When the Cows Come Home

Story featured on ediblesouthshore.com

Picture this: You are standing in the dairy aisle at a Hingham grocery store, and you make a passing comment about the price of milk. The next thing you know, an affable stranger, overhearing your remark, strikes up a conversation and explains why milk prices are more than fair given all the hard work, early mornings, and uncertainty that come with being a dairy farmer. That’s a little odd, you think. Who in Hingham knows about stuff like that?

Well, as one local woman found out, John Hornstra does. John, a fourth-generation dairy farmer, is the owner of Hornstra Farms, one of the few remaining dairies on the South Shore. His family has operated a dairy in Hingham for almost one hundred years, and he knows both the joys and challenges that come with being a dairy farmer. When he overheard his fellow shopper’s complaint, he was glad for the chance to educate her, however briefl y, about the factors that affect the price of milk and why the life of a dairy farmer is not an easy one.

The past few years have not been kind to dairy farmers. They have had to contend with both erratic milk prices and a perplexing pricing system that, at times, has made it diffi cult for them to even cover their costs. Under this system, the minimum milk price is set not by the farmers, but by the Federal Milk Market Administrator, an arm of the USDA. The pricing model used does not take into account the farmers’ costs, but instead treats milk more like a commodity product, meaning that the price is based on overall supply and demand. As a result, for much of 2009, local dairy farmers lost money on every quart of milk they sold. In order to cover the shortfall, farmers were forced to eat into their farms’ equity; sadly, some dairy farms still did not survive. Despite this bleak environment, John Hornstra defi ed conventional wisdom and, in 2009, purchased an 80-acre dairy farm in Norwell. He was convinced that customers were willing to pay a fair price for a quality product, something Hornstra Farms has been delivering for close to 100 years.

In 1917, after emigrating from Holland, John’s great-grandfather purchased land in Hingham and started Hornstra Farms. Over the years, the dairy prospered, but as Hingham became an increasingly suburban town, John’s family sold their cows and, eventually, most of their land. John vividly recalls the day in 1969 that the cows left Hingham and says it was one of the saddest days of his life. With the cows gone, the company continued to deliver milk and other dairy products purchased from local farms. For the last 15 years, Hornstra’s milk has come from John’s cousin’s farm in New Hampshire, ensuring that the family’s focus on quality is maintained. John took over ownership from his father in 1985 and, currently, Hornstra Farms has 3500 customers in 14 towns. Customers all over the South Shore look forward to their weekly delivery of smooth, delicious Hornstra Farms milk in its distinctive glass bottles, as well as to the wide assortment of other products the company delivers.

Ever since he was a young boy watching the cows leave Hingham, John has dreamed of bringing them back to the South Shore. For twenty years, he had his eye on the Loring Farm in Norwell because it was one of the few remaining pieces of protected farmland in the area. The Loring family owned the farm for generations and the house on the property dates from 1750. It ceased to be a working farm in 1980 when Albert Loring sold the development rights to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, ensuring that the land would be preserved for agriculture. After Mr. Loring died, his nieces had no interest in owning the farm, so they gave ownership of the property to Priscilla Prime, who had been Mr. Loring’s bookkeeper. In 2009, John Hornstra purchased the property from the Prime family and was able to realize his dream of bringing the cows back to the South Shore. After languishing for thirty years, the new farm is now abuzz with activity as Hornstra gets it back in working order. The stone walls have been rebuilt and, with the help of local and Amish craftsmen, the house and barn have been refurbished. There are a few red and white Holsteins grazing in the fields, and many others will eventually join them—John plans on having sixty cows on the farm. With the cows on the South Shore, Hornstra will be able to eliminate the daily 175-mile trip now made to pick up the milk from his cousin’s New Hampshire farm. This will save money, reduce gas emissions, and make the milk a truly local product. Plans for the new farm also include a vegetable garden where families will be able to come to get fresh produce and, to the delight of ice cream lovers everywhere, a retail store selling both Hornstra’s delicious milk and ice cream made on-site from their rich cream. John hopes the farm will be a place where families can come to see the cows grazing, purchase some fresh, local products, have a picnic, and really reconnect with the source of their food.

As anyone who has tasted it knows, Hornstra milk tastes much better than the ordinary milk you buy in the grocery store. As a small, family-run farm, Hornstra Farms takes great care with all phases of milk production. Hornstra cows are never given any synthetic growth hormones and are only give antibiotics if they are ill. On John’s new farm, cows will be pastured daily and graze in open fields, unlike cows in many factory farms. The grazing contributes to the wonderful taste of milk, and it also makes good business sense because grass-fed cows, on average, live three years longer than their factory farmed counterparts. During the winter, when there is no grass for the cows to eat, they will be given hay and corn silage. Reflecting on the care given to their cows, John says, “We always felt a cow that is well cared for and fed a proper diet will reach its maximum potential without any artifi cial means.”

Hornstra milk is of much higher quality than factory farmed milk. A measure of this quality is the bacteria count. All milk contains bacteria and the government requires that these bacteria levels be less than 750,000 per unit. Hornstra milk usually has bacteria counts less than 150,000 per unit. According to John, there are many reasons behind this. “The biggest factors are not milking cows with chronic mastitis infections, sanitizing the milking equipment, and cleaning the cows’ udders before milking.” While these practices take extra time, they help ensure the high quality milk for which Hornstra Farms is known. In the same vein, Hornstra Farms chooses to pasteurize its milk using old-fashioned vat pasteurization. This process involves heating the milk to a lower temperature than that used in the more common fl ash pasteurization process and heating it over a longer period of time. Although this process is less effi – cient than fl ash pasteurization, it results in sweet, smooth milk. Vat pasteurization also preserves many of the helpful proteins and enzymes that would be destroyed by fl ash pasteurization. Hornstra says, “Everybody wants to rush and hurry but we’re willing to put a little more time and effort into the process. It sure makes a difference in the quality and fl avor.” Because the processing method is key to the quality of his milk, John plans on building a milk processing plant on the new farm. He also hopes to process milk for the three other dairy farms that call the South Shore home. Hopefully, the milk processing plant will be completed by the spring of 2011.

Thanks to John Hornstra and his dream of bringing the cows back to the South Shore, there is now a working dairy farm less than two miles from the Hanover Mall. The new farm is a boon to those who value local foods, and it also provides lovely, open space for the residents of Norwell and beyond. For the many children who think their milk comes in a carton from the supermarket, John hopes the farm will help teach them about the source of their food and how hard farmers work to produce it. Although some might call it old-fashioned, Hornstra Farms believes that the loving care and attention they give to all phases of milk production pays dividends in superior quality and taste. As John says, “When your name is on the bottle, you put a lot of pride into your products.” It takes just one glass of Hornstra’s milk to taste the difference this pride makes..



Photos by Michael Hart