by Jordan Renouf
It was a Wednesday afternoon in mid July and I was on my way to a milk farm outside of Northampton, Massachusetts, in neighboring Hadley. Getting off I91 and crossing the Connecticut River which snakes its way through Western Mass, I arrived in what I can only assume is the hub of Hadley. Cute cafes and beautiful old New England homes seemed to be in a neck n’ neck race with the Dunkin’ Donuts and Texas Roadhouses’ of the world. Running directly through Hadley, Russell street certainly guaranteed to take care of all of my consumer needs but that was not why I was here and as I took a right turn onto Mill Valley Road, I knew that what I had come for was not far.
The moment you arrive on Mill Valley Road, you have landed in a different world. On a slow-moving, two lane road I made my way past cows grazing, corn reaching for the sky and white barns that looked to be older than many of the large oak trees dotted throughout the flat valley. Arriving at a four way stop, I saw what I had been looking for: a large sign with the emblem of a rooster standing atop a barn in front of a rising sun, all framed by the words “Mill Valley Milk Company”. It was a hot day and as I pulled off the road I saw two men with their shirts off and gloves on, heaving hay off a large wagon onto a bale elevator to the 2nd floor of Mill Valley’s large barn beside the road. As I stepped from my car and made to enter the small attached store, I could hear the men joking in ominous voices about the still half-full wagon and the dark storm clouds looming in the distance.
I entered the small store and was told by the young woman working the register to head through a door in the back leading to the barn. On the other side I found Bruce Jenks, the man I was scheduled to meet, pumping a blue liquid into a large cow’s mouth. After firmly shaking my hand, he resumed pumping and explained to me that on especially hot days, many of the cows need extra electrolytes to stay hydrated. The contents of the large bucket was basically gatorade and the pump was to ensure that the overheated cows did not skip on this addition to their summer diet.
With the bucket empty, Bruce walked to the end of the barn and swung open a large door to let in the other six cows still to be milked that day. Bustling past Bruce with feigned indifference, it was clear each cow had a personality and preferences which had to be accommodated for by their farmer. The hungry cows made their way to a spot in the lineup, obediently stuck their heads through the metal grate, and began to eat their allotted hay.
As the seven cows began to eat, Bruce took a knee next to Renegade and began to manually milk her. He showed me the pressure build up in her udders and lamented the discomfort this must be for her. With his two bare hands, he rubbed cream on her fore udder and gently massaged it as she ate. Attaching the small automatic milking device to each teat, he spoke to her in reassuring words as the machine was turned on and began to hum. Renegade was merely the first to get Bruce’s personal attention and it was with this care I saw him interact with each heifer. Some were rubbed down and given appreciative head scratches as they agreeably ate their food and let the small milking machines do their work. Others were not so willing to conform and had to be persuaded by firm pats on their rump to keep their place along the line until the job was complete. As the milking began in unison, Bruce took his place at the rear of one of the larger cows, dark tan in color and named Challenge. He assured me that she had been named long before her personality had fully emerged but now, as a fully grown adult, she had certainly lived up to this title. With the machine whirring beneath her, Bruce explained that Challenge only agreed to be milked when she was being rubbed. This stubbornness may have come from some inherited arrogance as Challenge’s mom had been deemed the 2nd best cow in the world years back at the annual Wisconsin fair. Recounting the story, Bruce’s hands began to slow and eventually fall from the large cow’s back. No sooner had they returned to his pockets did Challenge stop her eating and in one swift kick, buck the small machine from her teats. Laughing, Bruce reattached it and scolded her with fake disapproval as he returned to his rubbing.
