By Michael Durante Jr.
How Dairy Should Work
Get yourself in that familiar grocery store decision-making mindset. You are looking at half gallons of whole milk. The prices range from two to five dollars. Every bottle says “fresh” and “natural” and many even say “organic.” All of the bottles depict cows in a pasture. What are you thinking? Are you more of a “How much milk do we have left in the fridge?” shopper, or a “How does this milk affect my carbon footprint and social values?” kind?
The first kind of shopper scoops up the cheapest carton and whistles along, and has probably already skimmed through this article, glancing at the photos. But you, discerning shopper/reader—here is your big tip: look for the green circle with white, all-caps lettering. Hudson Valley Fresh. Modest, yet easily recognized, that green circle is your ticket to milk nirvana. And it usually costs only a few dimes more than the generic stuff. While your hard-earned dimes may be quite important to you, a briefing on Hudson Valley Fresh will surely render the price premium insignificant.
Hudson Valley Fresh milk is locally produced in Dutchess, Columbia and Ulster counties, and processed in Kingston. Their motto, “36 hours from cow to store,” belies belief; estimating food miles for commodity products is nigh impossible in our industrial food system, but most milk—whether conventional or organic—must splash around the better part of a week and travel hundreds of miles before surfacing at your grocer. The dairy farmers behind Hudson Valley Fresh maintain extra-stringent quality standards. Before pasteurizing, fluid milk is tested for somatic cell counts—higher counts indicate sick cows—and raw bacteria counts—higher counts indicate unsanitary practices. Hudson Valley Fresh maintains standards for both counts several times lower than those mandated by law.
Dairy lovers know fat is where it’s at. Hudson Valley Fresh delivers here too. In the US, “whole milk” refers to milk with 3.5 percent fat content. That is hardly “whole fat.” Holstein cows, the black-and-white moos you see most often at American dairies, average 3.5–4 percent fat, while other breeds are significantly higher, with Jerseys topping out at 6–7 percent fat. Milk processors typically only give consumers the minimum fat components required, turning the rest into value-added products like butter, but Hudson Valley Fresh—which counts Holsteins, Jerseys, Guernseys, and Brown Swiss cows among its herds—shares the milkfat spoils with their customers. That makes for a tastier and, in some nutritionists’ opinions, healthier product.
Sam Simon, a retired orthopedic surgeon and Hudson Valley native, grew up on a dairy farm in Orange County. Thank Dr. Simon for Hudson Valley Fresh. After retiring from medical practice in the mid-90s, Simon purchased Plankenhorn Farm in Pleasant Valley from one of his former patients. Cow people tend to have a love for the business bred into them, and Dr. Simon is no different. Only some folks, upon remarking about how hot of a July we’ve had, begin worrying whether they’ll get a third hay cutting.
But nowadays a love or even an aptitude for dairying do not nearly pay the bills on a dairy farm, never mind a salary. Milk is just about your definition commodity product. Cows produce it, you pump it into a tank, then a truck hauls it to a processor, where it is packaged as milk. Some producers are organic, but beyond that there is not much product differentiation in most people’s minds. Commodity producers have no control over their product’s price. It is whatever the market, or the government, or the regional cooperative, says it is. The price is always too low, except when it is high, but then dairy farmers tend to invest and overproduce, and it is too low again. That is no way to run a business.
Sam Simon’s father, Kurt, a cattle dealer in his day, told Sam, “Don’t complain—change.” Dr. Simon remembered. He realized that to have some control over price, he had to control more of the milk supply chain. That meant partnering with a processor, a food factory where milk is pasteurized, bottled and turned into other dairy products like yogurt, butter and ice cream. Boice Brothers Dairy in Kingston, a small hundred-year-old processor, promised to be an ideal partnership if Simon could find enough milk producers to meet their facility’s capacity. At first it proved difficult to find enough top-quality milk supply in the region to make the organization profitable, yet over the years Dr. Simon added nine Hudson Valley dairy farms, and now the group sells over one million pounds of milk monthly.
Watch the Pennies and the Dollars Will Take Care of Themselves.
