Hornstra Farms: local hero, redux

Local, natural, community focused: Massachusetts’ Outstanding Dairy Farm is thriving.

IMG_0412When we last visited John Hornstra five years ago, he had just bought a local farm here in the pretty affluent suburbs south of Boston, and had grand plans. Hornstra had delivered our milk (in glass bottles!) for years when we lived in Massachusetts, and he still delivers the same milk (and chocolate milk, and egg nog at Christmas) to my daughter’s family. But he had plans—to build his recently purchased farm into a local community place, a place for kids (and not just kids) to see how farms work, and to get real food. Most important was his plan to bring dairy farming back to the area that his family had lived in, and been dairy framers in, for several generations. So how’s that working out?

Well, so far, so good. Hornstra Farms now even has a Facebook page, which I’m on. In fact, it’s doing so well that the recently opened ice cream stand, which we visited today, will clearly need a bigger parking lot. John is likely to object, since that will eat into farmland. According to a flattering article in the Boston Globe last year, the place is thriving. Hornstra has turned the operation into a dairy farm, in addition to the produce it already grew, and the farm itself was named “Massachusetts Outstanding Dairy Farm” in 2012.

All of this took some doing. Actually, it took John 22 years of trying to buy the farm in the first place. Once he got it, he just ploughed ahead. He built up the herd of dairy cows (no growth hormones!) to about 100, and expanded his delivery route. At the time of our last post on this, all Hornstra milk came from their operations in New Hampshire. Now much of the milk comes from here. These are clearly happy cows. Check them out:


See? Happy cows. And happy cows make good milk.

He also paid attention to the details that you need to pay attention to in order to make a business succeed—especially a farming business surrounded by a bunch or rich suburbs. Fortunately, he was able to turn that to his advantage—people in rich suburbs turn out to be happy to spend a little more on milk in glass bottles—or enough of them, anyway. He’s never missed a day of deliveries, no matter what the weather. And he’s caught the attention of the dairy industry, as far away as Minnesota.

All of this benefited, it should be noted, from a program that Massachusetts adopted in 1979 to preserve agricultural land—the Agricultural Preservation Restriction Program. In this case, the program has more than justified its worth. As the program administrator states,

The Agricultural Preservation Restriction (APR) Program is a voluntary program which is intended to offer a non-development alternative to farmers and other owners of “prime” and “state important” agricultural land who are faced with a decision regarding future use and disposition of their farms. Towards this end, the program offers to pay farmland owners the difference between the “fair market value” and the “agricultural value” of their farmland in exchange for a permanent deed restriction which precludes any use of the property that will have a negative impact on its agricultural viability.

Massachusetts’ APR program, began as an act of the Legislature in 1979, was the first in our nation and has since been a model upon which many other states have built their programs. The Massachusetts APR program has permanently protected over 800 farms and a total land area of over 68,000 acres.

This is something local and state governments should be pursuing more of. Too much agricultural land has disappeared over the past generation or two, nearly all of it turned into suburban sprawl. According to the US Department of Agriculture, more than 23 million acres of farmland—an area about the size of Indiana—was lost to development between 1982 and 2007. This trend continues. New England states have lost less than most, but they’re older, with much farmland already converted—and they’re smaller in size, so the proportional impact might be comparable.

Moreover, as we remarked in our last post, this is a trend that is undercutting much of the resource and the knowledge base we will need to revitalize local economies. At this point we usually start droning on about Wendell Berry, but in this case, there’s no need to. Hornstra is proving it can be done, with sufficient support, and sufficient passion. Good for him. This is exactly the sort of thing the folks over at Resilient Communities are trying to encourage. And, in the face of increasingly depressing news from elsewhere, a bit of positive reinforcement makes it easier to get out of bed in the morning—especially if there’s a glass of chocolate milk or egg nog in the offing.

And the ice cream? Just fantastic.

2 replies »

  1. For me, this is a happy/sad story. As a journalist in western Massachusetts in the ’70s and ’80s, I witnessed the conversion of farmland to housing and commercial enterprises on the flatlands along the Connecticut River, particularly in Franklin County. I also covered the introduction of the APR program and witnessed the extraordinary early resistance to it from developers and real estate interests.

    By the time the legislature adopted the program, too much farmland in Franklin County had been lost. Had the APR arrived in the mid-’60s, Franklin County’s riverside flatlands would likely look much different (and much greener) than they do now.

  2. Yeah, I can just imagine the developer resistance. At this point, I’ll take what I can get.