(This article originally appeared in the Spring 2015 newsletter of River Valley Market [now River Valley Co-op], Northampton, Mass.)
One Sunday morning in mid-March, I drive up into the hills of Cummington. The wind makes the mild cold feel frigid, and there’s a thin wrap of ice on the ground. I doubt whether my Yaris can hold its own on that last hilly road. When I pull into the driveway at Grace Hill Farm—a fledgling artisan cheese dairy—it seems Max has been reading my mind. “Hi,” he says. “You made it.”
Max Breiteneicher has a self-deprecating way about him. He is soft-spoken but confident, and quick to offer information, when asked. There’s a simmering passion for his work just under his reserved exterior.
His wife, Amy, is more obviously excited about their venture. As we talk, she extols the people and culture of New England, and is certain they couldn’t have started their business anywhere else.
The path here has been circuitous. “Agriculture,” Max tells me, is “sort of just what I did in my own time.” That spare-time pursuit led him to intern at Chase Hill Farm in Warwick, Mass., and at Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro, Vermont. He was Jasper Hill’s first intern when that dairy opened about fifteen years ago. The staff there have continued to provide guidance and support for the Breiteneichers as they’ve gotten Grace Hill Farm up and running.
Before the couple founded Grace Hill two years ago, Max had been earning a living in journalism and publishing. Amy had been employed as a social worker, and continued to work full time throughout their first year on the farm.
Then came the fateful second year. They owned the land. They’d spent the first year gutting and renovating the 1700s farmhouse. Now it was time to get down to business. Max remembers the four months from April to July, 2014, as “just completely surreal, all the time.” Every single thing was new. Amy notes that Max was working 100- hour weeks during this time. Each of their cows decided to give birth in the middle of the night that spring. “Basically,” Max says, “I didn’t sleep for weeks.” But even with such dedication, the life of a start-up dairy farm is tenuous. “I didn’t know,” says Max, “if this was gonna work.”
So, what keeps the couple going? The short answer is this: community. “The agricultural community here [in Western Mass] is so strong,” Max says. Amy adds that discerning customers are one reason for local agriculture’s strength. “People care about the quality of food here,” she says.
And it’s not just the consumers who care. The Breiteneichers also have a network of fellowfarmers and neighbors who share a strong sense of mutual aid. One of their neighbors—a member of the Thayer family from whom Max and Amy bought their property—makes the hay that Grace Hill’s cows eat. Among their other “cool, competent neighbors,” says Amy, are pig farmers, loggers, and mechanics. Before the Breiteneichers moved in, their land had been in the Thayer family since the 1700s. The two families have developed “a collaborative, neighborly relationship,” Amy tells me. Without that, she adds, Grace Hill Farm probably wouldn’t have taken root here.
Max seems to extend his sense of community to the animals and the land. Each of their cows has a name and responds to it. And they can follow Max’s pointing finger to see what he’s pointing to. “Cows,” he maintains, “are very smart animals,” and they learn from year to year. He says he has the strongest relationships with the cows that have been at the farm the longest.
As far as the actual cheese-making, Max benefitted greatly from his connections to Chase Hill and Jasper Hill Farms, as well as from his colleagues at Sidehill Farm in Plainfield. “I know and like a lot of people who are making cheese around here,” he says. He approached each of these operations before establishing his own, asking them what they would do differently, if they could. He took their advice and built a comprehensive (if small) dairy barn and cheese-making facility. He took great care in designing its layout and functions. He’s obviously very proud of the operation, and very grateful for the help he received in planning for it.
Call it a labor of love, then. The Breiteneichers obviously enjoy what they’re doing, and have a sense that where they are is where they’re meant to be for now. Throughout their ten-year relationship, Amy tells me, they’ve had a dream of opening their own family business. With a year of production under their belt, and the couple’s first child due this summer, they seem to be well on their way to achieving their goal. When I ask them what the future holds, Max is hesitant to commit to a time frame, but says they’d at least like to raise a child here.
And what about this second season, I ask? (We’re finishing our tour of the wet, muddy grounds.) What are you looking forward to about springtime on the farm? “If I remember correctly,” Max responds with characteristic dryness, “it’s pretty awesome.”