For many farmers, dealing with state government regulators is not the most attractive part of the job – by far.
Massachusetts dairy farmer Mark Duffy not only has to deal with state regulators, but he also operates the state-owned farm – in a 1,000-acre state park.
“It’s farming with the public,” Duffy says. “You can make it work, but it’s all about education, trying to figure out where they’re coming from. But most people really want to know why you’re doing something, why you’re actually doing it.
He runs the Great Brook State Park Dairy, a working dairy located right in the middle of the park’s trails and public ponds, 40 minutes outside of Boston.
The land and buildings all belong to the state. Duffy and his family own 120 cows, a milking robot, and run an ice cream stand on the property. They don’t pay rent, but they pay for all upkeep and upkeep of the farm and buildings. And they have to allow visitors.
It’s a unique relationship that isn’t for all farmers, but for Duffy, it’s not just about running a successful farm. He sees it as a model for other farms in the state to keep dairy farming alive.
“What I’m trying to do is make it a viable business and a viable business in the future,” he says. “Partly because of my kids, partly because of what I believe in farming.”
From New Hampshire to Massachusetts
Duffy and his family – he has a wife, Temma, and three children, Marlow, Christopher and Blake – were originally farming in neighboring New Hampshire on leased land.
The history of the Great Brook Farm dates back to Farnham Smith, a well-known Holstein breeder in the state and New England.
Many years ago, Duffy says, wealthy landowners in the area viewed dairy farming as a way to “pass their profits” to avoid paying taxes and having a small side business. “When I first moved to Massachusetts from New Hampshire, a milk tester told me that every dairy farm he worked with was a tax-loss farm,” he says.
But when state tax laws were changed in the 1970s, many of these dairy farms went out of business. Smith, says Duffy, sold his cows but lived on the farm and used an old schoolhouse on the property as an office.
Smith had accumulated 1,000 acres of land in and around Carlisle, Massachusetts, a wealthy suburb of Boston. In 1974, the Commonwealth bought the farm and converted it into a state park. The equipment – milking equipment, stalls, tractors and other things – was auctioned off, leaving an empty barn and nothing else.
The farm lay idle for 10 years before a group of state workers were motivated to resuscitate it. Duffy came up with a proposal to repair the farm and, once approved, moved his animals and family to the new location.
He installed new water pipes, milking systems, tunnel ventilation and other improvements to get the farm back up and running.
Here are the robots
But after 18 years on the farm, Duffy says the state approached him to see if he wanted to stay. “I told the state, well, I have to make it work financially,” he says.
He needed to run a profitable farm, but also needed a place to better accommodate visitors, one of the great compromises of farming in the park.
After spending time in Canada observing the robot’s performance in cold weather, he and state officials designed a new barn for the herd.
“I didn’t even think of robots originally, you know,” Duffy says. “It was our money, and we had to make it work,” but the transition from tie rods to robots wasn’t going to be easy, he says, and it took him a while to be convinced.
In the early 2010s, and with federal stimulus money earmarked for infrastructure projects, he and the state agreed to a barn design and earmarked money for its construction. The barn was designed with two robots in mind, but it opened in 2011 without the robots. Mark remembers that the first winter was difficult as the cows were still being milked in the tie barn, but housed in the new facility.
The DeLeval robot, a first for Massachusetts, was finally installed by the state. Duffy paid for other upgrades out of his own pocket, including a new 500,000 gallon Slurrystore manure storage, new grain silos, water beds for his cows and other upgrades.
A few years later, a second robot, paid for by the Duffys, was installed.
The cows are fed a total mixed ration made from maize. While some pastures surround the dairy, Duffy works hundreds of acres of leased land in and around Carlisle to grow corn and other crops.
In Massachusetts, land used for farming is actually taxed based on farm value, not market value, saving landowners a lot of tax dollars. So Duffy has a land base that he can lease, but there are tradeoffs. Some landowners have specific rules regarding the spreading of manure, while others are very picky about the chemicals used to grow the crops.
“Landowners can be picky… so we have to work around these issues,” says Duffy.
And with discounted land, that brings in a lot of money for development, so any plots he might have one year disappear the following year, forcing him to look for other plots that might not be. also good for cultivation.
The soil may contain enough manure to overwinter. For dry cows and other animals that are primarily grazing, manure solids are composted, sieved, bagged and delivered to local homes and businesses, a second source of income for the farm.
Sawdust is used for bedding, much of it sourced from local carpentry shops in the area. Small breweries in the region also supply brewing beans used in VMR cows.
A public dairy
The farm itself looks like a typical dairy farm until you walk into the new barn and see the signs detailing its history and the signs above the stalls describing what sawdust and manure are used for.
Great Brook Farm State Park attracts more than 100,000 visitors a year, and during the COVID-19 pandemic that number has swelled, says Mark, particularly at the start of the pandemic when businesses shut down, leaving people to people have few leisure options besides going out for a raise.
Duffy’s liability insurance is important. In fact, it is one of his biggest expenses.
“The vast majority of people are pretty good and we’re open to the public, but we’ve had our problems,” he says. “There are people who behave badly. It’s unfortunate, but it comes with the territory.
And compared to years past, everyone, including children, has a camera.
“What we come across are a lot of people from their previous generation, someone worked in agriculture, but that knowledge is long gone,” says Duffy. “But they can have a lot of beliefs that they believe to be true, and what they really need is somebody to say, ‘Look, this is the reality. Why do you feed corn? Corn is energy. Oh really, I thought it was bad for the cows? Well, I have a nutritionist, and that’s why I have a balanced diet. Everything else like that. So we try to educate them.
“Most of what I do, I would if I was a farmer in northern Vermont. So we have a responsibility and we try to make sure that what the public sees is positive, but we are determined not to lie. “
He has also had to grapple with the misconceptions of other farmers, who think Duffy and his family have given them everything.
“For the first 20 years there was no barn. In fact, they gave me what had been stripped, ”he says. “I really enjoy having a new barn and it’s great, but I would say, first of all, most people who know me know that the goal of my life is to help all farming and I have done a lot of things to help everyone and for me it is an extension of that.
“This farm will never be mine. Yes, I appreciate everything I got. What I have tried to do is go out and stand up for everyone else and do things, so I’m glad to have friends who installed bots once they saw how these robots work.