk because it was more like they were used to, from the old country. We grew strong.”

What’s the secret? He doesn’t know for sure, but it could be the fact that the milk doesn’t stay in the tank for long.

“Our milk is coming only from our farm and then a little bit from another farm, but it’s just as local. That’s the difference. Plus, it’s moved,” Ted says.

The plant, located across from where the cows are housed, opens every day at 4 a.m. Milk is processed and bottled three times a week. Other products, such as juices, teas and water, are done once a week.

The farm sells to more than 20 local stores within a 20-mile radius around Boston, as well as to nursing homes, bakeries, candy shops and bagel shops. “We don’t produce quite enough milk because that’s the secret,” he says. “You want your sales a little above your production because you don’t want overage. We don’t want to grow the business any more than it is.”

Bringing the cows home

For many years, the farm leased space at a nearby farm where Ted kept most of his cows. But that farm, as with other farms in the area, went out of business. Ted couldn’t move the lease to another farm. To keep the business running, he had to move them back home.

"We’d seen it sort of coming, so in 2005 we built the loose housing barn," he says. A step-up milking parlor was installed, and Ted went from just milking 50 cows on the farm to well over 100.

"We did whatever we had to do to make it go," he says.

In 2012, Ted bought a farm 20 miles away that was in foreclosure. With 140 acres, this enabled him to produce more homegrown feed. The farm’s total mixed ration (TMR) is balage, corn silage and brewers’ grains.

For a farm with limited acreage and space, the mostly Holstein cows — with a few Jerseys thrown in — produce well. The rolling herd average is 25,019 pounds and 3.8% butterfat.

"We’ve got to get as much as we can out of the old girls because what we don't get out of them we’ve got to buy," Ted says.

Bark mulch, sourced from a business in town, is grinded down and used in the heifer barns and super hutches. Most of the cow stalls are bedded with sand.

Cow manure is hauled daily to the other farm, where it’s stored in a couple of pits.

Uncertain future 

In his small house just up the street from the farm, Ted has scrapbooks full of old newspaper clippings and shelves with old milk bottles from the other plants that once called Peabody home.

He knows he may be the last generation of his family to farm here. Even though he has two children — Michael, who oversees the plant, and Christine, who handles the cows — who help him out, it’s not clear whether they’ll take over when he’s gone.

But his resilience still shines through. He’s constantly on his flip phone, checking in with local customers to see how they’re doing. He’s even considering installing robotic milkers to cut down on labor costs. Time will tell whether he’ll go that route.

"The problem I have right now is I'm 78. My kids might not want to take it over, and the labor market is tough,” he says.

Houses surround the farm on three sides. Backyard swimming pools abut the small pastures where his heifers roam. It’s not an easy place to raise animals, especially when people far removed from agriculture are watching.

"It's hard living in the city with people and their thoughts of the way some animals need to be treated,” Ted says. “I know the way animals need to be treated. You've got to be careful around people.”

In many ways, Ted Dunajski’s farm is a snapshot of the everyday pressures all farmers face, from being on top of their animal welfare to trying to educate people who don’t know where their food comes from. The only difference is he farms where the people live.

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