A few days before Christmas, people were stopping by McCray’s Farm and Country Creamery to pick up last minute gifts — maple syrup, the farm dairy’s own chocolate milk, ice cream cakes and even homemade ice cream, available in 25 flavors from Barnyard Blast to Caramel Brownie Swirl. Part of the year-round petting zoo, the ducks and geese swimming in the duck pond greeted customers.
Barbara Cody, store manager since 2011, was inside making sandwiches and serving homemade soup to customers at the beginning of the lunch rush. “Right now we have five or six. Sometimes we have 100.” The late Donald McCray started the farm in 1955, now his son Steve owns the farm.
During Truckfest, held one weekend in September, the farm hosts 5,000 to 10,000 visitors. Five or six years ago, Steve’s son Doug suggested having an antique car show, then it morphed into Truckfest complete with a mud bog. According to McCray, John Symonik took it over and nurtured it into a truck pull, with mud bogs and rock crawl. “My son Doug got back into it with quads (ATVs), smaller events with quads. They love it.” said McCray. He is also trying to get his son Mike to hold a pumpkin chucking event, along with snowmobiles racing on grass.
So how does a cornfield become a Truckfest mud bog? First it’s planted as a cornfield, then harvested. After harvesting a large trench is dug out to become a mud bog, complete with rock crawl, as all New England farm fields produce crops of rocks, cost-free. After Truckfest weekend, it is filled back in.
On McCray’s farm stands a round, one story tall brick cistern that a local history buff says dates back to the early 1700s. Once fed water from a spring a quarter mile away, it is no longer in use. The whimsical waterwheel besides it is for show only. The petting zoo features a duck pond, and includes llamas, goats and assorted animals. The petting zoo was started after McCray’s older brother Allen died on Christmas Eve, 1971. “He was working on a lathe at the farm. They think the lathe sparked some kind of gas explosion,” said McCray. While they will never know for certain what caused it, what is certain is that Allen is sorely missed. Their father started the petting zoo in his memory in 1972.
McCray works the farm with one full-time worker, Sergio Gomez and one part-timer, Mitch Pietras. His 100 head herd consists of Holsteins and some Jerseys. They are fed hay, haylage, corn silage and a mix of cranberries from Cape Cod, and brewer’s grain from New York. This particular feed isn’t to add to the flavor of the milk, it’s a matter of balancing the sugars and starches, just a different commodity, notes McCray. While the farm consists of 230 acres, they crop approximately 300 acres, harvesting 10,000 to 15,000 bales of hay, both for his cows and to sell for horses. Originally the farm had three stanchion barns but now has a free stall barn.
McCray’s son Mike manages the year-round milk plant. They started selling the chocolate milk at their farm store as soon as the milk plant opened in July 2013. Wholesaler South Hadley-based All Star Dairy Foods picks up about 1,750 gallons a week. “The whole point of the milk plant is to get away from losing money,” said McCray.
“Pick-your-own pumpkins kept us here since the early 80s when price of milk started going south.” Twenty-five years ago, Holyoke resident Dan Augusto approached McCray’s father with the idea of doing haunted hayrides. “That’s what started it,” he said. “Between haunted rides and pick-your-own pumpkins, it helps keep us alive.” Usually 10,000 people attend the haunted hayrides, still managed by Augusto; they also offer mini-golf.
Like digging out a perennial mud bog, dairy farming digs a perennial hole in finances, but he plans that the milk plant will dig them out. “The milk plant is at worst, a small hole, going forward toward a little profit — that key word — (rather than), in debt. It cost a fortune. I’m able to see the light at the end of the tunnel, hoping there is going to be a light,” said McCray. He’s bringing in the light, making it happen, to keep the farm alive for his family and his community.