When the Fletcher family moved to Southampton, MA in March of 1989 there were 13 operating dairy farms. Since that time the landscape has changed quite a bit and the Fletchers now find themselves as the last remaining dairy farm in town.
The patriarch of the family, Bob Fletcher, believes that the reason the Fletcher Family Farm has been able to stay in business is because they have been able to work well as a family, make necessary upgrades to their farm and incorporate agritourism into their business.
Bob says that while his wife Cheryl and his three children Nicole, Elizabeth and Matthew play a huge role on the farm. It is the help they get from extended family that really puts them over the top.
“Family involvement has been huge,” Bob said. “Cheryl’s sister and her husband help with the farm stand. My mother helps with planting flowers and cutting the grass. My brother comes up and lends his opinions and ideas. Whenever we have a big decision to make we have a family meeting. Together we have been able to come up with some really good ideas.”
One family member who has brought some helpful ideas to the farm is Bob’s daughter Nicole. Having recently earned a bachelor’s degree in dairy management from the University of New Hampshire, Nicole decided to return home and help her father with the dairy cows.
The 100-acre farm is centered around the milk production that comes from a mix of approximately 110 Holstein and 40 Jersey cows. Together the two breeds produce around 3,200 pounds of milk a day.
“The cows carry a pretty heavy load when it comes to supporting the farm,” Bob said. I would say the cows provide 70 percent of the farm’s revenue.”
To help ensure that the dairy program remains productive Bob has integrated some of the calf management practices his daughter learned while in school. Newborn calves are no longer raised inside the barn. Instead they are raised outside in hutches where they get plenty of fresh air and a lot more attention. The Fletchers also purchased a colostrum testing kit which helps to ensure the calves are being fed with the highest quality milk possible.
“We’re doing a better job starting our animals off now than we’ve ever done,” Bob said. “Ten years ago our calf mortality rate was nothing to brag about but that has improved since Nicole took over that area. Thanks to her we are doing so well with our animals that we can now afford to market some of them to other farms.”
Another way the Fletchers have been able to generate more revenue is by making upgrades to their farm. Bob says he used grant money that came from the state’s Agricultural Improvement Program to construct a more modern dairy facility which has improved overall efficiency.
“It only provided about a third of the cost but the grant was a major reason on why we decided go forward and build a new barn,” Bob said. “The actual new barn is a complete free stall barn. From what we had to do in the old tie stall barn it shaved hours off our workday to do other things.”
The Fletchers are currently revamping their old tie stall barn into a smaller more efficient milking barn which will allow a smaller group of cows to be milked in a faster amount of time. The other half of the building will be converted into a hospital-maternity pen. Bob says he hopes to have the project completed by early November.
“Before we used to bring in all the cows at once and it would take almost two and a half hours to milk them all,” Bob said. “Now we are bringing in a group of about 24 cows and they are in and out in 30 minutes. It allows the cows to go back into the new barn to lie down and eat or get water right after milking instead of having to wait.”
Bob says that continuous upgrades not only increase farm productivity but also goes a long way in motivating his children to become part of the next farming generation.
“Right now we are doing renovations to infrastructure and I think that is very key to keeping the younger generation interested in what is going on here,” Bob said.
The next generation of farming will almost certainly continue the agritourism business that the Fletchers have developed over the years to supplement their dairy farm. Currently it is Bob’s wife, Cheryl, who focuses on this part of the business. Cheryl says their farm stand is the center of their agritourism business and greatly helps to supplement their sometimes-unpredictable milk revenue.
“We consider ourselves a diversified farm and the farm stand is an important part of that,” Cheryl said. “As a small farm we can’t control the price of milk so the revenue from the stand is important to the overall success of our farm’s dairy segment.”
Cheryl says each season brings something new to the farm stand thanks in part to the working relationships with nearby farms who contribute vegetables and other specialty items.
“We supplement what we grow with products from other local farms,” Cheryl said. “A purchase here supports four other Hampshire and Franklin county farms.”
During the spring the Fletchers sell things like compost, manure, mulch, flowers and seedlings.
Around mid-June, when all the flowers are sold out, the Fletchers close their stand down until the fall so that they can focus on their crops and other important farm activities.
When the stand reopens, people come to buy items like corn stalks, mini-bales of hay and pumpkins. The farm also serves as an excellent educational field trip for area school groups. The Fletchers require reservations and charge a small fee but the visits are customized based on age and interests and further shaped by a teacher’s goals and objectives.
“Bringing in the school field trips is huge,” Cheryl said. “We have school groups that will come from as far north as Greenfield and as far south as Springfield. We customize the field trips to what the teacher wants to get out of it. They can get hay rides, go home with a pumpkin and learn about our farm animals.”
During the winter the Fletcher’s use the stand to sell locally grown Christmas trees. Bob says they added the enterprise to their farm about 20 years ago, starting out with about 30 trees and now selling well over 400 each winter.
“It started very slow until someone put my wife in contact with some folks up in Ashfield,” Bob said. “We couldn’t get over the quality of the trees and people have noticed it as well which is why they keep coming back year after year.”
Bob says he is glad that his family had gone the route of diversifying their farm through agritourism because it has been a major factor in the success of their farm.
“Many other diversified farms will tell you that without these segments of diversification there is an avenue of struggle revenue wise,” Bob said. “The last four years the growth of the farm has been substantial because of the number of people that come here. The agritourism business has definitely made a difference on why the farm continues to go forward.”