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Imbibe Magazine - The Milky Way by Hannah Wallace

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It's not as easy being a dairy farmer—especially these days. Over the past decade, the number of dairies in the United States has plummeted by 30 percent. Many of the 21,044 dairies that have gone out of business since 2003 sold their milk to the commodity market, which—depending on the year—can pay farmers as little as $1 per gallon. At that price, and with farmers’costs rising every year, it’s a wonder any dairy makes a pro!t. But a handful of dairy farmers have opted out of this byzantine system, producing high-quality milk from their own herds and selling it directly to consumers.

These family-run dairies are !nding a growing fan base, which more than ever before is willing to pay a little extra for milk that tastes amazing, is often organic, non-homogenized, and from grass-fed cows, and is often only sold locally— proof that sometimes returning to an old-fashioned, regional food system may be the best way to save the (dairy) farm.

Five Generations & Counting

Seth McEachron is an anomaly: a !fth-generation dairy farmer with a promising future. In 1945, when his grandfather moved the family dairy to its current location in Salem, New York, Battenkill Valley Farm had 12 cows. Today, the McEachron family manages and milks a herd of 370 Holsteins, Jerseys and Jersey-Holstein cross-breeds at its Battenkill Valley Farm. Their half & half and milk—whole, cream top, 2 percent and skim—is not only sold at grocery stores and cafés across New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, but is on the menu at some of Manhattan’s !nest restaurants, including Gramercy Tavern and Eleven Madison Park. It’s also on the shelves at high-end Manhattan groceries, such as Eataly and Blue Ribbon Market.

Success for Battenkill Valley Creamery has not come easily, though. Like most small, family-run dairies in America, Battenkill used to sell its milk to giant processors at commodity prices, which—in a bad year—could be as low as $1 a gallon. (These processors “co-mingle” milk from hundreds of dairies and then bottle, label, and distribute it all across the country.) In 2007, tired of weathering the highs and lows of the commodity market, McEachron and his father, Don, began constructing a bottling facility on their farm. “We didn’t want to keep getting bigger and bigger to gain the economies of scale needed to survive the extremely low prices [of the commodity market], which seem to come every three years,” says McEachron.

Now that they bottle their own milk, the McEachrons can sell directly to consumers at a stable price. In upstate New York, that means $2.75 for a half-gallon and around $4 for a gallon— prices consumers seem more than willing to pay. (In New York City, at the upscale food emporium Eataly, Battenkill’s milk has topped $7 a gallon.) Unlike industrial dairies, they also have complete control over the quality of their milk. Battenkill is a single-source dairy—the McEachrons raise all the forages for the cows, get milk from only their herd, and bottle on the far —and discerning customers appreciate that transparency. They also like the creamy mouthfeel of the milk, which— thanks to the Jerseys in the herd—has a butterfat content of 4 to 4.2 percent. (The industry standard for whole milk is 3.25 percent.) 

Interest in local foods from family-run farms has certainly helped Battenkill Valley succeed. But McEachron credits New York City’s vanguard of third-wave coffee shops with keeping his family’s dairy solvent. “In the city, 70 percent of our business goes to coffee shops,” says McEachron, whose milk is locally used by Cafe Grumpy, Gimme Coffee, Ost Coffee Bar and Everyman Espresso.

As Sam Penix, owner of Manhattan’s Everyman Espresso puts it, “We’re in an industry that uses a ton of milk.” Penix, who first used McEachron’s milk while making lattes at a Thursday-Night Throwdown (an informal NYC barista competition), goes through nearly 10 gallons of whole milk a day at just one café. ("at doesn’t include skim and half & half.) Penix has led blind milk tastings with his baristas and says there’s no contest: Battenkill always wins. “It’s really malty and sweet and buttery,” says Penix, who now has two locations—one on East 13th and another in Soho. “It pairs really well with the coffee. Yet it’s not outrageously sweet or earthy, so it doesn’t compete with the flavors of the coffee.”

Penix loves that his customers get not only the highest-quality milk in the area, but that it’s also ultra-fresh. “The milk we get on Friday was bottled that Thursday. Fresh from the cows!” says Penix.

By Their Bootstraps

The de Jong family of Working Cows Dairy in Slocomb, Alabama, was once beholden to the commodity market, too. But in 2006, they decided to work towards organic certifcation—a three-year process that requires the pasture be free of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides and forbids the use of antibiotics or growth hormones. “We basically had the organic mindset already,” says Jonny de Jong, the eldest of three sons who now help run the dairy.