Milk prices are expressed in hundredweights. As in, one hundred pounds of milk may earn a farmer $15. For conventional dairy farmers, that price fluctuates frequently, making long-term business planning a relative waste of time. About creating Hudson Valley Fresh, Sam Simon said, “I wanted to protect the floor.” The price floor, that is. Hudson Valley Fresh farmers are guaranteed a premium milk price; recently it was $23/hundredweight. In a year like 2016, when the milk price is low, that premium means a great deal to Hudson Valley Fresh farmers. Selling a million pounds of milk monthly with an $8/hundredweight premium equates to $80,000 shared among the farms each month. An extra $10,000 a month is a lot to anyone, and to a dairy farm it might be the difference between survival and bankruptcy.
Simon does not give away premium prices like Halloween candy, however. Hudson Valley Fresh dairies are the best around. Before joining, a dairy must contribute a one-time cash grant, which deters short-term profiteers. Then each dairy must maintain premium-quality standards—low somatic cell and raw bacteria cell counts—in every milking. Hudson Valley Fresh has never had to kick out a farm, which says a lot about their talent as farmers, and also about the risk it is to join a group like theirs. If you want that premium price, you really must commit your whole farm practice to it.
Agriculture, though a notorious low-profit industry, is an economic powerhouse. When agricultural expenses are purchased locally, it can be a huge boon to a region. For example, it is estimated that a milking cow contributes $15,000 to the economy annually. Who cares if the dairy is buying feed, equipment and breeding stock from national supplies? But if these purchases are made locally or produced internally, as Hudson Valley Fresh farmers often do, the economic impact stays local too. Keeping with the $15,000/cow economic impact, Hudson Valley Fresh represents a $30 million contribution, much of it staying right here in the Hudson Valley. Their impact is not just economic. Hudson Valley Fresh farms comprise 8,000 acres of open space. So much beautiful old New York dairy land has become strip malls and McMansions that it would be easy to believe it never even existed. The problem is not just historic. The Hudson Valley has lost 48 percent of its dairy farms since 2002. The best way to reverse this loss is to buy Hudson Valley milk, and make sure those farmers are getting a premium price.
Still Good for Your Bones.
Dr. Sam Simon is a treasure trove of nutrition facts about milk. “Nine essential nutrients in each sip.” Omega-3s, omega-6s, vitamins D and A…the hodgepodge nutrition-label factoids get lost on most. Here’s the skinny: You have your whole childhood to build up calcium stores, and once you grow up, they start to be depleted. Your body needs vitamins D and A to absorb calcium, plus calcium itself. Your body also needs fat along with that vitamin D, since vitamin D is a fat-soluble nutrient. Pop quiz: What food has fat, calcium, vitamin D and vitamin A? You know it’s full-fat whole milk.
Starting in 2013, Dr. Simon got proactive in making sure kids drink their milk. Hudson Valley Fresh partnered with the FarmOn! Foundation to offer subsidized milk to local schools. FarmOn! raises money for schools to pay the small price premium that Hudson Valley Fresh farmers need, and schoolkids benefit from top-quality local milk. Program surveys show that milk consumption in these schools increases by 30 percent. Right now, the FarmOn! Milk Money initiative is active in several schools in Columbia County and is open to expansion.
And for Your Soul.
Hudson Valley Fresh made an outsized impact on one local business. “Cow to cone in three days,” is one way to explain Zoe’s Ice Cream Barn in LaGrangeville. Really, you need know nothing more. Daughter-father duo Katie and Bob Ferris (Bob affectionately calls Katie “Zoe”) started the treats shop in 2014. Bob grew up drinking raw milk on his grandfather’s dairy farm, and as a kid Katie raised sheep for 4-H and ran a sweet-corn stand at the site of her future dairy barn. They sell ice cream sundaes, milkshakes, soft-serve and more, all created exclusively with Hudson Valley Fresh milk. Happy to pay a premium for Hudson Valley Fresh’s ice cream mix, Katie explains that “more fat equals good ice cream.” She even tops every sundae with homemade whipped cream. A cooler by the counter stocks a variety of Hudson Valley Fresh milks, in case your grocery store has not gotten the memo.
Katie and Bob Ferris understand what a dated antifat nutrition fad will not: milk is back. Whole milk. New York residents, even those in the city and Long Island, are lucky to have an ever-present and fresh source of truly local milk: Hudson Valley Fresh. Pour yourself a glass to celebrate.
For more information on Hudson Valley Fresh, visit their website at www.hudsonvalleyfresh.com.