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On the night Santa works hard, this family works even harder

  • Christmas lights adorn the outside of the cow barn at the Contoocook Creamery at Bohanan Farm before dawn Christmas morning, while the Robertson family is already hard at work milking and cleaning the area. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Sporting a snow-whitened beard that would make Santa proud, Jamie Robertson finishes cleaning the pathways around the dairy cow barns on Christmas morning at the Contoocook Creamery at Bohanan Farm in Hopkinton on Dec. 25, 2017. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Heather Robertson lets Charlotte, the family’s German Shepard, into the milking parlor after finishing up milking Christmas morning at the Contoocook Creamery at Bohanan Farm in Hopkinton on Dec. 25, 2017. GEOFF FORESTER—Concord Monitor

  • Si Robertson uses the front loader at daybreak. GEOFF FORESTER—Concord Monitor

  • Heather Robertson finishes up milking and gets ready to hand feed newborn calves on Christmas at dawn at the Contoocook Creamery at Bohanan Farm in Hopkinton on Dec. 25, 2017. GEOFF FORESTER—Concord Monitor

  • Heather Robertson carries the milking bottle to feed the newborn calves at the Contoocook Creamery at Bohanan Farm in Hopkinton on Christmas morning, Dec. 25, 2017. GEOFF FORESTER—Concord Monitor

  • Heather Robertson and family dog Charlotte go into the calf barn to feed the newborns at Contoocook Creamery at Bohanan Farm in Hopkinton on Christmas morning, Dec. 25, 2017. GEOFF FORESTER—Concord Monitor

  • Heather Robertson feeds a 3-day-old calf on Christmas morning at the Contoocook Creamery at Bohanan Farm in Hopkinton on Dec. 25, 2017. GEOFF FORESTER—Concord Monitor

  • Heather Robertson bottle-feeds a 3-day-old calf at the Contoocook Creamery at Bohanan Farm in Hopkinton. Christmas morning. “I loved being with the cows,” Robertson said of her childhood on a farm. “I’d be standing on a 5-gallon pail trying to reach them.”

  • Heather Robertson feeds a 3-day-old calf Christmas morning at the Contoocook Creamery at Bohanan Farm in Hopkinton on Dec. 25, 2017. GEOFF FORESTER—Concord Monitor

  • Heather Robertson feeds a 3-day-old calf Christmas morning at the Contoocook Creamery at Bohanan Farm in Hopkinton on Dec. 25, 2017. GEOFF FORESTER—Concord Monitor

  • Scout the dog waits patiently in the milking parlor on Christmas morning at the Contoocook Creamery at Bohanan Farm in Hopkinton. GEOFF FORESTER—Concord Monitor

  • Jamie Robertson walks between the cow barns after cleaning off the access roads before dawn at the Contoocook Creamery at Bohanan Farm on Christmas morning, Dec. 25, 2017. GEOFF FORESTER—Concord Monitor

  • Steam rises from the dairy cows inside the milking parlor at the Contoocook Creamery at Bohanan Farm in Hopkinton on Christmas morning, Dec. 25, 2017. GEOFF FORESTER—Concord Monitor

  • Meagan Wilson attaches the milking machine to a dairy cow in the milking parlor at the Contoocook Creamery at Bohanan Farm in Hopkinton on Christmas morning, Dec. 25, 2017. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Dairy cows line up to get in to be milked in the parlor at the Contoocook Creamery at Bohanan Farm in Hopkinton on Christmas morning, Dec. 25, 2017. GEOFF FORESTER—Concord Monitor

  • Heather Robertson leads a dairy cow into the milking parlor under the watchful eye of Scout at the Contoocook Creamery at Bohanan Farm in Hopkinton on Christmas morning, Dec. 25, 2017. GEOFF FORESTER—Concord Monitor

  • Heather Robertson checks the progress of the milking of a cow on Christmas morning at the Contoocook at Bohanan Farm in Hopkinton on Dec. 25, 2017. GEOFF FORESTER—Concord Monitor

  • Si Robertson runs the tractor after using the front loader before dawn on Christmas day at the Contoocook Creamery at Bohanan Farm in Hopkinton on Dec. 25, 2017. GEOFF FORESTER—Concord Monitor



Monitor columnist
Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Let the record show that Santa Claus wasn’t the hardest-working person the night before Christmas.

Not even close.

While Claus was going house to house drinking milk millions of children had left for him, if he’d flown over Hopkinton during the wee hours, over the Contoocook Creamery at Bohanan Farm, he would have seen what it took to make that milk he found next to his plate of cookies.