Going organic would allow the family to escape the vicissitudes of the commodity market because they could sell their (organic) raw milk for a premium to Horizon Organic. But after a year of working with Horizon (owned by dairy conglomerate Dean Foods), the de Jong family chose not to renew their contract. “They were trying to get us down to what they’d pay for conventional milk,” says de Jong. “That just wasn’t feasible.”

The de Jongs—including father Jan and his wife Rinske, who immigrated to the U.S. from Holland in the mid 1980s—were now in possession of the only USDA-certi!ed organic dairy in the Southeastern United States, with no buyer. “We said to one another, ‘You know, it’s time to go crazy or time to shut the doors,’ ” recalls Jonny. 

He and his two younger brothers—Mendy and Ike—wasted no time. They bought equipment and, using their welding expertise, built a milk-processing facility from the ground up. By 2010, they had the first bottles of Working Cows Dairy milk coming off the line. Their milk—whole, 2 percent, 1 percent, skim, chocolate and cream—is available at Whole Foods, Earth Fare and Fresh Markets throughout Alabama, parts of Georgia and the Florida panhandle. (It’s also sold at dozens of mom & pop stores throughout the region.) They’ve also begun a collaboration with an Atlanta coffee roaster, Blue Donkey Coffee, providing milk for a line of bottled iced coffee. Working Cow bottles the co#ee, too, and helps distribute it. (In addition to Whole Foods and Krogers, the coffee is sold at Atlanta-area farmers’markets.)

The transition to single-source dairy has been full of learning curves. The toughest part, says de Jong, has been distribution and marketing—skills that don’t always come naturally to dairy farmers.That means that in addition to bottling the milk, the sons drive the Working Cows delivery truck, distributing milk to area grocery stores. (Luckily, the Birmingham Whole Foods will “pack-haul” their milk to other Whole Foods in the region, but the de Jong brothers still have to drive it 200 miles from the farm to Birmingham.)

But they must be doing something right. Jan de Jong estimates that business is increasing by 10 percent a month. “Every day we get new customers,” he says. Notably, the family is making as much money now with organic milk from 155 cows as they did before, selling milk from a herd of 900 cows to the commodity market. Working Cows milk sells for anywhere from $4.29 $4.69 for a half-gallon to $6.99–$7.39 for a gallon. (Part of the reason the family is reluctant to hire a distributor is because they’d like to keep the price point from creeping even higher.)

The de Jongs get exuberant e-mails from new fans, even from people who say they are lactoseintolerant yet can drink Working Cows’ milk. Their milk may be easier to digest than industrially processed milk both because it’s not homogenized and because it’s “vat-pasteurized.” Vat pasteurization, also called batch pasteurization, heats the milk to145 degrees F (the lowest temperature required by law) for 30 minutes. Most industrially produced milk—particularly organic milk—is pasteurized at 280 degrees F or higher for just two seconds, which not only gives it a longer shelf life but destroys the lactase enzyme, which helps the digestion lactose. “We want to do the least amount of processing, so we can keep the milk as close to its natural state as possible,” says Jonny. The cows, Jerseys and Holsteins, eat grass silage for two months in the winter but graze on fresh pasture the rest of the year. Grazing on grass changes the nutritional quality of the milk. Most industrial dairy cows are fed corn, but grass-fed cows’ milk contains more bene!cial fats such as conjugated linoleic acid, which is an
anti-infammatory, and is being studied as a cancer fighter.

From Farm to Coffee Cup

If you live on the West Coast, you’ve likely seen Straus Family Creamery’s old-fashioned glass bottles at your local Whole Foods or other highend grocer. The company’s rich organic, creamtop milk—which comes in re-usable bottles—is non-homogenized and pasteurized using High Temperature Short Time (that is, it’s heated to 171 degrees F for 18 seconds, then cooled to 40 degrees F.) Also known as flash pasteurization, this method, like the old-fashioned 145-degree F pasteurization for 30 minutes, helps retain the flavor of the milk.

But the dairy’s commitment to environmental principles goes far beyond packaging, which becomes immediately clear when you speak to president Albert Straus. Under Straus’s leadership, the farm became the first organic dairy west of the Mississippi, as well as one of the !rst dairies in the country to install a methane digester, which converts cow manure into electricity. Cow manure generated from the dairy’s herd powers the entire dairy as well as Straus’ electric car. (Half the farm’s hot water use is powered by poop, too.)

