I have a lifelong love affair with cold milk. I grew up in my grandfather’s ice plant in Ruleville, Mississippi circa 1940’s and we had the only cold storage facility in town. Because we kept all of the local dairy products in our coolers, we had easy access to all of the iced cold milk we wanted. Cloverdale Milk was pasteurized but not homogenized, and when shaken and mixed, it probably ran somewhere around 4% butter fat. It was delightfully creamy.
World War II ended and milk soon began to be mass produced. Dairy cows were bred for increased production, and they were fed all sorts of high yield food and filled with a wide variety of pharmaceutical products. The quality of milk in general decreased dramatically. Milk became a commodity and it suffered the price fluctuations of over-production. I still drank a lot of milk, but I often thought of the high quality products of Cloverdale Dairy. Yet another price we pay for our modern society.
About ten years ago, I bought a gallon of organic milk by mistake, and a new world of milk quality opened up. The 2% organic milk tasted as creamy and rich as the 3.5% regular milk. Yeah, it cost more, but the difference in taste made it worth the premium. I rocked along buying the store brand of organic milk until 2010. We began to shop at Earth Fare in Auburn, and one day I happened to pick up a gallon of Working Cows Dairy’s organic milk.
When I opened the gallon and poured a glass, I was amazed; it tasted just like whole cream. Well guess what, it was a glass of whole cream. Working Cows milk is not homogenized. I shook the balance of the gallon, and it was still richer and creamier than the store organic brand, and it reminded me of those long ago times when we enjoyed the products of Cloverdale Dairy. I wanted to know what made this difference, and here’s what I discovered.
In 1985, Jan and Rinske de Jong came to the U.S. from the Netherlands, where they had been dairy farmers. They indentured themselves to a dairy farmer in Cottondale,Florida, and instead of a salary, they made a deal to use forty acres of his land and access to the milking barn. The couple leased 55 milk cows and worked 20 hours a week.
In 1987 the de Jong’s moved to a new rented location in Grand-Ridge, Florida and milked the 29 cows that they owned. Their three sons were born there, and by 1991 they had built their herd to 220 cows and moved to their present location in Slocomb, Alabama, a small town near Dothan.
For over fifteen years, they followed conventional wisdom and fed their cows supplemental foods designed to increase production, treated the cows with hormones and other drugs to further increase production, and kept the cows confined for efficiency. They were able to compete in the highly competitive and low margin commodity milk business, but could see ever diminishing returns on their investment and labor. They needed a way to differentiate their product from the commodity product, and thus increase their margins. In 2006 they made the decision to go organic.
The act of becoming an organic dairy while still running a commercial dairy required a great deal of patience and attention. The first step was to convert the herd to organically certified cows. That meant that over a two year period, the cows had to be fed only organic feed and treated with organic medicines.
While the de Jongs were converting the herd, they had to convert their fields as well. It takes three years of using no chemicals, pesticides or herbicides to have a field certified organic. This was completed in 2009. The concept of going organic revolved around having the ability to capture a premium price for their products, and to do this they would need their own processing and bottling plant and the infrastructure to distribute the finished product to retail outlets. A large investment but a necessary one.
The de Jong’s knew from experience that modern production methods put an enormous strain on the cows themselves. The average herd had a short productive life, and while the pounds of milk per cow were very high, the animals suffered greatly and died in a few years. It was impossible to produce really high quality milk under these practices. In addition to going organic, they decided to adopt a much more humane and laid-back approach to managing their herd. Their cows are now allowed to roam free in pastures, eat real grass, and the supplemental food is hay, haylage and sea salt minerals.
The free range method of herd management resulted in a decrease of 50% of average production, but the resulting product was of a much higher quality. This reduction in volume would have to be increased by consumer willingness to buy a high quality premium priced product. The de Jong’s felt that the market was there and took the plunge.
In addition to going organic and changing their herd management practices, the de Jong’s made another critical decision. They would use low temperature pasteurization methods, and further increase the quality of their product. By heating the raw milk to the minimum temperature to achieve pasteurization, they are able to preserve the beneficial bacteria in milk and increase its health benefits to humans.
And finally, the family decided to forgo homogenization and sell their milk with the cream on top. This is the product that is sold all over Alabama. I am writing this on a Friday afternoon and Fridays are the day that Working Cows delivers their product to our local Earth Fare Store. Earth Fare is the only outlet for Working Cow in Auburn/Opelika, and I will be leaving as soon as I finish this to buy our week’s supply. If I’m later than 5:00 PM getting there, it will be totally sold out and I’ll have to use the store brand of organic for a week. See you later, I gotta go.
All photos courtesy of Working Cows Dairy