Berkshire farming's bones and blood: The dairy farm
Editor's note: This is part one of a four-part series exploring the harvest season in the Berkshires, looking at Berkshire County farm operations that embody the past, present and future of local food production in these hills.
WILLIAMSTOWN — Behind two swinging wooden doors adorned with an ironic "beware of attack cow" sign, Bill Galusha performs his life's work. Three days a week, the 60-year-old paces in the sunken corridor between his milking parlor's two platforms, where, at 3 a.m. and 3 p.m. each day, cows are ushered in 22 at a time. Galusha's job is to hook up milking machines to teats, hose off hooves and check each of his 230 beloved dairy cows for disease.
"They're all sweet things," he said on a recent September afternoon. "My goal in life is to keep the animals here."
Galusha, who is part of the five-generation family operation at Fairfields Dairy Farm in Williamstown, has hard work ahead of him. While the overall number of farms in Berkshire County has almost doubled over the last quarter century, national agricultural census data shows the county's dairy farms declining by more than half in the same time period: from 69 in 1992 to 32 in 2012.
The industry does not reward the smaller-scale dairies in New England, who have rocky soil, hilly landscapes, shorter crop seasons and high real estate prices to contend with. Wholesale milk shippers like Fairfields Dairy Farm are also at the mercy of volatile milk prices set by the federal government, which plays in an international market. Prices are just starting to recover after a two-year-long low.
On top of all this, local labor, vets, tractor dealers and processing are hard to find, too.
"If you just look at the pure economics, we don't need dairy here," Sarah Gardner, an agricultural researcher at Williams College, said. But, she added, dairy plays an important role in the community: it keeps land undeveloped and attractive to visitors, it produces locally consumed food, and it promotes food security for a future made uncertain by climate change.
"Dairy has always been the backbone here and even though it has declined a lot, it's still the backbone here," Gardner said.
If dairy forms the Berkshire community's bones, then it courses through the Galusha family's blood.
"It's our heritage," Bill Galusha said. "We've been here for 100 years."
In the blood
Fairfields Dairy Farm is one of just two wholesale milk shippers left in Williamstown. They were simpler times when Daniel Galusha started business in 1905.
"My grandfather was a mailman," Jim Galusha, Bill's 67-year-old brother, said. "We had a home delivery business — when he'd deliver mail, he'd deliver milk too."
Jim Galusha guessed his grandfather only had half a dozen cows back then.
When Jim and Bill's father, Daniel, ran the business, the industry shifted in the 1960's from retail to wholesale milk sales, and most small farms couldn't afford to switch from milk cans to bulk milk tanks. Fairfields Dairy Farm decided to expand and bought seven of the smaller farms around it and also updated its infrastructure.
Now, Jim's son, Jay, plus his grandkids James, 22, and Lauren, 24, all help care for the 600-acre farm off of Blair Road. It is a member of the cooperative AgriMark Family Dairy Farms, and every other day, it ships 33,000 pounds (or a little less than 4,000 gallons) of fluid milk to a West Springfield processing center to be made into butter and non-fat dry milk powder.
To maintain a livelihood, Jim runs his own excavating business, and Jay and James are hired out to hay and harvest forage crops in New York. Lauren is the herd manager, and Bill, who now works part-time, is always looking for ways to keep the farm sustainable. He has dreams of installing a methane digester to convert manure into energy, and he's always looking at providing better bedding and disease prevention for his cows.
His milking parlor has spiral hoses with on-demand iodine and copper sulfate, for instance, to prevent both mastitis in his cows' udders and hairy foot warts in their hooves. He liberally uses a regular water hose, too.
"I wash their feet," he said as he sprayed the parlor platforms. "They love it."
The cows love humans too, stretching their faces toward a passerby for a scratch. If said passerby lingers long enough, they give simultaneously slobbery and sandpapery licks with their long, pink tongues.
"That's one of the most gratifying things about working with animals," Bill said. "They want the affection."
Long live local dairy?
The cows are cute, though dairy farming doesn't exactly fit into the romantic picture of harvesting your own food: Bill Galusha keeps a paper towel in hand in the milking parlor, used for wiping the errant cow poop off his face.
But in a time when more people are yearning to reconnect with farms, people like Gardner, who produced the 2016 documentary "Forgotten Farms" about New England's dairy farmers, insist dairies need to be kept part of the local food future. The group Berkshire Grown cites a study showing 20 percent of the milk consumed in Massachusetts is produced by in-state farms, versus the estimated 12.5 percent of Massachusetts' consumed food grown here.
"We're more dairy sufficient than any other product," Gardner said. "I think every town — if they have a dairy farm — they should really adopt it."
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