It’s all about the cows
By J. Chambless
The Matthews Family has owned Milky Way Farm in Chester Springs for more than 100 years, and it’s always been a dairy farm. But they knew diversification is what would keep them successful. Pictured are Sam Matthews and daughter Carolyn Matthews Eaglehouse. Mathews just came in from the field, and Eaglehouse oversees the creamery. (Photo by Natalie Smith)
As development in Chester County marches on, and seemingly countless houses crop up where there once were pastures, there is at least one farm whose owners intend to stay put.
Milky Way Farm, a 103-acre dairy farm in Chester Springs, has been in the Matthews Family for as long as Carolyn Matthews Eaglehouse can remember. It almost seems as though this picturesque farm was plopped into an area surrounded by roads, houses and small businesses. But it was there first.
“My grandfather's family bought it from my grandmother's cousins, so indirectly [the farm has been in the family] more than 100 years,” Eaglehouse said. “And it's been a working dairy farm for a very long time. It was originally part of the William Penn [land grant], and it was kind of carved off into smaller pieces.”
Buildings on the property attest to its longevity. The springhouse, which until four years ago housed the sole source of water for the farm, was built in the 1790s. The barn, as well as the farmhouse, were erected in the early 1820s. Eaglehouse said they’re considering ideas to mark the barn’s 200th anniversary. Her father, Sam Matthews, had been raised on the farm. He was encouraged to leave the farming life, and served as a minister and a teacher. But the lure back to the farm was strong, so he returned. He and his wife, Melba, raised Eaglehouse and her siblings there for much of the children’s lives.
In fact, the land predates even Penn in its cultivation. Though it was a farm as long ago as the 1760s, family members have found arrowheads on the property and believe Native Americans tilled the land before the 18th century, Eaglehouse said.
Milky Way – named because in 1947 Eaglehouse’s grandmother, Frances, noted how on the farm she could see that constellation in the night sky -- has 40 milking cows and calves.
“The general rule of thumb – even when William Penn was divvying up acres – is that it was two acres per cow. So, with 103 acres and a lot of it woods, this farm can realistically support 50 cows. All the studies and statistics … the number of cows has stayed the same,” Eaglehouse said.
While primarily a dairy farm, Milky Way grows hay and corn and oats for feed, but it also produces another well-liked crop: Pick-your-own pumpkins. In addition to pumpkins, the farm offers a family-friendly corn maze and free hayrides, all perfect ways to spend a fall weekend.
But Eaglehouse said they try to offer a more interactive educational experience.
“There's trivia along the way, so visitors can learn facts through the maze to help guide them. Really basic kid levels, then some higher-thinking ones so the parents kind of learn as well,” Eaglehouse said. “Then obviously the animals are outside. As we do hayrides that run continuously at the pumpkin patch, we always have somebody on the wagon who's talking about what the farm is about.”
Like her father, Eaglehouse had been a teacher, so providing those chances to learn are important to her. “We're very passionate about education,” she said, “so any opportunity we have to provide teachable moments, we're all over it.”
Since 2012, Milky Way has been offering summer day camps for kids ages 4 to 11, during which they learn about the animals, what makes a farm work and about sustainable agriculture – all in fun, age-appropriate ways. The farm is also the location for school trips and birthday parties.
“We had almost 200 campers coming through this summer, which is great. Then we have 5,000 schoolchildren who come during the spring and the fall, spread out over about eight weeks in the spring and six weeks in the fall,” Eaglehouse said.
Ninety percent of the milk from the farm is sold to the Minnesota-based Land O’Lakes milk cooperative, with the rest going to the creamery. “We were making yogurt at one time, but you start thinking about all the different projects you’ve got in the air,” Eaglehouse said. But expanding upon the farm’s original purpose doesn’t stop with camps, mazes and tours. The family opened Chester Springs Creamery 17 years ago, and the happy mix of delicious ice cream and walkable farm added to the destination’s popularity.
