By Michele S. Byers
Dairy farming has always been a tough occupation. Dairy farmers work long days, milking twice a day in all seasons and every kind of weather. There are no weekends or holidays off.
For hundreds of years, dairy farming provided a good living for New Jersey farm families. As recently as the 1950s and 1960s, this state we’re in had more than 500 dairy farms. Local dairies delivered fresh milk directly to customers’ homes, leaving chilled glass bottles in metal boxes next to doorsteps.
But over the last 50 years, this practice disappeared as the dairy farming business grew increasingly industrialized. As part of a nationwide trend, dairy farmers began selling milk to large processing plants, or cooperatives, that pasteurized, homogenized, packaged and distributed the milk.
The changes didn’t turn out well for New Jersey dairy farmers. With milk prices low and land and other costs high, many New Jersey dairy farmers found it impossible to make ends meet.
In the last few decades, the number of dairy farms in New Jersey has plummeted. As of the 2017 U.S. Department of Agriculture census, only 69 remained. Since then, according to state figures, the number has dropped to 43.
But several new initiatives, in part born out of the local foods movement, are encouraging.
Pete Southway, owner of Springhouse Creamery in Sussex County, recently started bottling his own low-temperature pasteurized milk and selling it – at prices he controls – at his preserved farm and in local markets.
“People love it,” he said, noting that the Springhouse Creamery milk is fresher and better-tasting than milk from supermarkets. “This is milk that’s only one day out of the cow. Most commercially produced milk is five to seven days old by the time it reaches the supermarket.”
After years of producing artisanal cheeses, he expanded into milk production to make sure his children can join the family business if they choose. He purchased a high-tech pasteurizer, which heats milk to the lowest temperature permitted under state regulations.
“Milk is actually very fragile,” Southway said. “To preserve the same taste as out of the cow, we process it as little as possible.”
Springhouse also invested in bottling equipment and reusable glass bottles, for which he charges a deposit. The milk is not homogenized, meaning the cream naturally rises to the top … just like in the old days!
Because Springhouse Creamery’s low-temperature pasteurization doesn’t kill the natural lactase enzymes in milk, it’s easier to digest.
“We have a tremendous amount of people who are lactose intolerant and they are amazed they can digest our milk,” Southway said.
Southway uses sustainable farming techniques and steers clear of genetically modified feed.
“We try to give our cows quality feed. I think people appreciate that,” he said.
Southway said his milk has been embraced by the same consumers who buy their fresh vegetables and fruit from local farmers markets, farm stands and Community Supported Agriculture farms. That is, people who want to know where their food comes from and how it’s produced.
As with many local foods, Springhouse Creamery’s milk is more expensive than mass-produced brands.
“I’m not going to tell you our milk is cheap,” said Southway. “We don’t compete with Walmart.”
Despite the higher price, he believes there are enough local food lovers everywhere – not just in New Jersey – to support local dairies.
“I think as long as we deliver what consumers want, a product that’s fresh, wholesome, sustainable and environmentally conscious, the market is huge,” he said.
More help for dairy farmers could come from a bill that would allow limited sales of raw milk in New Jersey.
Proponents of raw milk say it’s more nutritious, easier to digest and more flavorful than pasteurized milk and may protect against childhood asthma, allergies and other immune-related diseases. It’s also in demand by hobbyist cheesemakers. The raw milk bill is currently before the state Assembly’s Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.
Another new initiative that could boost dairy farms is coming from Jon McConaughy, who owns Double Brook Farm, the Brick Farm Market and Brick Farm Tavern, all in Hopewell Township.
McConaughy founded a nonprofit called the Decency Foundation, which aims to offer low-interest, long-term loans to dairy farmers so they can buy equipment to process and bottle their milk on their farms, as Southway does.
” ‘On-farm’ processing makes sense and it’s most evident in the dairy world,” said McConaughy.
The problem, he said, is that many dairy farmers are in such deep financial trouble that they can’t afford to buy the equipment through typical commercial financing.
Like Southway, McConaughy believes in sustainable, environmentally responsible farming and tapping into the local foods movement.
He also sees another untapped New Jersey market: schools.
“There’s a mandate that school programs use New Jersey milk, but right now there is no New Jersey milk” because large processors mix milk from several states, McConaughy said.
If more New Jersey dairy farms process their own milk and sell to schools and institutions, he believes, they can go from losing money to being profitable.
For more information about the Decency Foundation, contact Jon McConaughy at email@example.com
New Jersey’s local foods movement is a powerful force, resulting in an explosion of farmers markets across the state in the past decade. Many local cheesemakers have tapped into it, as have craft brewers and winemakers. Hopefully delicious, fresh-from-the-dairy milk, including raw milk, will help regrow New Jersey’s dairies.
For more information about raw milk, go to the Campaign for Real Milk website at https://www.realmilk.com/
Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Far Hills. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org