Valley Bounty: Westhampton dairy’s creamery expansion sweetens future

By JACOB NELSON

For the Gazette

Published: 03-13-2023 3:30 PM

The Parsons family of Mayval Farm have stewarded their land in Westhampton for a long time.

“It was actually a grant from the king to Noah Parsons III,” says Margie Parsons. That would be King George III of England, back in 1778.

Currently Mayval Farm raises dairy and beef cows, makes maple syrup, and turns some of their milk into a variety of specialty dairy products in their on-site creamery. These are sold year-round at local markets and at their self-serve farm store.

As economic conditions have shifted, a lot has changed for dairy farmers in the last 10 years, let alone since Revolutionary War times. By investing in a creamery to make and sell value-added dairy products themselves, the Parsons have gained more control over their financial future.

Most things at Mayval Farm start with the cows. This year they’re raising about 30 beef cattle. Another 85 cows make up their dairy herd. Most of their dairy cows are Holsteins, but there are also a handful of brown Swiss and Jersey breeds.

“The Jerseys started as my daughter Kate’s 4H project when she was 8 years old,” Parsons says. “And the brown Swiss were my nephew’s 4H project.”

Margie Parsons and her brothers, Edward and Henry, are the primary farmers. “Henry and Ed feed, milk, and take care of the cows, with some hired help,” she explains. “Ed also does the haying and maple sugaring. He’s actually boiling right now; I can see the steam coming from the chimney.”

Parsons herself balances the farm’s books, manages the farm store, and is queen of the creamery. Among the next generation, her now-adult daughter Kate, along with her son Ethan and his wife, have helped write grants and guide the farm’s future. Kate is most involved, working around her full-time job with the Natural Resource Conservation Service to help with cow care and creamery work.

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The reason many New England dairy farmers are in a financial bind has little to do with producing enough milk to sell. Even with a modest herd of 85, “our cows produced almost 2 million pounds of milk last year,” Parsons says. That’s 650 gallons each day.

The issue is receiving enough money for that milk to cover expenses and pay a decent wage. Most dairy farms are set up to sell milk wholesale to regional co-ops rather than straight to consumers. That is simpler, not requiring farms to build and operate their own inspected processing facilities. It also means they are beholden to sell their milk at whatever commodity price is set by the federal government, according to complex and opaque calculations.

Mayval Farm still sells most of their wholesale milk to the Agri-Mark dairy co-op. But with the help of a grant from the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture Farm Viability Program, in 2015 they opened their on-site creamery to create and sell their own value-added dairy products. This offered the farm more sustainable margins, and customers a host of new items to try.

First there’s plain old milk — and chocolate milk, too. These are pasteurized but not homogenized, meaning the cream still rises to the top of the bottle. They also make several kinds of cheese, including a salty feta, spreadable fromage-blanc, small camembert-style wheels, and different flavored cheese curds.

Then there’s plain and strawberry kefir, a probiotic drink similar to thin yogurt. And the star of the show: skyr.

“People love our skyr,” Parsons says. “That’s our biggest seller.” Hailing originally from Iceland and Scandinavia, skyr is technically a young cheese made with culture and rennet, but it’s eaten like a rich yogurt.

“Maple skyr is my favorite,” she offers. They flavor it with their own dark amber syrup, or with syrup from another local sugarhouse. Other varieties are plain and strawberry, flavored with a homemade low-sugar strawberry jam.

Mayval Farm skyr can be found at several stores around western Massachusetts, including Cooper’s Corner in Florence, State Street Fruit Store in Northampton, Atlas Farm store in South Deerfield, and River Valley Co-op in Northampton and Easthampton. It’s also sold through Mass Food Delivery and the Hilltown Mobile Market, and as an add-on for members with CSA farm shares at Intervale Farm in Westhampton.

Mayval Farm will also be at the Easthampton Farmers Market this summer, selling skyr, cheeses, beef and more.

Most of what they make is also available year-round at their Westhampton farm store, open every day from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. at 137 Easthampton Road. They also carry seasonal produce from local farms, along with ice cream from two local producers, Mo’s Fudge from Shelburne, and Life-Booch Kombucha and Crooked Stick Pops just-fruit popsicles, both made in Easthampton.

Encouraged by an early COVID surge of farm store patronage, they purchased more freezers to offer take and bake dinner options too. Parsons explains that they work with a distributor who buys principally from New England to get products including frozen pizzas, falafel and dumplings.

In the coming years, they hope to expand their farm store and creamery even further while reducing the number of cows they keep. That would reduce workload, support the health of their business, and offer more local food directly to their customers.

A first expansion of the creamery is already underway, thanks to a state Food Security Infrastructure Grant for new equipment that will allow them to process even more of their own milk. These grants, first offered during early COVID, enable local businesses to build the infrastructure needed to ensure a resilient food supply for local communities.

To date, over $17 million has come to Franklin, Hampshire, and Hampden counties, with CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture) working directly alongside local businesses to secure $5.5 million of that. Once all announced funds are distributed, investments through the infrastructure program will soon total over $90 million across the state, and recently Gov. Maura Healey included permanent funding for the program in her budget recommendations.

Broadly, this public investment strengthens the local economy and improves equity and access to local food. It can also make a big difference for individual farms. Ultimately, Parsons hopes the new projects at Mayval Farm will shape the business into something the next generation wants to take over.

Or maybe one of their customers, someone just so enamored with skyr. “You will get hooked on it,” she warns.

Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator for CISA. To learn more about local farms and farm stores near you, visit buylocalfood.org/find-it-locally.

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