In 2009, Eric Glasgow and his wife retired from city life and bought a defunct dairy farm on Martha’s Vineyard. Ever since, they’ve been learning how to make dairy farming as low waste and low impact as possible.
“These are Dutch-belted, they’re a traditional dual-purpose animal,” Eric said, when I visited. He and I were standing by the loafing barn, which is a three-sided structure where the cows come and go from under cover as they please. In front of us were 30 very quiet black and white heifers, who pretty much just ask for grass. “We sort of have a low-input, low-output philosophy. These are like the 1970’s Mercedes diesels of cows. You can’t really break ’em – they don’t go too fast, they’re not super high producers, but at the same time we don’t need to do crazy hoof trimming and all sorts of things that more production-oriented cows require.”
“In this part of the country,” he continued, “during a normal grazing season you need a little more than an acre per cow. If you want to cut hay and make your own winter feed, you’d need probably triple that amount of acreage.”
Eric has 65 acres and 30 cows, so the farm grows part of its winter feed and buys the rest in. In exchange for this 100 percent grass-fed diet, the cows produce about four gallons of milk each, or a hundred and twenty gallons total every day. A small percentage of this is simply bottled and sold, but the majority is preserved as cheese.
“When we were trying to decide what style of cheese to make, we were trying to think about what is climactically similar to Martha’s Vineyard,” he explained. “Because it doesn’t make a lot of sense to make some high alpine cheese on Martha’s Vineyard.”
Instead, Eric and his wife researched the cheeses of places like Brittany and coastal Ireland. They hired a professional cheese-maker, and together they came up with three climactically appropriate cheeses for the farm to focus its production on. Then, because a major focus of the farm is closed loop sustainability, they had to figure out something to do with all the whey, which is the thin fluid left over after the milk curdles. It turns out that pigs make the perfect dispose-all.
“It’s a really traditional method,” he said. “The big example would be Parma ham. Those pigs are raised on the whey from the Parmagianno Regianno cheese factories. And so we have that same thing. Probably about 30 percent of our pigs’ diet is whey or other sort of dairy – you know, funky cheese, things like that.”
Whey has a high protein content and lends a nice silky texture and distinct dairy flavor to the pork. The pigs live on 9 acres of mostly oak woods, where they move from half-acre paddock to half-acre paddock every month or so. This allows the pigs to forage in the woods for tasty treats like acorns, and also gives the underbrush a chance to recover when the animals move on.
“Right now we have five sows and one boar, and each sow has hopefully 2 litters per year,” Eric told me. “We will, hopefully, raise somewhere in the neighborhood of sixty pigs.”
These pigs will be butchered and preserved like the cheese. In addition to meat from the pigs and occasionally cows, the farm produces about 15,000 pounds of cheese a year. A big part of the farm’s model is creating value-added products that keep.
“Obviously, the island has a huge fluctuation in population, so we were trying to figure out a way how could we produce food and effectively preserve it, such that it’s available when there are more people here,” he said.
In addition to the cheeses and meats, Grey Barn also has about 300 laying hens, and a small orchard and vegetable garden. Grey Barn still has a ways to go to meet the ideal of the so-called triple bottom line—that’s environmental, social, and economic sustainability. This last bit is especially challenging—Eric and his wife invested heavily in infrastructure, and the creamery had to be rebuilt after a fire in 2013. But Eric says that while they haven’t quite met all their goals, he can see how they will get there in the not too distant future.
The Local Food Report is edited by Jay Allison and produced by Atlantic Public Media in Woods Hole.