He’d have seen lights already burning hard through a snowstorm and people already a few hours into their shift, people getting no help from singing elves or reindeer chauffeuring them here, there and everywhere.

These people were on their own, scooping up mounds of manure with a front loader, feeding and milking the cows and calves, then, later, transporting the milk to Maine for pasteurization, then hauling it back to the Granite State to sell.

And this wasn’t just on Monday. No, sir. This grind is every day, 365 days a year, with few exceptions. The dairy farmers I met Monday morning, long before the sun rose and after the snow had begun to fall, had milk running through their veins.

The farm is co-owned by Heather and Jamie Robertson, and it’s been part of Heather’s family since 1907. Their three boys – Si, who’s 25; Nate, 23; and Bram, 19 – have long beards like dad’s and are all part of the mix as well. Heather’s niece, Meagan Wilson, also works full time on the farm.

Wilson went to Plymouth State University, thinking she would leave small-town life after graduating. Instead, she lives on the farm, milks the cows five days a week, works six days a week and starts her days at 4:30 a.m.

“I was sure I’d never be back in Contoocook,” Wilson told me while two rows of cows did an utterly fantastic job giving milk. “I was surprised I ended up here. I finished college and my uncle (Jamie) asked if I wanted a job in the business end of things and it snowballed. It’s been four years now. I love it.”

Then she sounded like Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, telling me, “Sometimes you need to leave before you realize you belonged here the whole time.”

Indeed, it was a warm place, during a blizzard, when the Robertson family had no idea the press was coming, no idea we wanted to show what they do while the rest of the world – most of the rest of the world – had the day off.

Jamie Robertson greeted us as we pulled in. Icicles blended into his long beard. Taking a break from scooping the poop, he directed us inside the milking parlor, where we found Heather and Wilson. We quickly learned that our assignment was steeped in a great American story.

Heather’s children are fifth-generation dairy farmers. Heather recalls growing up on that farm, a little girl running like a colt in the meadow, learning about family and work ethic.

“I loved being with the cows,” she told me. “I’d be standing on a 5-gallon pail trying to reach them. Then my boys were babies in car seats sitting in the corner when we’d be milking.”

Her grandfather and great uncle owned the farm for more than 30 years before selling it in the mid-1980s to Heather’s father, who lives with her mother on the property.

Si lives up the road, Nate rents an apartment upstairs in the main house and Bram is a student at the University of New Hampshire, home on break.

The family follows a tight routine, and on this day Nate was sleeping after working the late shift until 1 a.m. Monday; Si was outside working the front loader; and Gram would soon head to the milking parlor to replace Heather, who would then head to a small shed with a huge baby bottle to feed adorable, coat-wearing calves with huge dark eyes.

With 175 milking cows, 20 cows on maternity leave and 160 cows classified as young stock, births at the farm are a nearly everyday happening.

Ten gallons of milk are produced per cow per day, meaning to farm yields 23,000 8-ounce servings – a lot of glasses for Santa Most milk is sold wholesale to large markets, but the price crash in 2009 forced the family to branch into the retail business and open Contoocook Creamery. Their milk is sold north to New London, east to the Seacoast and west to Hollis.

To watch Heather and Wilson work in the milking parlor is to believe they have a direct line of communication to their cows.

The cows lined up like patrons at a movie theater. Wilson and Heather sanitized each udder with a swipe of a cloth, then hooked each one to a vacuum cleaner-looking thing.

Each cow was hooked for just a few minutes, and a digital readout displayed milk flow, or the number of pounds per minute the cow was producing. When the number dropped below 2 pounds per minute, the hoses dropped off automatically. Then the cows left in an orderly fashion, out a different door so as not to create a traffic jam near the entrance.

The cows are structured, even demanding. If the milking crew gets to work after 4:30 a.m., the cows get grouchy. They want to give their milk, and they want to give it on time.

“They love routine,” Wilson said. “They thrive on consistency.”

Bram and his long red beard entered about 6:50 a.m. so Heather could feed the calves. He works at the dairy farm at UNH, but the milking there begins at 4:15 a.m., so he considered his 12-hour days while on Christmas break to be, well, a break.

The milk is pumped into a 4,000-gallon tank and then pumped into another giant tank, which is driven to Maine for pasteurization.

Heather said she, Jamie and their three boys have not taken a family vacation together since 2006, when they spent a few days in New Brunswick. They don’t know when that will happen again.

At noon, the family was to walk to the house across the way, where Heather’s parents live, to warm up, open presents and eat ham and pie, buffet-style.

“Then we’ll come back here,” Heather said. “We have to go back to work.”

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304, rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @rayduckler.)