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Churchtown Dairy: A New Breed Of Agriculture And Architecture

By Jamie Larson

Dreamed up by environmentalist Abby Rockefeller and the Foundation for Architectural Integrity, designed and built by architect Rick Anderson and operated by the farmers at neighboring Triform Camphill, the Churchtown Dairy in Claverack, New York is a wonder to behold. The round, domed barn and adjoining 1830s farmstead (dismantled from its New Hampshire origins and rebuilt here) is of a scale that seems to play tricks on the eye as you approach it from a distance.

“Abby came to me six years ago and said, ‘I’d like to build this dairy and’ — I’ll never forget this — ‘it needs to be beautiful,’” Anderson says.

The transplanted and restored old home and milking barn that make up half the complex are spectacular examples of period architecture, with whitewashed plaster interiors that highlight the exposed wooden frame and beams. Even so, the old section is a bridesmaid to the Churchtown Dairy’s main “loafing” barn. It’s not the largest round barn, even in Columbia County, but its completely open interior and starburst of skylights, which bathe the space in sunlight, make it feel more like a cathedral than a barn built for the winter dorming (and loafing around) of the farm’s spoiled herd.

The ladies, who pasture the rest of the year, spent last winter relaxing, surrounded by soaring columns of Florida yellow pine from trees selected by Anderson, and felled and milled specifically for this project. Massive natural edge pine beams truss the dome and zigzag down elegantly, seeming to follow the path of the light falling from the dozens of triangular skylights.

“I hate to compromise when I build,” remarks Anderson, who says Rockefeller worked with him on the design but gave him the ability and resources to accomplish it exactly as he envisioned. “It was great to have Abby give me a lot of leeway in the design. It’s hard to describe how beautiful that is.”

On May 21, the stewards of another beautiful, open indoor space, the Hudson Opera House, will hold their annual Spring Fling Gala in the barn; their big historic performance hall is currently being restored with the help of a recently received $8.5 million grant. Last Saturday the event’s large committee met for a tour of the dairy, complete with milk, wine and a delicious Talbott & Arding cheese tasting. The Churchtown Dairy will eventually have a cheese cave beneath the earthen ramp leading to the second story of the barn.

Though the Hudson committee members are accustomed to magnificent spaces like the Opera House and Olana, there were still audible gasps as visitors ducked below a low door into the second floor ring balcony of the round barn. Anderson, in attendance, answered a barrage of excited questions about dimensions and inspiration, materials and process. The unassuming architect answered them all matter-of-factly but with a noticeable little smile that let on he knows he’s made something extremely special. The Dairy has already hosted a few events; a huge, well-designed, interlocking wooden 80-foot diameter floor is placed over the ground to accommodate tables, chairs and dancing.

Anderson has worked for many years on Martha’s Vineyard, where he met Rockefeller and eventually began planning the barn complex. He says that the farm is just getting off the ground, with more barns, support buildings, a greenhouse, a smokehouse and many more animals to come. For now, though, he likes that the barn is really only getting attention through word of mouth.

Hudson Opera House co-director Tambra Dillon meets a week-old calf stalled beside the main barn.

“We’re taking our time and laying low,” he says. “For now, milk sales are our focus.”

While the dairy is elegant and grand, its farming mission is a humble one. Led by farmer Ben Davis, a small contingent of professional farmers and the developmentally disabled youth from Triform care for the dairy’s 28 cows and plan for what will be a full-service biodynamic farm. Currently they’re producing just raw milk, which by law they can only sell on the premises (from an honor system fridge and lock box). The Opera House guests were wary at first to try the unpasteurized milk that was in the cow only hours before, but the response was that it was great-tasting milk.

“It was quite a big change for us. It’s a huge upgrade,” says Davis, adding that Triform’s former dairy — of only four cows — was in need of replacement when their new neighbors asked if they would come aboard. “Their mission is really closely aligned with ours. We’re creating a self-sustaining farm built on balance and health.”

The presence of Davis and Triform as the dairy’s operators has another benefit. Their earnest, earthy approach helps to temper any perceived odor the barn may have of boundless wealth at play. That Rockefeller chose to use local farmers, dedicated to a deeply held commitment to hyper-sustainable biodynamic practices, gives the whole endeavor a humanizing foundation, which it deserves. The barn is beautiful but it is also functional and there is something nice about the fact that a happy group of cows will spend more time than any of us beneath the beautiful dome. 

For inquiries and information about event planning, email Anderson at sapodillabay@gmail.com. Milk can be picked up at the barn at 357 County Road 12, Hudson, NY.

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Posted by Jamie Larson on 05/16/16 at 08:36 PM • Permalink

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