Howard Hatch cares a lot about his farm’s milk quality. In fact, there’s nothing more important than that.
"If I wouldn't put it on my table and drink it, it didn't go in the milk tank," he says.
But this has presented a dilemma for Hatch on his Hatchland Dairy in North Haverhill, N.H. If his milk was better, why couldn’t he get a better price for it?
“When that milk is comingled with everyone else’s, it’s only as good as the worst milk in the tank,” he says.
This is what drove him to take milk processing into his own hands and start bottling his own milk in 1992. Nearly 30 years later, Hatchland’s “wicked good” milk has become synonymous with New Hampshire agriculture. And its ice cream isn’t too bad, either.
“It's a very proud moment when someone in the community comes up to you and says, ‘Oh my God, I love your ice cream.’ It's neat. It’s providing a product for the public," says Kris May, Howard’s daughter.
But the secret to a good bottle of milk always starts in the barns and, at least on this farm, how they process it.
Not another statistic
Hatchland Dairy is located in the Connecticut River Valley right across the state line from Vermont. It has 600 cows, 443 of which are milking cows, with the rest being heifers and calves. The farm is just over 500 acres of owned and leased land.
Howard Hatch decided to get into milk bottling in 1992, and his son, Preston, remembers his father’s announcement like it was yesterday.
“He had said one night, sitting at the dinner table, ‘I think I want to bottle my own milk,’” Preston remembers. “I put my head in my hands and thought, what kind of craziness are you getting into here? Why would we want to do something like that?”
But his father’s goal was simple: He wanted more control over the price he got.
“I think he also watched the farm buyouts of the 1980s and said, ‘I don’t want to be a statistic,’” Kris says.
Howard and one of his in-laws visited farms around New England that had either closed or weren’t doing bottling anymore. They were trying to find enough equipment to cut down on startup costs.
“Everywhere in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, there were all these old on-farm dairies, and they would hunt them down and go find the people, and go through and find out whether there was any equipment left in them. And they’d buy fillers, bottle washers and all kinds of stuff,” Preston explains. “We had quite a salvage yard of bottling equipment at one point around here, and we found enough equipment to get something started.”
Producing milk is one thing, but Kris says her father wanted a product that would stand out. He started filling milk in glass bottles, believing that it would result in a better-tasting milk and a nicer product to sell.
While glass bottles were great for home deliveries, plastic bottles were required for wholesale, and in 1994, they started bottling milk in plastic jugs.
Probably even more important than the bottles used was their method of pasteurization: vat pasteurizing. Unlike standard pasteurization, which can handle large volumes of milk in a short period of time at high temperatures, vat pasteurization heats the milk at a lower temperature and for a longer period.
It takes a while longer to get milk ready to be bottled, but “not heating it up, it really tastes different,” Preston says.
The on-farm plant was built in 2004. It features a full line of processing equipment — much of it vintage machines from the 1950s and 1960s that the family has refurbished over the years — and three 300-gallon vat pasteurizers.
The original farm was 3 miles away from today’s location. Kris explains that when her father started the plant, he did so in a building just past the original farm, reusing what was once a garage used to fix trucks for the family’s trucking business. Milk was trucked from the farm to the plant.
Then in 1998, the owner of the Haverhill property decided that he wanted to sell it. The Hatches leased the farm in 1998, then purchased it in 1999.
The family started making ice cream in 2011 with soft serve. A year later, they started hard ice cream. Much of it is sold at the small farm stand the family operates a few miles away from the farm, but a new, much larger stand is under construction and is scheduled to open this fall.
Milk itself is sold wholesale through three distributors. They also do private labeling for five other businesses. Some of the soft ice cream, which the family also makes, is sold to other farm stands.
It starts in the barn
You can’t get good-quality milk without taking care of the cows. Preston says that they're focused on doing a better job getting crops in on a timely basis.
The total mixed ration (TMR) is 60% forage — corn silage, grass haylage and a little bit of dry hay. Grains are very basic, he says. They add a little corn meal to the mix, but very little byproducts except for molasses, which he says help keep grains stuck to the feed better so the cows won’t sort.
“We try a good balance. We want production, but we want quality, too," Kris says. “So we're not trying to pump our cows out for maximum production. We're still looking for that butterfat.”
The butterfat usually runs in the 4.2% to 4.3% range, while protein averages 3.3%.
First-calf heifers were bred to Jerseys, Preston says, but that’s stopped due to adverse market conditions. He says that they’ve been breeding more first-calf heifers to Angus these days. They have 50 Angus calves at different stages to accommodate the growing market for local beef.
In the barns, cows are housed on bedded packs with sawdust. Rubbers mats have been installed in the parlor holding areas, mattresses are used for bedding, and more fans have been added to increase airflow — something that’s important during hot summer days.
The farm’s milking parlor — a double-parallel rapid-release 12, expandable to 16 — was built in 2011, replacing a double-8 herringbone. Kris says that it used to take seven hours per milking to get the cows milked in the old system. The new parlor has cut milking times in half.
Since the farm is on town water, they recycle the water they use. In the processing plant, the water that’s used to cool the milk can’t be used for washdowns. So, they pump the water into a reservoir that’s later used to provide water for the cows. Washdown water gets directed into the large earthen manure pit.
While most of the milk is used for bottling, some of the surplus milk goes to a local cheese company, Grafton Village Cheese Co., in nearby Grafton, Vt., an agreement they started in March.
“They can pay us what we thought was a fair market value, and we came to a pretty good agreement with them,” Preston says.
Three generations come together
The farm is still run by Howard, 75, but Kris and Preston, and Kris’ daughter, Emily, are also heavily involved. Kris does much of the office and bookwork along with Emily. Preston is considered the jack-of-all-trades, but he mainly focuses on mechanics and crop work.
Howard oversees the entire operation.
For Kris, coming back to the farm was a long and winding road. She graduated high school in 1990 and went to the University of New Hampshire for business, right about the time the on-farm processing started.
But business wasn’t good enough to employ her on the farm, so she and her husband decided to move to Colorado where several of their friends moved.
She and her husband got married in 1996 and came back to New Hampshire for the wedding, but they found that the business had grown enough for both to come back. Plus, Kris says, she wanted to raise a family in northern New Hampshire. In 1997, the couple moved back to New Hampshire.
Parts of the farm transition to Kris and Preston have begun, but Kris says that the next step is to set up some sort of trust for the future.
“We are working on it, but if something was to happen today, we’re not prepared,” she says.
A family-run business might seem like a walk in the park, but it isn’t.
“I’m not going to lie. Sometimes working with family can be really difficult, but I think it’s just a matter of being able to communicate with each other and kind of being able to know where each person is going, who has what direction,” Kris says. “I think being able to compromise, talk things out, communicate, that’s important.”