Though the initial cost of the methane digester (installed in 2004) was $335,000, that was off-set by matching funds from the California Energy Commission. Straus says it took about five years to recoup his portion of the price. He’s off-setting $4,000 a month total, including what he sells back to the utility.

Straus is the eldest son of Bill and Ellen Straus, who founded the dairy on Northern California’s picturesque Tomales Bay in 1941 with 23 Jersey cows. He studied dairy science at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and returned to the farm in 1977 to join the family business. It was he who, in the early 1990s, led the effort to convert the farm to a fully organic operation. “We hadn’t used any herbicides on our pastures since the mid-’70s,” he says. Still, they had to switch to premium organic feed for a year, while still selling milk to the commodity market. (Though the cows eat mostly grass and silage, 25 percent of their diet is comprised of organic grains, including rye, triticale, $ax meal and wheat.)

Today, Straus Family Farm has 300 cows on its 660 acres, and the dairy contracts with six local family-run dairies for a combined total of 2,000 cows. “We have a very close working relationship with our farms,” say Straus. Each farm is certi!edorganic, and each must verify that all of feed is non-GMO.

In 1994—the same year the dairy was certified as organic—Straus opened a creamery, launching butter, yogurt, sour cream and ice cream. He’s also wisely tapped into the Bay Area’s growing coffee scene. In the summer of 2007, Mark Inman—then executive director of coffee roaster/wholesaler Taylor Maid Farms—approached Straus with a novel idea. They loved his dairy’s cream-top milk—“it had a real sweetness that we didn’t always find in other milk,” says Rob Daly, now Taylor Maid’s executive director—“but it was super-dense and kind of hard
to work with.” (Non-homogenized milk is notorious for not making the “micro-foam” prized by baristas.) Why not create a line of Straus milk that wascustomized for coffee shops?

Though Straus was hesitant to meddle with his flavorful cream-top milk, he saw that Bay Area baristas were starting to seek out locally sourced, organic milks—and he also understood that they didn’t have time to shake each bottle before making a latte. He invited baristas from Taylor Maid, Equator Coffee, Barefoot, Kean Coffee and Ritual to the farm to pull shots and try working around with various samples of Straus milk, each at a slightly different level of homogenization.

Homogenization, a process that crushes milk fat globules into tiny droplets, disrupts the chemical structure of the milk fat. Fans of non-homogenized milk say that homogenization affects the
flavor and makes it harder to digest. But it also provides a more consistent product and an awesome micro-foam.

In a blind test, the baristas chose a lightly homogenized milk that created a perfect foam yet retained the milk’s rich flavor. Straus launched the line—called “Barista Milk”—in September of 2007. (Though he won’t divulge the exact amount of pressure used, Straus says it’s the minimum amount needed to homogenize the milk.) “It’s been a very successful line for us,” says Straus.

Bay Area cafés, such as Four Barrel, Tartine Bakery and Cowgirl Creamery’s Sidekick café in the Ferry Building, all use the milk. Further south, it’s used at Intelligentsia’s Los Angeles locations. Baristas who compete in the World Barista Championship often use the Barista Milk, including Heather Perry, who won 2nd place in 2007. 

Like Battenkill and Working Cow, Straus has no intention of going nationwide. Straus milk is only sold along the West Coast and in Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada; the butter and other dairy products are sold only west of the Rocky Mountains. “Milk is perishable. We want to go back to a food system where dairies are on the regional model,” says Straus. Despite the hit the U.S. dairy industry has taken over the past decade, there are still nearly 50,000 dairy farms in the U.S. right now, and the vast majority sell to the commodity market. Some could follow these three families’ leads and go independent, but it’s expensive to build a bottling facility, and farmers and their families have to quickly learn new bottling, marketing and distribution skills. But as the demand for locally produced, organic, cream-top milk from pastured cows increases, these could be worthwhile risks for more farmers.

For Straus, Working Cow and Battenkill Valley Farm, the question is no longer how to stay afloat but how to manage growth sustainably. “Becoming huge is not our goal—it’s never what we wanted to do,” says Seth McEachron from Battenkill. “Now the biggest challenge is to figure out how to respond when people say, ‘We want you in our store!’ or ‘We want you in our coffee shop!’ ” It’s a good problem to have.