Alabama’s first certified organic dairy struggles to stay afloat
By David Haynes
It was a hot south Alabama morning, 10 a.m. and already over 90º F, when Rinske de Jong poured a cup of cold, creamy milk from a gallon jug with a smiling cow on the label.
There in the office of Working Cows Dairy in Slocomb – Alabama’s first certified organic dairy – I had my first taste of real milk. Just as Jan de Jong predicted: “It’s like drinking ice cream.”
The thick, rich milk was cooling, satisfying and refreshing, not at all what I had expected, and I wanted more!
That’s the reaction the de Jongs see from most people who try their Grade A pasteurized organic milk for the first time, and the reaction they’re counting on to be able to continue producing a product that’s unique in this state.
Fortunately for them, most people who try their milk are hooked and come back for more.
This organic milk is much like what people would’ve had 100 years ago on a farm with a milk cow, except that theirs is “low temperature pasteurized,” as required by law. Jan explains that regular milk is pasteurized at a much higher temperature, killing all the bacteria present in the milk. But the low temperature used in the de Jongs process doesn’t kill off all the bacteria in the milk, it retains the “good” bacteria people need in their diets to stay healthy.
And just like in the “good ole days,” the cream rises to the top in this milk, unlike the homogenized store-bought milk that’s most common today.
“You just have to shake the bottle before drinking the milk,” Jan tells me. He explained that in the morning it’s nice to pour some of the still-separated milk into a pitcher and skim off rich, fresh cream for your coffee, just like our grandparents might’ve done.
Aside from its delicious taste, the health benefits for organic milk are its richness in beneficial essential fatty acids, including Omega-3s and Omega-6s, more vitamins and easier digestability. In fact, some of their customers who suffer from lactose intolerance say they can drink this organic milk without problems.
But going organic has been a painful process economically for the dairy, which sits on 500 acres a few miles west of Dothan in southeast Alabama. The dairy has about 450 cattle. Changing from conventional milk production to organic production very nearly bankrupted the family-owned dairy.
“We’ve had to learn a lot of things the hard way,” Jan tells me.
He explains that they made the decision to “go organic” in 2006 after the roller coaster price of milk dropped to the same level it had been 30 years earlier. Producing organic milk was attractive because the price seems to be more stable.
The certification process to be an organic dairy takes three years. Because no chemicals, pesticides, herbicides or commercial fertilizers can be used on the fields where the cattle graze, they used propane burners to burn grass in the fields. Another problem was cows switching to all-organic feed failed to thrive until becoming acclimated to the change, and milk production plummeted. Also, a longworm infestation resulted in several cows dying, and that had to be overcome.
The dairy had signed a contract with national distributor Horizon Organic to deliver organic milk, but due to production shortfall couldn’t produce the minimum required volume.
Jan says that without the help of his two eldest sons working off the farm as welders and his sideline earth-moving and other farm-related businesses, the dream of becoming Alabama’s first certified organic dairy would’ve been lost.
But with this supplemental income they were able to weather the leanest financial times. They put in a small bottling plant and as of May 2010, were selling organic milk from the dairy directly to the public. Outside their office is a cooler filled with gallon jugs and an “honor box” system for the money when no one is around.
They also sell the milk at health food stores in nearby Dothan, in “Vend A Moo” self-contained drive-up kiosks, at farmer’s markets in Montgomery and Dothan and through Grow Alabama, their distributor in north Alabama.
The family is focusing on informing the people of Alabama that their unique milk is available and why it’s worth the premium price. School children often visit the dairy on field trips. The morning I was there a recent young visitor had mailed a note to the dairy with a crayon drawing of cows, thanking them for the milk and cookies sampled by the students during their visit to the dairy.
Jan, a life-long dairy farmer, and Rinske immigrated to the United States from the Netherlands in 1985 and started “Working Cows Dairy” in October of that year in Florida. In 1991 they bought the land where they’re now located and moved the dairy to Alabama. Since coming to the U.S., Jan and Rinske have raised three boys – Jonny, Mendy and Ike – all of whom are involved with the dairy.
For more information on the dairy and availability of Alabama’s only locally produced organic milk, see the dairy’s website at www.workingcowsdairy.com.