Modern Family Farming at NH's Brookford Farm

In the age of specialization, Brookford Farm is looking back to old-world traditions.

How does a 36-year-old get knee-deep in cow manure after starting out with a degree in anthropology? “Actually, I use that knowledge daily — everyone has their own culture that needs to be understood for effective communications,” says Luke Mahoney, who owns and manages Brookford Farm in Canterbury.

Luke and his wife Catarina are the new face of the modern family farm — and a first-generation farm at that. According to Amy Hall, director of Granite State Dairy Promotion, of the 126 dairy farms left in the state (down from 800 in 1970), it’s rare to have a first-generation farm. All the state’s dairy farms are family-owned and have been for generations. It took a village to get this operation off the ground.

The new location of Brookford Farm is in Canterbury. Last year they moved from a leased site in Rollingsford to this former sod farm with the help of investors. Gary and Meg Hirshberg of Stonyfield Yogurt were a big part of this initiative, actually loaning a large portion of the capital to the Mahoneys to make it all happen. The town got behind the effort as well. In a special town meeting, residents voted to allow the hardworking couple to get the farm instead of the other two suitors. The 613-acre parcel is part of the Merrimack River valley— fertile fields that were stripped of nutrient layers by the former sod operation. Luke says, “This is the richest soil around in the poorest condition.”

It is all about the land. What the Mahoneys actually have is a grass farm. Luke has planted a variety of grasses that the cows enjoy grazing, a variety of cover crops like clover and a few fields of winter and spring wheat using heirloom varieties such as Ladoga and Red Fife. This all makes for an interesting and synergistic mix.

The cows repay their gratitude with large “cow patties” that enrich the soil for the next crop of grasses, and chickens raised for eggs and meat also rotate throughout the fields via mobile hen houses to eat bugs and enrich the soil with their droppings. Pigs even get a chance to add to the mix and root for sugar beets as a treat while working the soil at the same time. Their other part-time job is as a recycle bin for excess whey from cheese-making or wilted produce.

The cows, most of them pregnant, head back to the barn to avoid the heat of the day.
Photo by susan laughlin

This year, cows will also be pastured at Canterbury Shaker Village, which adds to the historical site’s scenic charm and soil composition.

The Mahoneys' farm is modern only in the sense that they have a bookkeeper and marketer on staff. There is no archetypical red barn or white two-story farm house. There is no emphasis on enhanced milk production or maximizing tillage. And for an active dairy farm, as strange as this may sound, there is no stink of manure. You just can’t make jokes about their “dairy air.”

The Mahoneys are using Old World farming practices. They both learned to farm near St. Petersburg, Russia, where Luke traveled after college to get a handle on what he “really wanted to do.” At this biodiverse farm helping handicapped adults and at a farm near Hamburg, Germany, Luke and Catarina learned small farming techniques that are beneficial to the land and hence sustainable. “There are no large farms in Europe,” says Luke.

Larger farms tend to be “monocultures,” or operations that grow or produce one product. Problems with that model are legend. There is always the ever-increasing need to protect against an enemy that could wipe out the entire herd or crop. Pour on the antibiotic feeds, chemical weed killers and then throw a wrench into the seed’s or animal’s DNA to make it all work for a while.

Luke Mahoney has a name for each of his 55 or so cows. Ludmilla here is a favorite.
Photo by susan laughlin

The Mahoneys want none of that. “We see that there is a market for wholesome food — food grown without chemical fertilizers or pesticides,” says Luke. In the office there is a map of the state studded with push pins that line the weekly routes up and down and across the state. It seems there is a demand across the state and people are willing to pay more for food that is good and good for them and the land.

Eventually it all pays off. Although the cows are two years old before they give milk, Luke says they are productive for about six more years. The industry standard is a year and a half. The 55 or so head of Golden Guernseys, Jerseys and a similar European breed are all known for their rich milk with high protein — a good combination for cheese making.

The chickens are sold as fryers at less than three months old and the laying chickens have a couple years before they are sold as stew hens. Pigs, including a Tamworth heritage breed, also are turned around quickly and beef comes from the steers that are kept for a year. Luke says there was no market for veal. The Brookford clients were just too soft-hearted.

Laying chickens are hosted in mobile hen houses that rotate throughout the fields as are the broilers
Photo by susan laughlin

The dairy cows are the heart of the operation, and although Brookford grass-fed cows give only four gallons of milk a day, the Mahoneys create a premium product with it. Organic raw milk and raw milk products are in high demand, plus Catarina oversees the cheese-making department. Raw milk cheeses include cheddar and bleu, both aged more than 60 days. Other soft cheeses are quark, yogurt, camembert, brie, feta and cottage cheese. The latter ones, by law, cannot be made from raw milk.

Beyond cheeses, the onsite farm store offers pork sausages, bacon, ribs, spare ribs, whole tenderloin and sliced ham. Also ground beef and stew beef, whole roasting chickens and grains, both pastry flour and bread flour and whole wheat flour. This is in addition to a range of seasonal produce.

Within the store is the Canterbury Bread Shop brick oven. Here, using Brookford grains (except for white flours), Dane Percy creates rustic farmstead loaves from a French baguette to a hearty, seeded whole wheat. The oven is heated the night before and the residual heat  bakes the loaves with a nice hearty crust. Breads are available at the farm store through the CSA program and farmers markets.

A piglet keeps cool in a whey bath. The whey is a nutritional byproduct of the cheese making operation.
Photo by susan laughlin

Produce is also a big part of the self-sufficiency of the farm. Many acres are given over to grow potatoes, artichokes, garlic, corn and a variety of greens. Most are heirloom seed varieties.

There is a lot of backbreaking work to farming, but what is making the operation successful is the marketing and transportation. Almost half of Brookford Farm products are sold through a CSA (Community Shared Agriculture). Shares are sold before the season, helping with cash flow through leaner months and subscribers pick up their weekly share at farmers markets and other access points across the state. Although the program is technically filled, it is worth a call to see if there are any openings.

Another 25 percent of products, from cheeses to breads to meats, are sold through farmers markets while the remainder is wholesaled across the state to a variety of restaurants and stores. Even Whole Foods is interested.

There is still a lot to do to get the farm in proper working order. It’s not easy being a first-generation farm moving to a new location. Older farm equipment is in need of constant repair.  A new gleaming cheese making space is open while new refrigeration walk-ins for holding produce and storing cheeses will soon replace ad hoc refrigerated truck space. Investment in a refrigerated delivery vehicle insures reliable delivery of products across the state. Existing buildings are being refitted for new purposes. The former sod farm office is now home for the Mahoneys and their four boys, aged 10 years to 3 months. Hopefully this place will become a second-generation farm, just because the love of farming has to be more wonderful, and  easier, the second time around. May the circle be unbroken.

Brookford Farm at NH Farmers’ Markets

Rolling Green Nursery, Greenland
3 p.m. to 6 p.m.
June through October
*CSA Drop-Off

Canterbury Community Farmers Market
4 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.
Canterbury Center, Between Elkins Library and Town Hall

Manchester Farmers Market
3 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.
48 Concord St. (next to Victory Park)
*CSA Drop-Off

Tilton, Tanger Outlets
3 p.m to 6 p.m.

Salem Winter Market
37 Lake St., Salem
10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
*CSA Drop-Off

Brookford Farm Store
7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Categories: Features