“Until the cows come home,” means every afternoon around 2:30 in Ipswich. A herd of 38 registered Jerseys mosey into the dairy barn at Appleton Farms, the oldest continuously operating farm in America, a Trustees of Reservations property.
The Appleton Farms Dairy Store, open to the public seven days a week, is now selling honest local terroir: triple creme, cheddar cheeses, Greek yogurt, and delicate cultured butters, produced on the farm itself, with milk from the Appleton Farm Jerseys.
Heads bobbing, hip bones pointy from calving, full udders swaying, the gentle Appleton herd, anxious for the few cups of grain that rewards them as patient milkers, begin their languid march from pasture to barn at sundown, as dairy cows have done in paintings, prose, and poetry since we began eating cheese. The slow pokes and day dreamers get prodded by Appleton Farm dairy manager Scott Rowe and assistant Justin Sterling with a “hee-ah!” and a “git up!” Doe-eyed, soft cupped ears at attention, these chestnut beasts live well. Except for milking (4:30 in the morning and 2:30 in the afternoon), they spend their time outdoors, eating a diet of 100 percent Ipswich hay, baled either on the 1,000 Appleton acres or on farms nearby.
“The goal is to make the cows as comfortable as possible, and to give them choices — when they can lie down, eat and drink,” Rowe contends. Smelling of clean wood and sweet hay, the “tie stall”-style barn allows enough room for the cows to lie down if they choose; it was once believed that prone cows produce better milk. A particular Appleton Farms problem, the stalls, built originally for Guernseys, are a little too high for the smaller Jerseys, who make a good show of hopping 8 inches up to their places at milking time; some are more graceful than others.
Grass-fed, comfortable cows, Rowe says, translate into delicious milk. “Our milk is tested by the state and by independent agents for protein, fat, and somatic cell count,” or the white cell count that indicates infection, classically mastitis, which plagues dairy farmers. The Appleton herd’s somatic count is regularly 86,000 parts per million; “100,000 parts per million,” Rowe says,”is considered excellent.”
Milk from grass-fed cows is considered nutritionally superior to that from their grain-fed brethren, as cows are basically machines translating the vitamins, linoleic acids (known to fight cancer) and omega-3 fatty acids of local grasses into cold glasses of sweet milk. According to Appleton Farms, Jersey cows metabolize hay more efficiently than larger breeds, allowing the highest yield of milk with a smaller carbon footprint. (Appleton Farms, using a variety of methods — solar, electric vehicles, and organic farming — prides itself on being almost carbon-neutral.)
Arlene Brokaw, Appleton Farms master cheese maker, rules the new stainless steel-plated creamery, separating curds from whey, pressing, salting, and then delivering the fresh milk tommes to the caves, dark rooms where mold, moisture, and time alchemize all into sharp, winey, crumbly cheddars and chalky, velvety rounds of triple creme. Milk production varies but currently Brokaw is producing 600 to 700 gallons of cheese and yogurt a week.
Nine generations of Appletons farmed this 1,000 acres of rolling pastures ribboned by old stone walls and woodlands since 1636; Joan Appleton, heir-less, in 1998 donated the property and multiple buildings to The Trustees of Reservations, who promised to restore it as a working farm, “to engage people in real work,” TTOR educator Holly Hannaway told me.
“Appleton Farms always had a history of a dairy; in the 1860s, James Fuller Appleton had been instrumental in introducing the Jersey breed, valued for its high butterfat content, to the United States; we wondered, can we be a small American dairy again?”
In 2011, Appleton Farms, through the local Puleo dairy, began bottling and distributing its own milk in those cherished glass bottles. The dairy processing operation was the last piece to being economically viable; what to do with a surplus of milk? — what dairy farmers have known for centuries: transform it into valuable cheese, all of which can be purchased at the new dairy store on the Appleton Farms property.
Hannaway reminds that the store will be focused on dairy. “It’s not to compete with but to complement local agriculture in the community. The cheese operation teaches how you can use land to complement community.” Those beautiful Appleton Farms meadows have economic and cultural value beyond the pleasures of landscape.
Along with Appleton Farms milk (skim, 1 percent, and whole) and staple dairy products — triple creme cheese, cheddar, cultured butter, and non-cultured butter, herbed rounds, and occasional surprises such as fresh ricotta or Asiago — the store will also support local vendors: Topsfield cheesemaker Valley View Farm will be represented, along with A&J King fresh bread, maple syrup, and honey. Local artwork hangs on the walls. Of course, grass-fed beef — from the other herd at Appleton Farms, the White Park steers grazing out in the Great Pasture — is available in the dairy store, also.
Rockport resident Heather Atwood writes the Food for Thought weekly. Questions and comments may be directed to email@example.com. Follow her blog at HeatherAtwood.com.
If you go Appleton Farms, 219 County Road, Ipswich. The dairy store is open Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; and Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.