Pearl is the “Cow of the Month” at the Hatcher Family Dairy. Her hobbies are sunbathing and chewing cud. The 2-year-old Holstein is pregnant for the first time and spends her time relaxing on the farm. Since 1831, five generations of the Hatcher family have lived on and worked its almost-500-acre farm in College Grove, Tennessee. When Dr. Jennifer Hatcher graduated from the UT College of Veterinary Medicine in 2005, she became the third generation of UT graduates to join the family business that includes a dairy, a milk store, and Rock-N-Country Animal Clinic, a mixed animal practice her father, Dr. Charlie Hatcher, started when he graduated from veterinary college in 1984.
No one has far to travel to work. In the mid 1980s, Charlie’s parents, UT alumni Abe and Jackie Price Hatcher, gave each of their five children a house and acreage on the farm. The veterinary clinic and store occupy the same building. “I joke and tell people to come get a rabies shot for your dog and buy a jug of milk,” Jennifer laughs.
Until last summer, clients didn’t have the option to buy milk at the Hatcher farm. All its cows’ milk was sold to a co-op. But the decreasing number of dairies in the Southeast, encroaching development, and the rising costs of fuel, fertilizer, and feed have made it difficult to make a living in the dairy business. Charlie Hatcher and his brother Jim needed to come up with something new to keep the dairy going. They decided to process and pasteurize their own milk.
“We just want to make the farm sustainable. We aren’t out to get rich,” explains Charlie. He says his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather would be proud to see the family heritage and tradition continue. “The only problem we’re having is we’re running out of Hatchers.”
And running out of milk. In the beginning they sent about a third of their milk to Middle Tennessee State University for processing. Recently that amount has increased to three-quarters. Even so, the demand exceeds the supply. The Hatchers are about to begin construction on a processing facility adjacent to their barn so they’ll be able to bottle and sell all their milk. The milk is sold throughout their community and parts of Nashville.
Apprehensive in the beginning, Charlie says he is surprised by the milk’s popularity. “Every day I would think, ‘What if people wake up one morning and don’t buy our milk?'” But he says they branded their product appropriately with a logo that gives a nod to the past and their slogan, Fresh, fine milk from a farmer you know. Customers tell them it tastes fresher and creamier than other brands. The whole milk is not separated, meaning the cream rises to the top. The cows, some living for 13 to 15 years, are exposed to pasture year round, which affects the taste and components of the milk. “The product is a good one, but being local is the biggest draw,” Charlie says.
The Hatchers have developed a feeling of trust with the community. “We’re the farmers who handle the milk from the cow through the processing all the way to bottling. We also market it. There’s a Hatcher involved in every aspect,” including hand-labeling the bottles. Charlie says every Tuesday, in-laws, out-laws, former in-laws, and friends gather for a labeling party that continues until the last bottle is labeled, sometimes after midnight. That’s on top of a day that begins at 5:30 a.m. The rule is no one eats until the cows eat. The Hatchers treat the cows like family, even naming their chocolate milk after Brownie, the only brown Swiss cow in the herd.
Owning a family business often means long, hard days. Charlie still hasn’t quit his day job as animal identification coordinator and staff veterinarian with the Tennessee Department of Agriculture. He says everyone in the family has a role, but they all wear whatever hat is needed at the time. Jim is the farm manager; sister Lucy and her daughter Jessica help with the store and inventory; Charles Jr. is the milkman and delivery man between classes at MTSU; Charlie’s wife, Sharon, is the store manager; and Jennifer manages the veterinary clinic.
While Charlie laughs that the “homework” is about to kill them, Jennifer doesn’t hesitate when asked if there is too much family time. “Of course, everyone from a big family knows that,” she laughs. “But it’s also a blessing. I’m so grateful I don’t have to drive into town to work, and it’s nice to know I can call on family down the road when I need help.” She adds that, being family, everyone is right and no one is ever wrong. “You have your own opinions, but you sit down and talk about it and handle it like a democracy, and it works out.”
The only time the Hatchers aren’t doing their “homework” is when they are out of town or can’t get out of bed. But that’s part of their heritage. “It’s a beautiful thing when you can make your living and not leave the farm,” says Charlie. “We have the vet clinic here; we treat farm animals and provide a service to the community. If we didn’t want to, we wouldn’t have to leave the farm and still be able to make a living. It’s a beautiful thing.”