It had begun to rain outside and claps of thunder caused only brief pause for the heifers who were now fully immersed in their mid day snacks. With the milking done, it was time for the barn to be vacated and cleaned. As they moved away from their spots, the cows revealed a small conveyor belt recessed in a foot-wide gutter in the floor which was designed to carry away their fresh dung. As I admired their precision and the efficiency of this system, Challenge, who had dawdled and was now the last to leave the barn, grunted and with a look of obstinance in Bruce’s direction, laid a large patty in nearly the exact place her head had been a minute ago - a full 6 feet from the preferred conveyer. With her work done and her reputation upheld, Challenge made for the rain with her tail flicking at nothing in particular, a signal Bruce quickly translated for me as a snide middle finger.
Bruce had grown up across the street with a father who ran their family farm. They’d started with calves who they used for a local 4H program which allows high schoolers first-hand experience in a variety of professions. As Bruce grew older the cows were moved into the barn they now inhabit and began producing raw milk at a rate of 5-8 gallons per day which far outpaced the direct needs they had for it on the farm. They began selling it locally and eventually creating ice cream. Today this ice cream is what allows for their farm to operate. It is not only sold in the small store attached to their barn but across the northeast in over 400 stores and scoop shops. The raw milk has a much smaller market but is loved by the surrounding community and sells out virtually everyday. The fridge which stands in the corner of their store and houses the glass milk bottles also holds a “sample” jug in order for newcomers to see what all the hype is about. The stories of its effect on people could fill a small book. Bruce himself drinks half a gallon a day and swears by its benefits. He tells me about a woman who comes by every week to restock her supply and recently told him that she had consumed nothing else for a month. Every time hunger struck, she’d drink a glass and by the month’s end had lost 25 pounds.
Although Bruce is quick to dismiss the label of ‘dairy farmer’, as his modest roster of cows hovers around 30, this title seems better suited to him than to many others in his field. Dairy farms across America often have their sights set on the eventual goal of selling. Starting locally, they expand to become a regional player and eventually come to sell their products across the country. It is at this point, with thousands of dairy cattle and their product on store shelves from coast to coast, that they will sell to a dairy conglomerate. This trajectory is not a dream of Bruce’s. As he reminds me many times throughout my two hour visit, his drive is to keep the cows that he lovingly refers to as “his girls”. He has found a product in ice cream which not only provides smiles across the northeast but also allows him to continue doing what he loves. A farm with the eventual goal to sell operates much differently than the one Bruce runs. Here in the Mill Valley, “the girls” are allowed the dignity to live full lives and die a natural death, often close to 20 years. Expensive veterinarian visits are happily paid for so that Bruce can be confident his cows are comfortable and content.
It’s with this same care that Bruce interacts with the visitors to his farm. As the rain began to slow and I prepared to leave, Bruce exclaimed that he would not let me go empty handed, despite my protests. Excitedly moving from barn to store and finally, to his truck, he found a medium sized cooler. Back in the store with the cooler having just been hosed and wiped down outside, Bruce moved between refrigerators grabbing cheese curds, local kombucha, mozzarella balls, a pint of raw milk, blueberry donut holes and a whopping 5 pints of ice cream with flavors ranging from coffee to blueberry lemon cheesecake. He arranged the treats nicely in the cooler for me, all the while batting away my many thanks. Saying goodbye and promising to return soon, I made to leave and over my shoulder heard an out-of-stater lamenting that the raw milk refrigerator was now empty. Bruce, hearing the same, jumped into action and disappeared through a side door. Minutes later he returned, wiping down a glass jug of pearly white milk. Handing over the gallon to the thankful New Yorkers he accepted their thanks and said with the voice of someone who loves his job: “Doesn’t get any fresher than that! That was grass an hour ago!”.
I left Mill Valley Milk Farm with that rare feeling one gets when they meet someone like Bruce. A feeling of confusion that, had I never heard of his farm, I could have gone my entire life without ever having met this man. Bruce and the beautiful little world he runs would have existed regardless of me and yet, I would not have been granted the pleasure of stepping into it for two short hours. Late that night as my girlfriend and I taste tested the ice cream we had been gifted, I felt thankful for Bruce. The kindness he gives to animals, the focus he puts on his community and of course, the deliciously creamy dessert he’d filled my freezer with.