The future of New England’s family farms is a tough topic and one that’s at the forefront for folks invested in agriculture. As farmers with existing operations age and prepare for retirement, they’re faced with the question of how to pass on their legacy.
While farming can be a difficult way to make a living, there seems to be renewed interest in the lifestyle one can cultivate alongside the land. That lifestyle is exactly what drew the Catlin family to their serendipitous meeting with David and Carol Smith of Smith’s Country Cheese in Winchendon, Massachusetts.
After more than 40 years of dairy farming, the Smiths were looking to retire, and the Catlins were looking for a change. Perhaps it would really be better to call it a leap. Jake and Allie Catlin, who grew up in nearby Ashburnham, Massachusetts — and knew each other from the age of six — had moved to the city and were both working full-time jobs.
Dream becomes reality
While they dreamed of hobby farming someday when they retired, the timeline got bumped up when they heard through the grapevine that Smith’s was for sale. The Catlins called David Smith out of the blue, and according to Allie, the beginning of the conversation sounded something like: “You don’t know who we are and we don’t have any experience.”
But that was quickly followed up with how willing the Catlins were to learn. And boy, was there a lot to learn.
Allie says up to that point, “We bought Kraft and Cabot at the grocery store and that was it.”
But soon she and her husband, Jake, found themselves spending each weekend helping out at the farm and learning how to make cheese.
The lessons in farming and cheese making continued for the next 18 months, until November 2016, when the sale of the farm officially went through. Now Jake and Allie are the new owners, along with Jake’s brother, Mike, and his wife, Leah, who uprooted their life in Atlanta, Georgia, to take part in the future of Smith’s, as well.
“I think the hardest thing is that none of us have come from this background,” Allie admits.
Farming, cheese making, retail store
In addition to running a farm with 200 cows, they’re also managing a second business, the shop at Smith’s, which is a vibrant place to buy local goods. Balancing the need for family time (each of the couples has two children) and the demands of the two intense businesses can sometimes feel overwhelming.
But Allie says it’s a worthwhile adventure.
“It truly is a family business. The four of us are in this together,” she says.
One thing they all agree on, no matter if it’s a good day or a bad one, is a meticulous level of cleanliness at the farm and a distinctive level of quality when it comes to their cheese.
About half of the farm’s milk is sold through a co-op, and the other half is used for making Smith’s farmstead cheeses, which include Gouda, cheddar and Havarti.
Allie says, “The combo of making all three types in the traditional way and also having it be all raw milk … sets us apart.”
The Catlins are dedicated to maintaining the traditional approach the Smiths started, exclusively using milk from their farm and making all their cheese by hand by 8 a.m. to ensure absolute freshness of ingredients.
In addition to their flagship cheeses, they also produce a line of Gouda spreads that are akin to pub cheese and are blended with a variety of savory herbs. In addition, they have a brand new line of deluxe dips in flavors such as Bacon Cheddar Ranch, Smoked Gouda and Pimento Pepperoni.
“They’re all made with our cheese. We shred it, and then we whip it up with those ingredients,” Allie says.
For something simpler, Smith’s Fresh Farmer’s Cheese is also a great choice. It is actually the farm’s only pasteurized cheese; the rest are made with raw milk.
While for some, the idea of raw milk causes concern, Allie notes, “We have worked really hard to dispel that.”
Though not required by law, every single batch of cheese made at Smith’s is sent to a lab in New York for testing before it’s sold. The Catlins are also part of the Massachusetts Cheese Guild, which works at the legislative level to ensure the safety of raw milk products. In flavor and nutritive value, using raw versus pasteurized milk makes a big difference for Smith’s Country Cheese.
For those who want to taste the difference for themselves, Smith’s is hosting a Cheese Chase 5K (Fun Run) and Farm Fest on May 20 with tasty food featuring the farm’s products, local beer and wine, and a variety of activities for families.
“There’s a really cool little rural route around the farm,” Allie says.
The Catlins intend to donate proceeds from the day to the Winchendon fire and police departments.
The event will also give visitors a chance to check out the new products at Smith’s.
“We’re just trying to … branch out and keep the cheese tradition going while going into some new markets,” Allie explains. “We had always thought that wine and beer would be a nice complement.”
Customers can now purchase both at the shop; on the weekends, the Catlins are bringing in a variety of local breweries and wineries to offer tastings.
“Our customers seem to really like that,” Allie says.
An entirely different product people come to the farm in droves for is Smith’s Black Gold Compost.
“People have been buying it for years,” Allie says.
Many a local gardener swears by the compost, which comes straight from the farm and can be purchased by the bag, loaded in a pickup truck or delivered.
Selling compost — a natural byproduct of their farming operation — is just one way that the Catlins embrace an eco-friendly approach. They’re also invested in exploring a range of conservation and solar efforts to make the business more sustainable. The farm has an existing solar infrastructure, which was the handiwork of previous owner, David Smith.
“He was very much at the forefront of all of this,” Allie notes.
The storefront panels power a great deal of the electricity used in the cheese making process, as well as the necessary hot water. The Catlins are currently looking into similar options to employ on the farm where heat for the cows, power for the milking machines and many other aspects of farming result in high energy usage/costs.
“We’re looking into some different heat recovery systems through our compost,” Allie says. They’re also evaluating a new solar setup designed specifically for farms with pasture animals.
“Cows can graze under (the solar panels) and it doesn’t ruin your grazing land … It’s exciting,” Allie says.
In the long-term, the Catlins’ goal is to reduce their overall carbon footprint by 50 percent.
For having arrived at farming with essentially no experience, they’ve gotten themselves up to speed quite quickly and have big dreams for their family farm.
Visitors are welcome to stop by the shop at 20 Otter River Rd. in Winchendon, Massachusetts, or order products online at smithscountrycheese.com.
Caroline Tremblay writes from Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire.