The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Dairy Farmer

Dairy Farmer

From the Farmer's Tractor

October 30, 2011

Terri Lawton, 32, has been managing Oake Knoll Ayrshires for five years. Her farm is a licensed raw milk retailer located in Foxboro, Massachusetts. She also provides milk to Foxboro Cheese Company, which is based on the farm and retails farmstead cheeses. Lawton has 25 acres at the home farm and raises hay on about 60 acres throughout the surrounding communities.

How did you get into dairy farming? 

I grew up on a dairy farm and was a dual major at Purdue University in Agricultural Communications and Animal Agribusiness. I also have an AAS in Production Agriculture from Northeastern Junior College in Sterling, Colorado. After a year of service with Americorps*VISTA as a grant-writing program developer for Legal Services in Montana, I spent two years as a Dairy Inspector for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. This is where I became a specialist in food safety, especially as it relates to the harvesting and packaging of clean raw milk. Because I love cows and wanted to get more involved in the production of clean raw milk, I decided to start milking my own cows and offering raw milk to local families who were seeking a reliable source of raw milk close to Boston and Providence.

How have your farming practices changed over the last 10 years?

My original vision was to provide grass-fed milk that is exactly the way it is inside the cow, only colder. We don't change the milk in any way. For example, sometimes the milk has 2.9 percent fat, sometimes 4.5 percent, depending on the time of year. Over time, milk bottling plants have standardized whole milk to have a certain percentage of fat in each bottle, but this isn't how cows make it.

We have grown and become more efficient, and tried several different things under the umbrella of grass-fed. I used to feed certified organic feed and was moving toward becoming certified organic. But for many reasons, it isn't feasible for us. When the local organic feed mill was closed, and our closest organic feed mill was now a nine hour drive on the interstate, we made a decision, with customer input, to support a much closer mill that could offer us low-input feeds. This moved us toward a less organic product, but a more local, low carbon footprint product.

How will cattle farming evolve in the next five years?

I think dairy farming will continue to become consolidated in the next five years. Higher input costs are eating away at higher milk prices. There will still be a market for specialty dairy products like mine, but I think that the number of customers will decrease as the size of the middle classes decrease.

What is your greatest challenge as a cattle farmer?

My biggest challenge is limited land resources. Because I can't raise all my own forage and grains, I buy quite a bit. Also managing people is tough. Because we are a production and retail operation, we need to hire labor. That is difficult. Many folks in the area don't want to do the difficult and messy work that is farming. It is easier to find folks to help with the retail side of things. We are very fortunate to have a good crew in the cheese room and going to the farmer's markets.

How does a farmer know what a retailer will want a year from now?

I provide products that people ask for, and that I'm willing to sell and or produce. I generally don't wholesale, because I can retail everything I produce. And when I produce more than I can sell, then it is time to produce less. Why work harder for less return on investment? Also, when demand is higher than production, I have increased production by expanding, but I'm leaning more toward just having a waiting list again. I was most efficient when I had a two month waiting list.

What steps are you taking toward conservation on the farm?

We have a conservation plan with the NRCS, we have buffer strips and we leave our land in grass. We have done no-till seeding in the past when our pastures needed some refurbishing. We also preheat our hot water with our wood furnace. We designed our cheese room and cheese vat to be heated with our wood furnace. We have been looking into solar panels to further conserve electricity and are still in the planning process.

Do you sell any of your products locally, and if so, what is the process?

We try to sell all our products directly to families. We have a nice farm stand where folks can come to get raw milk, cheese, eggs, beef, veal, occasionally chicken, and seasonal vegetables.

What kinds of reactions do you get from consumers when they meet you in person?

Usually there are lots of questions about farming. Most people are curious about farming and excited to meet a farmer. Most people think very highly of farmers. I use the business as a format to talk to folks about farming. It is great! I love sharing first hand experience about producing food. My business has been a very exciting opportunity to expose folks to agriculture and debunk lots of myths.