by Laura Rodley
When Gray Dog’s Farm owners Ross and Alicia Hackerson bought their 80 acres in Huntington, MA, it was just forest, with nothing cleared and no house. They have since cleared 14 acres using silvopasture methods, leaving desired hardwoods to produce a mast for the pigs to eat, and shade for the calves, chickens and pigs that supply meat for their CSA. They sell wholesale and retail to stores and restaurants, including Greenfield’s Market, Bistro Les Gras in Northampton, Aunt Kathie’s Kitchen in West Springfield and farmers markets and residents.
The farm is named after their beloved dog who first walked the land with them, the late gray Australian Shepherd, Shafra. When an adjoining house came up for sale, they grabbed it.
“When we first moved here, eight or nine years ago, it wasn’t a farm. We moved here with the idea to do a farm,” said Hackerson, from Florence, MA. Their initial 50 broiler chickens and 50 layers soon doubled as what he termed a “Mom and Pop” business grew up.
After Alicia took a beginning farmers course through the local CSA, she realized she wished to do a homestead and her own flock of chickens only, and that Ross needed to hire someone to help him expand — there was just too much work to be done. Enter former New Hampshire resident April Weeks. They signed a three-year contract with her, and decided on a meat CSA. “The foothills can support a meat CSA,” said Hackerson, steering the farm into a full-time CSA, delivering beef, broiler chickens, pork and goat.
A mobile poultry processing plant comes to the farm, which necessitated a visit from the Board of Health to have their well checked to ensure they had good water for processing. They take everything else to Adams Slaughterhouse in Athol, MA.
Both Hackersons work other jobs. Alicia teaches special education at Jackson Street School, and Ross is a marriage and family therapist in Northampton. “I do doorstep delivery. People meet me in the parking lot or at their house.”
This November will be the CSA’s third anniversary. “We’re closing in on covering the costs. That’s really good,” said Hackerson, having answered their own question of how does one raise animals humanely by offering them silvopasture, lots of space and other animals to play with. “We left the hardwoods and mast of nuts. It grows grass underneath so cows have shade-trees are full of nuts. Pigs eat them — rotate them through.”
They searched for a forester who understood the principles of silvopasture as written by J. Russell Smith in his book, Tree Crops, A Permanent Agriculture. Forester Jeff Jourdain bought and read the book and called them back within a week. He got the job. Clearing land, and cleaning out slash has unveiled a spectacular view of Westfield River. “Now the cows have a million-dollar view,” said Hackerson.
Hackerson grew up on a ranch in southern Idaho, thinking his destiny was as a rancher. Due to back issues, his doctor said he must choose other work, so he became a family therapist.
However, he brought the savvy of having grown up on the ranch and a rancher’s can-do attitude to Gray Dog Farm, converting a hoop house into a chicken coop for broilers, a tractor into a moveable goat house for the goats they’ve just sold, and putting tires on salvaged truck rims. The pigs and layers have moveable covered pens.
Not only is he forming partnerships with the land to feed his animals, he has formed partnerships with neighboring farms to buy meat on-the-hoof to raise on grass pasture to sell in their CSA. This year they bought 15 of neighbor Lorraine Manley’s Dorsets. Next year they’ll take 30. When the neighbor across the road finishes this year’s haying, his empty fields will pasture Hackerson’s sheep. Hackerson’s contracted to buy 12 to 16 weaner pigs from Tim Lippert in Berne, NY every six weeks; Lippert raises Tamworth and Berkshires, and crosses of the two. “We ask for Tam-Berks. They’re really good on pasture,” said Hackerson, reaching 210 pounds on grass and non-GMO grain.
“Traditional veal, they chain them up and they feed them milk. We buy dairy bull calves, put them with milking shorthorns, raise them on grass. They have good lives. Their meat is pink,” and called rose veal. By giving calves a “nurse mom,” her calf as a playmate and freedom to romp in a beautiful setting, he’s working to change “all that stigma about veal.”
He’s very particular about his meat. “Because of hormones, I became a vegetarian. I didn’t start eating meat again until we raised our own,” with no hormones or sub-therapeutic antibiotics.
“The pigs do the best. They’re the ones that help pay the mortgage. Just getting the veal market started,” he said. “It’s feeling real after all these years. It just takes time.”
They’re already accepted by their neighbors, something that usually takes generations in the hilltowns. After he put in an 800-foot access road, a neighbor surprised him by hanging up an entrance sign, “The Ross Hackerson Thruway. Toll fee: 1 egg.”
Growing Gray Dog’s Farm and rose veal
by Laura Rodley