"Buy Local." "Buy direct from the farmer." "Whatever you do, don't buy from Walmart."
This is what we've been hearing on the street, social media, and more as Walmart's vertical integration of milk has made ripples & waves among dairy farmers and consumers.
That means we get the question - "Where can I buy your milk?" But the real question that's being asked is "How can I support farmers, especially family farms?"
For the few farms that both milk the cows & bottle the milk right there on their farm, you can buy milk at their farm stand and sometimes in the local grocery story. And if that works for you, it's great for you & for that local farmer.
But honestly that might not be the way a lot of us shop. I understand, I'm a busy mom and can't stop at every little farm stand. I've got a schedule and it's full - I just need to pick up all of our food for the week during my once a week grocery shopping trip.
So where then can you buy the milk that our cows make so you can support our family's farm?
Well, since we don't bottle our own milk or have the expertise to turn it into cheese or ice cream or cream cheese, we've joined with other family farmers and together have hired folks who are experts in those areas to take the milk from our cows and get it to your local grocery store shelf (or restaurant or school as lots of food ends up there too!).
We're part of Prairie Farms as members owners. After #DairymanDan feeds & cares for our cows & Rita the robot milks them, Luke, our milk truck driver comes & picks up the milk and usually brings it (along with milk from other neighboring farms) to a cheese plant in Luana to be made into Swiss Cheese & Cream Cheese.
But I'm grabbing a gallon of milk, not Swiss cheese...
Yes, that's right but if you're picking up a gallon of Prairie Farms milk it means it's made from milk that comes from our friend Jason's cows, for example. He lives nearer the plant that bottles Prairie Farms milk in Dubuque so his milk truck driver usually takes his milk to that plant. Since we work together you're helping us both (along with all the other family farms that are part of Prairie Farms). It doesn't matter if you buy a gallon of Prairie Farms milk (or their many other products) or a block of Swiss Valley Cheese (which isn't Prairie Farms branded but is made by Prairie Farms).
Throughout the United States there are many dairy farmer owned cooperatives that sell products in your local grocery store, sometimes branded the same as their cooperative name sometimes branded differently. Do you know other dairy cooperatives in other areas of the country? What brand should you look for in the store near you to help those dairy farmers?
Some other brands, like A&E or Blue Bunny (and even Great Value Walmart milk) here in Iowa, are milk processors that buy milk from individual dairy farmers and although they have contracts, unfortunately if A&E or Blue Bunny decides they don't need the milk that a farmer produces they can not renew the contract & stop buying that farmers' milk. When dairy farmers own the cooperative, that can't happen because the dairy farmers & the board they elect are in control.
Is there anything else I can do?
The most important thing is to eat dairy foods! In reality 97% of dairy farms are family owned & ultimately even that Great Value Walmart milk likely comes from a family dairy farm. To support our family specifically, buy Prairie Farms products whenever you can!
If you just want to make sure that you're buying local milk and milk products you can check the number on the package and if it starts with a "19" it means it was packaged & made into cheese or butter or some other dairy product at a plant in Iowa! At "Where is my milk from?" you can even enter that plant number & find out specifically where it was packaged!
One more way to help is to donate to the Great American Milk Drive who donates milk to your local food pantry. If you shop at Hy-Vee in the Midwest just tell the cashier to add an extra gallon to your bill when you check out!
Thanks for caring about family farms & making choices with your wallet. It's easy to pick up the loss leader $1.48 gallon of milk (I know because I'm so tempted too!) & if buying that means your family can enjoy more dairy products than go ahead & grab it. But we, as Prairie Farms farmers owners, would love for you to enjoy Prairie Farms products & support us in the process! Thank you!
P.S. If you want to know more about how we're part of a dairy cooperative check out this post!
UPDATE: Since the writing of this post, the farmers of Swiss Valley Farms & Prairie Farms, voted to merge their dairy cooperatives, which means that we're now part of the cheese division of Prairie Farms. The principals of a dairy cooperative still stand true & we're looking forward to the opportunities that the merger will provide for us, the the dairy farmers.
