In late 2016, when Jake and Allie Catlin purchased and took over a dairy farm in Winchendon, MA called Smith’s Country Cheese, they did so with limited farming experience.
At the time they were both entrenched in the big city life of Boston with Jake serving as a criminal investigator and Allie managing several karate studios.
Despite their lack of hands-on dairy farming experience, the Catlin’s knew that they really wanted to try something different.
Luckily for them the farm’s owner, Dave Smith, was looking to sell the farm and retire so he worked out an arrangement with the Catlin’s where they were able to complete an apprenticeship on his farm prior to purchase.
For a little over a year the couple spent their afternoons and weekends learning how to run a dairy farm as well as making cheese, all while still working. By the end of the apprenticeship they took over full operation of the farm. The Catlin’s agreed to keep the name of the farm and continue with all the Smith family traditions, including cheese making.
Cheese making was first incorporated in 1986 by Smith and his family as a way to diversify their dairy business. Today the farm produces a variety of different flavors centered around gouda, cheddar and Havarti. The cheeses are sold at a small store located on the farm as well as regional supermarkets, restaurants and wineries.
After taking over the business, the Catlin’s discovered first hand just how important cheese making was to the farm’s overall revenue.
“Without the cheese the dairy farm wouldn’t exist because milk prices are not good and the operating costs are expensive,” Jake said. “If you don’t have some other way to differentiate yourself then you are not going to make any money.”
At Smith’s Country Cheese the cheese production begins with the farm’s herd of 200 Holstein cattle and the 75 pounds of fresh milk produced each day. With state of the art milking machines, the farm is able to milk 60 cows three times a day. Some of this milk is then brought directly up to the creamery where it is pumped into the cheese vat.
“The freshness of the milk is what I think makes our cheese stand out the most,” Jake said. “The cheese is an award-winning cheese and we take pride in its quality because it all begins with the cows.”
The Catlin’s point out that what they feed their cows and how they process their milk also greatly contributes to quality of their cheeses.
“The butter fat and protein content change the flavor of the milk and that will go up and down during the year based on the different cuts of hay that we feed our cows,” Allie said.
“Regular cheese companies use pasteurized milk,” added Jake. “When you do this you’re taking out all the good bacteria. We don’t pasteurize our milk. We feed our cows grains, corn, hay and spent grains from breweries.”
Besides milk and cheese the Catlin’s other main focus is to continue reducing the farm’s carbon footprint by effectively utilizing green technologies and different forms of renewable energy sources.
“The previous owner was way ahead of his time when it comes to green technology and he has instilled that in us,” Jake said. “We don’t just want to do what the previous owner did. We want to take it to the next level.”
Shortly before retiring Mr. Smith installed a 112-panel grid-tied photovoltaic system to the creamery where the cheese is made. Since taking over operation the Catlin’s learned just how useful those solar panels were in saving money.
“Making cheese requires a lot of energy and our solar panels provide us with a lot of electric and water savings,” Allie said. “I would say 70 percent of our hot water is operated by solar panels and 30 percent of our electrical need is supplied by solar panels.”
The cost savings that come from the creamery’s solar panels have been substantial enough that the Catlin’s are already in the process of installing some larger free standing panels.
According to Allie the installation of the solar panels will also directly benefit their herd of cows.
“In order to have enough space to put up the panels we will have to clear more pasture land, which will be great for the cows because the new solar panels will be large enough for the cows to graze under,” Allie said.
The Catlin’s hope to use these new panels to help offset the amount of energy that is required to operate their compost units. The compost units are another green technology installed by Smith in order to convert cow manure into useable compost. The technology has helped the farm generate additional revenue through compost sales and has eliminated the need to pay fees for manure storage, hauling and disposal.
“Every day there will be 13 yards of manure left by the cows,” Jake said. “We take that product right away and dry it out by pumping air into it. Then we screen it and get some of the best manure based compost that’s out there.”
Jake says he would like to go one step further with the compost units and find a way to capture the heat that is generated by the manure as it is decomposing.
“Those piles — when they are really cranking and decomposing — can get up to 165 degrees” Jake said. “There are some farms out there that are using the heat that comes off the compost to produce hot water.”
The Catlin’s say that running a farm is different than the city life they were previously accustomed to, but they are happy with how things are going.
“It’s been a big growing up experience,” Allie said. “I enjoy the personal growth that I have gotten out of this and the fact that you don’t have any fallbacks because you are the one who is in charge of it all.”
“The development has personally been huge for me as well,” Jake said.