A Year of Idaho Food collaboration between Boise State Public Radio and the Boise Weekly
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“This was formerly the Smith’s Dairy,” says Bill Stoltzfus of the building he bought in 2007, just a block south of Buhl’s town square. “The place had been in the Smith family for 70-some years.”
This modest cream-colored bottling plant and the soft-spoken man who now runs it hardly look like players in a new, national agricultural movement. But they are.
Stoltzfus, a lifelong dairyman, moved to Idaho in 1992 from Pennsylvania’s once pastoral dairy country. He still carries a hint of the rural East in his voice and a lasting love of the small dairy farms that dot his home state.
“We do a non-homogenized whole milk, a 2 percent and a low-fat milk,” Stoltzfus says as he shows me around the pleasantly old-fashioned retail space that fronts his bottling plant. Behind the counter are 24 flavors of homemade ice cream. “We also are planning on trying to get into some cottage cheese and possibly some yogurt and do our own artisan cheese.”
Most modern dairymen have gone a very different route than Stoltzfus. The Idaho dairy industry has grown explosively in the last decade. Fed in part by factory dairies fleeing more tightly regulated places like California, dairy is now Idaho’s No. 1 agricultural industry. But rather than managing small herds and bottling the milk for regional distribution, as Stoltzfus does, the typical Southern Idaho dairyman has turned to the concentrated animal feeding operation, or CAFO, focusing on volume, assembling herds as large as regulations allow (sometimes larger), then selling milk on the notoriously volatile commodity market where it’s largely churned into low-quality, processed cheese destined to anonymously top distant chain store pizzas. Artisan cheese it ain’t.
Although Stoltzfus is quick to point out that he’s not against the choices other dairymen make, his Cloverleaf Creamery is nonetheless part of a small but significant national trend leading away from that highly industrialized dairy model.
Anne Mendelson, author of Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages, is encouraged by this counter-trend toward small, locally focused milk production. She writes that “milk in many ways exemplifies an American love-hate relationship with food” and that modern milk production is “careening down ever more extreme paths with less and less connection to anything recognizable as real milk.”
As we walk from his quaint storefront into a small, spotless bottling plant where glass milk containers rattle along a conveyer belt, Stoltzfus says he believes in real milk.
“Our raw milk comes into the big tank there,” he says, pointing to a stainless steel vat. “And we do not separate our whole milk.” That’s significant.
Modern milk is a study in deconstructionism. Even whole milk is usually separated into its component parts then reassembled as any of the countless variations of milk-like substances that customers now demand: skimmed, non-fat, low fat, 1 percent, 2 percent and what could be, after that industrial disassembly process, only euphemistically described as whole milk. Along the way it’s also pasteurized, homogenized, spiked with vitamins and often other additives like thickeners, emulsifiers, stabilizers and flavor enhancers.
“So by doing the whole milk, just whole milk, we don’t have to do any of that,” says Stoltzfus. Although he pasteurizes all of his milk–and federal regulations require that his separated milk, like 2 percent, are fortified with vitamins–he doesn’t homogenize or otherwise fiddle with his whole milk. The cream even floats to the top. Stoltzfus tries to keep it as simple as the law allows. He even uses those old-fashioned, returnable glass bottles because he believes they make the milk taste better. But it’s not simply a lightly processed product that attracted him to the bottling business.
“Well this is Ashley and Bobby Sue and Dinah,” Stoltzfus says, introducing me to his herd.
Dinah is 13 years old. Lite, the grand elder of the clan, is 14.
“I think the average dairy cow in the country is around 4 years old,” Stoltzfus says.
A growing number of dairy industry critics say factory farms, which frequently manage thousands of animals at a time, often abuse them. A few years ago, one Magic Valley dairy was accused of burying cattle alive. Without question, crowded, manure-slicked factory farms shorten animals’ lives. Stoltzfus says he understands the economic factors that compel fellow dairymen to ever-larger operations, but just hesitates to join them, believing he can better care for his own animals by keeping the herd small. The advanced age of many of his 81 milking cows, unheard of in industrial dairies, is testament to that belief.
“To me, I like the hands-on of the cattle and working with them and all that,” he says as he gives Bobby Sue a pat. “And I never had a desire to manage a lot of employees and large number of cows.”
In contrast, the owner of one of Southern Idaho’s mega-dairies told me he prefers an air-conditioned office to a milking barn, and the division of labor that a large-scale operation demands–the separation of menial work from management–suits him just fine.
Stoltzfus, on the other hand, likes the milking barn. Rather than selling high volumes of raw milk at low prices as an air-conditioned stairway to management, bottling his own milk allows Stoltzfus to charge a stable price that makes sticking close to his cattle possible.
“One of my frustrations with just supplying for the commodity market was the answer to high milk prices was produce more because we’re making money, and the answer to low milk prices was produce more until it gets better. And it’s a continuous, self-defeating deal, and that’s what agriculture has come to,” he says.
Feeling like a slave to the commodity market is hardly an ailment unique to dairymen. It’s the reason cattle ranchers, chicken growers and vegetable farmers have turned toward the local-food movement, farmers markets and direct marketing as a way to capture a fair price for producing a higher quality product than the commodity market can.
Stoltzfus says he’s able to step off the often financially disastrous commodity roller coaster–with its violent ups and downs that have rattled the wallets of Idaho dairymen in recent years–by selling his milk to places like Boise Co-op and M&W Market in Boise, and to small stores in the Magic Valley, Ketchum, Twin Falls and Pocatello.
He has even started growing his own hay to avoid the feed sector’s economic peaks and valleys. This kind of vertically integrated dairy farming–farming from feed to final customer–is both cutting edge and entirely old-fashioned. It also requires expertise much broader than the twice daily milking of cows. It does, however, allow the multifaceted farmer to cut or at least loosen–mixing agricultural metaphors here–that noose-like, commodity-tethered chord.
“You know you kind of isolate yourself from that commodity market controlling what you get and what you do,” Stoltzfus says. “And you develop a relationship right with the consumer instead of anonymous food that shows up on the grocery store shelf.”
To help erase the last speck of lingering mystery, Stoltzfus invites customers out to the farm, something industrial dairies are not as eager to do.
“We have it right on our bottles that our customers are welcome to come see where their milk comes from, and we get quite a few that come here to the plant and out to the dairy.”
Customers get a chance to see the farm, the bottling plant and meet Stoltzfus face to face–and perhaps most importantly, the company’s real milk producers: Ashley, Bobby Sue and Dinah.
Guy Hand is a writer, public radio producer and photographer specializing in food and agriculture.