So I grew up thinking that a coop was a place that you could buy organic local food in bulk because that's what my experience was and although that's true and there's plenty of coops like that out there, a coop, or a cooperative, really just means that a group of people have come together to cooperate on something and they legally form a cooperative.
So we've joined with other farmers to pool our milk together and then hire other people to take it from there! Because once our milk leaves the farm someone else has to take over in their specialty area from processing the milk into the many yummy dairy foods to marketing & selling those products both locally & globally!
What happens to our milk once we've milked the cows is one of the top questions we get asked. The simple answer? As member-owners our milk goes to Swiss Valley Farms. But you might have a few more questions... so read on!
What would your other options be if you weren't part of Swiss Valley Farms?
1) We could process it ourselves, which some people like Hansen's do but that would mean that we'd need to have some additional expertise & the machines/supplies necessary to pasteurize, make cheese, yogurt, ice cream, etc. which would take time away from caring for our cows.
2) We could also sell it on the open market to whichever milk plant, like Blue Bunny, needs or wants milk and then figure out how to get it there, again taking time away from caring for our cows, which is our specialty.
But does being part of a dairy cooperative really give you any advantages?
Yup! Here's at least three great reasons!
1. Farm to Table... and Beyond! We get tell you where our milk usually goes and what it gets made into and I think that's great because if you really want you can follow your food from Farm to Table, which is quite popular these days. Typically after our milk hauler picks up our milk along with other farms in the area, it gets taken to a cheese plant in Luana, Iowa. There's a wide variety of cheese that it can become from there, our favorite is the Swiss, because you can try it yourself by purchasing some here!
But not all of our milk ends up on tables in the USA, some of it gets made into cream cheese that ends up in cheesecakes halfway around the world in Asia! And that's pretty amazing to me, since on our own we'd never be able to make our milk into Swiss cheese for your table or into cream cheese and then figure out how to get it to Asia! Swiss Valley was even recognized this year as the 2016 Dairy Exporter of the Year by the US Dairy Export Council! Watch a video about it here!
And there's even a plant in Rochester, MN that makes processed cheese that ends up being used in all sorts of things like Goldfish or Cheez-its... yup there's real cheese in those crackers!
2. Learning & Training Being part of a dairy cooperative also gives us on-going learning & networking opportunities in and out of Swiss Valley Farms. As young farmers we have the opportunity to get together with other "Young Cooperators" each spring for 2 days of learning from Dairy Extension Staff and consultants, discussing what's happening within the cooperative, touring a farm or one our cheese plants, and having a little fun getaway from our 24/7 lives as dairy farmers!
Every year 2 couples get chosen to represent Swiss Valley Farms at the National Milk Producers Federation's Annual Meeting with other Young Cooperators from around the country. We were blessed to have been chosen a few years back. We learned a lot, met some great people, and had fun!
But there's even little things that have their advantages, like the monthly newsletter we get that highlights what's happening in the various cheese plants, awards that our cheeses' have won, and accomplishments & articles about other farmers, and more.
3. Market Protection Lastly and probably the biggest reason a lot of dairy farmers are part of dairy cooperatives is that part of being a member-owner ensures that Swiss Valley Farms will always give our milk a place to go to be processed and sent into the marketplace. When milk supply far exceeds demand for dairy products and the price we get paid for our milk is low the first milk that Swiss Valley Farms uses in it's products is milk from it's farmer owners, like us.
If we were selling our milk on the open market and trying to find the milk processor that would pay us the most for our milk, at times when the market is down, we'd get a lot less. We may miss out on the highest of high prices but we also are protected from the lowest prices or even not having anyone who wanted to buy our cow's milk at all, which sadly can happen.
Along those same lines, being part owner's of a company that makes our cows' milk into cheese adds value to our cow's milk because cheese has a much longer shelf life and is a much more unique product than milk on it's own.
