By TERENCE CORRIGAN
COLLEGE GROVE, Tenn – The contrast is unavoidable. Less than a half-mile south of I-840 on Arno Road is The Grove, a housing development of “luxury estate homes.” Directly across the road is the 188-year-old Hatcher family dairy farm.
The Grove is a thousand-acre “community offering a distinctive lifestyle.” The price of admission is a home that costs between $1 million and $3 million. Building lots in the Grove start at $165,000. There are 800 building lots.
Literally, a stone’s throw away from the gated entrance to The Grove is the 200-acre Hatcher Family Dairy where 85 cows are milked twice daily. The Hatcher family established the farm in 1831.
Late in 2006, the Hatchers faced a momentous decision. The farm had been operating in the traditional way of dairy farms but that was becoming economically untenable.
Charlie Hatcher went to his son, Charles, who was then a senior in high school and presented him with a Sofie’s choice. “Dad approached me and said ‘We’re going to have to do something or sell the farm. Is this something you want to carry on?’”
Charles’ answer? “Absolutely.” Charles felt an obligation to his forebears. To sell the farm, he said, “would be doing our ancestors an injustice.”
Within a year, the Hatchers established Tennessee’s first on-farm milk processing plant: pasteurizing, homogenizing and bottling their own milk and selling it directly to the public. They bottled their first jug of milk on March 18, 2007. They named the processing facility the Abe Hatcher Creamery, after Charles’ grandfather, Abram Woolridge Hatcher who died in 1994.
Developing neighborhoods of multi-million dollar homes near farms has not always resulted in harmonious relationships. As city folk, with urban sensibilities, move into farming communities, they are often offended by the odors of farm animals and aesthetically challenged farm buildings.
“We didn’t push back. We embraced it,” Charles Hatcher said. Charles said, their success is due in large part to their relationship they have fostered with their affluent neighbors.
“It was a unique opportunity for (the Hatchers) to market their products,” said Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation President Jeffrey Aiken. “It also created challenges, to get their non-farm neighbors to accept and understand some of the environmental challenges that ag presents.”
“They learned how to co-exist with their urban neighbors through educational efforts, trying to be strong environmentalists, taking care of the land and showing their neighbors how they take care of the land,” Aiken said.
Hatcher Dairy’s signature product is whole milk that is pasteurized but not homogenized. (The distinctive characteristic of non-homogenized milk is the pure cream that rises to the top of the bottle.) They also sell farm-raised beef and lamb and they have their own line of ice cream.
Although the Hatcher’s dairy products are not certified organic, “it is all-natural and we do follow organic practices,” Charles said. For example, the Hatchers do not use petroleum-based fertilizer. “Our only fertilizer is cow manure,” he said. “Poop is a good thing. We use every drop of it.”
The Hatchers now bottle 6,000 gallons of milk a week and, in addition to the farm store, sell it through 90 outlets in the four counties surrounding the farm: Davidson, Rutherford, Maury and their home county, Williamson.
Their success, Charles said, is in large part due to the growth and changes in Nashville. The Hatchers’ farm is 30 minutes from downtown Nashville.
“The stars lined up right,” Charles explained. “Nashville is a foodie city now. There are high-end coffee shops and restaurants on every corner in Nashville.”
“We’ve got coffee shops and restaurants that have made pledges to use local products and they use our products.”
“In the morning I can be milking cows and a couple of hours later I’m in Hatcher Family Dairy dress attire in downtown Nashville walking into high class restaurants delivering milk. It’s the coolest thing.”
The so-called mega-dairies are driving small, family-owned dairy farms out of business. At mega-dairies, cows are kept in confinement, not in the traditional way of allowing them to graze in meadows or paddocks. The Hatchers don’t confine their cows and they provide them with a varied diet. They rotate the cows between 5-acre paddocks each with a different type of grass. Crimson clover, rye grass, sorghum Sudangrass, fescue and Bermuda are all on the cows’ menu.
His herd is mixed: Jerseys, Holsteins and Brown Swiss. They seem to prefer associating with their own breed. “When they’re out in the field they segregate themselves. It’s like they have their own cliques,” he said, laughing.
The Hatcher cows have names. Ahead of us is Cam, a Jersey, who Charles said is a “potential hall of famer.” He explained that on the Hatcher Dairy Farm they initiated a bovine hall of fame program. To earn a place in the hall of fame a cow has to “be nice, be productive and have a long career,” Charles explained.
Cam lies peacefully, chewing her cud, looking out across the valley at the barnyard where she gives milk twice a day and at the homes in The Grove. As Charles scratches Cam’s neck, he comments on the view. “This is a little slice of paradise when you walk up here on a pretty day.”