Everybody chips in to help at various times, she said. Brother-in-law Tim Ferris operates a vegetable co-op called FarmHouse Markets, which is its own separate entity. Both he and Eaglehouse’s sister, Jane Matthews Ferris, are integrally involved in various aspects. Brother and sister-in-law Thomas and Jenna Matthews have a farm in New York, but at 5,000 acres and 1,500 cows, “it’s a very different experience, with similar problems and challenges. They come down often and help with marketing ideas and are good sounding boards,” Eaglehouse said.
If you think because it’s a farm, Milky Way eschews technology, this is the 15th year for its robotic milker, the Lely Astronaut A3 Classic. The cows feel when they need to be milked, stroll in from the pasture, and the machine takes care of them, giving them some grain for their trouble.
“The cows love the robot,” Eaglehouse said. “They can come in whenever they're hungry. We always say we promote independent learning.”
“The robot will clean off their udders, attach using a laser to kind of sight it. We program it initially. But then it connects. It monitors the milk flow out of each udder. It's each four distinct milking units. Then it cuts off, because if it sucks on it too long, it creates bacteria opportunities and infection. Then it will drop it off. Eaglehouse explained how it works. “Some are a little slower than others, some are a little quicker. It takes time. Some of them get onto it right away. Where they basically must push through these gates and it's a one-way in only to this kind of pen -- we call it the commitment pen -- then they walk through the robot. While they're in there, there's nobody bothering them. They're in their own little zone and they're eating just the right amount of grain for how much milk they're producing.
“Meanwhile, the robot is measuring how much milk she's giving, the temperature of the milk, her weight and the quality of the milk,” Eaglehouse said. “If it's not the right kind of quality, the robot will separate it and put it down the drain and not let it go out to the tanks so it doesn't potentially contaminate the rest of the milk in the tank. And then it sends it immediately out to the cold tanks, and into the coldest part of the tanks so it can get cold very quickly so it can stay fresh.”
Concentrating on businesses in addition to the dairy came out of necessity.
“My parents were doing full-time farming, and then milk prices dropped in the late 1980s,” Eaglehouse said. “I was heading off to college. We either needed to do something else, or we would be done. We couldn’t afford to do this.”
But help came at the suggestion of some other farmers.
“We had some very good friends in Connecticut who said, 'You know, you should consider doing pick-your-own pumpkin operations. Pumpkins are a crop that people like, it doesn’t take a lot to grow them. There are some unforeseen costs, but you can get people to come to your farm and you can use your hay wagons.’ So we just started it.” Milky Way currently dedicates seven or eight acres to growing the orange gourds.
The pumpkin idea was appealing to the Matthewses on several fronts. “Again, trying to find ways to generate revenue without spending a lot of money. Still being true and genuine to the farm. We're very mindful we’re not about glitzy entertainment,” Eaglehouse said. “We're into authentic experiences of what a farm is all about. And to feel vested in farms and why people should want farms to be part of the community. How they can support farms by buying produce from a local farmer's market or whatever. It's all part of working to sustain this culture.”
Participating in Chester County’s farmland preservation program ensured that Milky Way would always remain a farm. The program involves an agricultural conservation easement – a document permanently attached to the land’s deed that limits it to farming and related businesses – and pays the landowner for the property. Eaglehouse said at the time it allowed the family to pay for her grandparents’ nursing care.
“They sadly passed on, but there was a little money left and we built the creamery [in 2001] to provide something for the customers to come in more than just October,” she said. “And people had been begging us for years, ‘Can't you do something else with your product?’”
Of course, the broadening of the undertakings on Milky Way Farm all comes down to the bovine workforce, Eaglehouse said. “Our function right now, is a dairy farm. It’s our primary point. But we have all these other businesses to diversify to help support the farm, as well as the cows kind of supporting those businesses as well.
“We have a kind of very symbiotic relationship: Between the cows and the pumpkins; between the cows and the school tours; and the cows and the creamery; and the cows and summer camp. If you imagine the cows are in the center and these are all the little spokes on the wheel. You need the center axle to go around, but you need the spokes to make it turn.”
More about Milky Way Farm can be found at www.milkywayfarm.com.