Isn't that complicated? All that milk and all those plants?
Yes, it takes a lot of work and people to get the milk from our farm to the local grocery store shelf or half-way around the world for Asian cheesecakes! Milk is perishable so it has to stay cool & travel quickly & efficiently and we don't want it making any unnecessary trips!
Swiss Valley Farms has a great team of folks who communicates between each of the cheese plants about how much milk they need and the many milk haulers who pick up milk from Swiss Valley farmers 365 days a year! Cows make milk everyday which means the cheese plants have to be making cheese everyday too! Weather, natural disasters, equipment malfunctioning, customer purchasing and a variety of other factors can come up and milk has to be redirected to fill needs or find a processing home. It can get complicated!
Milk is perishable and typically spends less than 24 hours in the HUGE stainless steel food grade milk silos at the processing plants. Milk travels incredible quickly & efficiently thanks to the hard work of the many logistic teams at all the different milk cooperatives & companies in the US.
So, How big is Swiss Valley Farms?
Swiss Valley Farms has farmer member owners in 4 upper-midwest states that all come together at their corners - Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota so although milk doesn't actually travel very far from farm to processing plant it can cross state lines! Of the over 500 dairy farmers who are member-owners of Swiss Valley Farms, each of their farms is a little different - that's the beauty of dairy farming! Some are smaller and some are bigger; some milk their cows in tie-stalls & others have robots milk their cows; some cows spend all summer on pasture while others stay in the shade of the barn with big fans (like our gals!) and a whole lot of other variables!
Yeah, but do the farmers actually have decision making power?
While I can't vouch for every dairy cooperative at Swiss Valley Farms, yes they do or I should say they can, if they want to be involved. Every district elects a director who together make up the board of directors who meets at least monthly with the management team that they've hired to make decisions in the cooperative. And each district also has representatives that meet to discuss cooperative issues. My mother-in-law, Pam, served on the board for 26 years, the last 8 of which she was the Chairman of the Board. I can vouch that as Chair she typically had weekly conference calls with the CEO and vice-chair, talked with farmers in her district, and consulted with other district directors about the ins and outs of cooperative business. Is it easy to represent a diverse group of dairy farmers? Not always (is it ever really easy to cooperate?) but together we can do so much more than we could on our own and dairy cooperatives truly allow smaller farms to continue to survive as economies of scale push most every industry to grow & expand.
What about other dairy cooperatives? Are there more?
Yup! You may have heard of them. Dan's aunt & uncle are part of AMPI (Associated Milk Producers Inc.), and I since grew up in the Twin Cities in Minnesota Kemps & Land O' Lakes are the dairy cooperatives I grew up with. And don't forget Cabot Cheese out in Vermont and lots of other dairy cooperatives throughout the country. The amazing thing about being an American dairy farmer is that I have options, a lot of options, about which other farmers I join to help make our cows' milk into cheese, yogurt, ice cream, cottage cheese, chocolate milk, and more!
And Guess What???
And it just so happens that October is National Co-op Month. Did you know that in the United States there are more than 29,000 cooperatives that serve 350 million people? Maybe you're even included in that number... what kind of cooperative are you part of? Electric, Dairy, Grocery, Credit Union, Health Care... there's a lot of options!
Let me know in the comments!
So last week we covered our mission – Develop. Milk. Bless. Another thing “they”, those experts, say is important to define is your values - why you do what you do, what's important to you, those types of things. So today you'll learn a little more about us and our values.
Family relationships - working together & having fun together.
One of our favorite things about being dairy farmers is that our kids, currently a 4 year old girl, Miss Muffet, and a 2 year old boy, Buddy Boy, can work alongside of us. They both love the cows and Miss Muffet gives great tours, knows most of the calves' names, and loves feeding the calves. We want them to learn life lessons and values from us and love that dairy farming allows us to do that!
