It’s 5:30 a.m., Stephen Reed drives his Jeep over a long, bumpy country dirt road and arrives in front of a small house across from a cattle corral. He beeps his horn several times, rolls down the window and shouts, “Hey, let’s go, get up,” in hopes of waking his co-worker at Ronnybrook Farm Dairy. His boss, Dan Osofsky, pulls up alongside him in a pickup truck. They both shake their heads and snicker at the late start they are off to this morning. But, there is no time to dwell on it. They pull up to the main blue and white barn and jump out of their vehicles.
For three generations, the men and women of the Osofsky family have been running Ronnybrook Farm Dairy on an expansive plot of land caught between the Catskill and Berkshire Mountains, two hours northeast of New York City. Many of the farms that joined Ronnybrook in dominating the bucolic landscape, especially when Ron Osofsky, Dan’s father and the farm’s owner, was a child, have been sold off to larger corporations. Ron and his brother Rick, however, would not allow that to happen to their parents’ farm.
“My grandmother did all the work,” says Dan, the 34-year-old farm’s manager, of Ronnybrook Farm Dairy’s early days.
He and Stephen run into the barn, wash their hands and go into the main milking room, where Persia, Licorice, Majorca, Karen, Mika and the other dairy cows have been brought for their morning milking. The cows are milked twice daily and spend the rest of their time grazing in the grassy fields. The milk is bottled in a plant across from the main barn.
Stephen slides the door open to a smaller, dark barn bed in the corner of the main room. A newborn bull calf darts toward the light. It was born a day earlier and is still unsteady on its legs. Stephen gives it a bottle.
He exits the main barn to join Dan in packing up a small Bobcat loader to bring feed, milk and fresh hay to a dozen 1 to 2-month-old calves across from the main barn. Each calf has its own hatch and Dan and Stephen work together to feed them and freshen up the hatches with hay.
In order to produce high-quality dairy products they can be proud of, the Osofsky’s take exceptional care in each step of the process. They make their own hay to feed their prizewinning Holstein cows; they allow the older cows to graze in the rolling hills for five to six months and they use recyclable glass bottles for their milk, which is pasteurized, but non-homogenized.
To the right of the youngest calves are the three-month-olds. They have been paired up in larger hatches, as Dan explains, “For them to learn how to fight for food,” and co-habitate. Further afield is a larger cattle corral for the older cows. Dan fills the older cows’ trough and leaves to tend to the next chore. In the midst of the cows going in for food, one falls over. Dan rushes between the fence slats to help the cow back on its legs.
“You can’t just flip them up,” he starts, “they have four stomachs, which can get all twisted and cause bigger problems.” Dan and Stephen gently get the cow up and return to their remaining morning chores.
Throughout the 12-hour-plus work day, Dan and his farmhands are constantly dodging crises: cows falling over, supply depletions and equipment malfunctions. Added to the daily to-do list, which also includes filling orders and attending various famers’ markets in N.Y.C. and in the surrounding counties, these pop-up problems make the work that needs doing on the farm never ending.
Food writer and James Beard winner, Megan Wetherall, captured the Osofsky family’s life and challenges on the farm in the food production documentary series, The Big Table. It premiered at the close of the NYCFoodFilmFestival in 2011.
As Dan and his father Ron and uncle Rick mention in the documentary, they wouldn’t trade this tough, but terrific life for anything.
Dan drives up to the top of one of the hills on his family’s farmland midday.
“I just like coming up here,” he says, taking a deep breath, grinning and looking down at the land he works 24/7.
Several round hay bales, future food for his cows, ferment in the sun and gorgeously dot the lush green landscape with Stissing Mountain, the Berkshires, and the Catskill Mountains in the background.
Ronnybrook Farm Dairy products (milk, yogurt drinks, butter and more) can be bought at farmers’ markets, supermarkets like Whole Foods Market and N.Y.C’s Chelsea Market. Locate a store near you via Ronnybrook’s webpage.