Plus, we get to work with Dan's grandparents and parents on a regular basis, making decisions, caring for the cows, and having fun. Lynn's parent's get involved too - from energy efficiency engineering to design work, everyone gets a chance to participate together and we LOVE that!
People living to the fullest expressions of their passions.
We're passionate about a lot of things and owning operating our own dairy farm allows us to live those out everyday! We love Jesus. We love our family. We love dairy cattle. We love our community. We love the many cultures of the world. We love people and hospitality. And hey, we love milk, that's how we met... but that's a story for another day.
Developing and managing cows that thrive: producing quality milk with high levels of fat and protein with great feet, legs and udders, enjoying many years in our care.
Plus, ya know what, one of my favorite things about being a dairy farmer is that we name our cows and they become like family. Healthy thriving cows can be in our herd “family” for 8 years or more, which means we get to know them and their personalities!
Milk as a great source of nutrition for fueling life.
And know what, it's really, really good for you too! Of course, everyone knows milk has calcium but did you know it's also full of protein, Vitamin D, potassium, magnesium, and more vitamins and nutrients. We love that we help our cows produce something that's so good for people!
Using our resources to be a blessing to others around us.
That's what's important to us. These are the values that get us out of bed each morning. They give us purpose and direction each day. What's important to you?
Since we've launched our website and Facebook page with a bang, thanks to all of our family & friends who are excited about New Day Dairy, I'm launching our blog earlier than expected! Right now you only have little bits and pieces about New Day Dairy and what we're going to do, but hopefully that picture will be filled out in weeks & months ahead as you follow along on our journey. Today I'm sharing a slightly edited version of the Executive Summary of our Business Plan.
New Day Dairy is a new farm on a new building site that is a spin-off of the existing 125 year old Bolin dairy farm. Our mission is to develop, milk, and bless both our cows and people. As Penn State University Site Evaluation for Dairy System states, we believe that “planning our investments to allow us to build toward our future, not just spend more money on continuing the past” will allow our farm to not just survive but thrive through another 125 years.
The global consumers of food continue to increase and are continually desiring more nutrient-dense, quality food sources. Milk and dairy products are a vital part of the this future food movement. New Day Dairy, LLC is moving along with the future of animal care and food production by embracing new technologies and combining those with established best practices for cow care and management. As a cooperative member of Swiss Valley Farms, our quality fresh milk will be processed into various products, most notably fine cheeses, that are marketed locally, regionally and increasingly globally.
Prices received for our milk have in recent history covered the extreme range of high and low. Input costs as well undergo major fluctuations. Entering 2015, margins are expected to be narrow for dairies, yet New Day Dairy, LLC believes in the long-term value of milk and is confident in its ability to be a “top-tier” dairy prepared to persevere though the swells and troughs of the markets.
Partnered together in New Day Dairy, LLC, Dan Bolin and Pete Jensen (Dan's grandpa) along with Dan's parents, Dave & Pam Bolin, offer a full spectrum of talent and experience that will serve this dairy well in a challenging, yet rewarding industry.
The nucleus of the milking herd will be brought from the Bolin's current dairy farm, Beaver Creek Farm. The current facility at Beaver Creek is where the replacement heifers will be housed for the first few years of establishment.
Another exciting opportunity for New Day Dairy is the growing agrotourism sector. Our barn will feature viewing into the barn from an attached office, hospitality, and living area. Maintaining a connection between consumers and the source of their food is the responsibility of all dairy farmers and we feel we're positioned to do that well in our new barn.
New Day Dairy is poised to continue, and improve upon, a family dairy tradition by utilizing the tool of automatic milking, focusing on top-quality care and management for developing productive, profitable cows, and embracing the value of relationships.
So hopefully that gives you a better understanding of what New Day Dairy is all about! Questions? Let us know and we'll answer them as we go!
Growing up a city-girl, after marrying my dairy farmer husband and spending a few years abroad, we came home to expand the family dairy farm and want to share our journey & farm life with you!