All milk is not created equally. So says Sam Simon, who ditched his career as a successful orthopedic surgeon to start Plankenhorn Farm, a small farm that produces what he calls premium quality dairy products.
It’s not exactly the most lucrative career pursuit. In the last 30 years, New York State has lost 75% of its dairy farms. With low milk prices, high production costs, and competition from industrialized farming, farm after farm has shuttered. New York still ranks third in the country for milk production, but it’s being produced on larger, increasingly more productive farms.
A handful of innovative small farmers think they have found a way to keep the family farm in business. In this food video, we profile two pioneering producers: Hudson Valley Fresh, a cooperative of nine small dairy farms started by Sam Simon; and Ronnybrook, a second generation family farm in Columbia County run by Ronny Osofsky.
Both operations have bet on two things: that the New York market would be interested in locally-produced, high quality dairy products, and that, by changing the business model of dairy farming, they could keep small family farms afloat.
Pioneer Ronnybrook Taps the New York Market
Ronnybrook Farm paved the way in the 90s when it began delivering its rich, creamy milk in old skool glass bottles to New York City’s Greenmarkets.
Ronny Osofsky—a second-generation farmer for whom the farm was named—figured that instead of watching his parent’s farm go out of business, he would change it by diversifying.
In a classic case of supply and demand, he gave New Yorkers what they wanted: artisanal dairy products with good packaging and a great story. Ronnybrook started with just small amounts of whole milk, skim milk, and heavy cream, but now sells small-batch ice cream, yogurt, butter, cheese, and crème fraiche. The milk, is described as “creamline”: because it is not homogenized, the cream rises to the top. It tastes decadent, more rich and complex than regular milk. People often say it reminds them of ”the way milk used to taste.”
In the last twenty years, the farm’s been so successful, that it’s almost impossible to go to any specialty food store or farmers’ market in New York City and not see their products, which fly off the shelves.
Ronnybrook now produces more than 5,000,000 pounds of milk a year for products that go to over 300 stores and farmers markets. The farm is a local pioneer that paved the way for other premium dairies.
A New Model of Farming
Sam Simon, who grew up on a dairy farm in Middletown, NY, founded Plankenhorn Farms in 1999, when he was 53 years old, mostly as a hobby farm. It didn’t take long for him to realize the plight of the modern dairy: farmers are often paid less for milk than it costs to produce it.
“The farmers that are in this area were receiving a non-sustainable wage, specifically 14 cents a pound for milk that was costing 18 cents a pound to produce,” Simon says. He founded Hudson Valley Fresh Cooperative to help secure living wages for small farmers, and to preserve rapidly disappearing farmland.
Hudson Valley Fresh and Ronnybrook Farm are producer-dealers: eschewing the normal milk system and its fluctuating milk prices, these operations process, price, distribute, and market the product themselves.
By charging a bit more for high quality milk, and cutting out the middleman, this system is putting more money in the farmers’ pockets. It also promises a more consistent, traceable, and higher quality product than conventional milk.
Happy Cows Make Better Milk
Both Ronnybrook and Hudson Valley Fresh produce what they call premium milk products. According to these farmers, happy cows make healthy cows, which in the end makes better tasting milk.
Both farms like to brag about how well they treat their animals: all cows have access to fresh water, pasture, and outdoor exercise, roomy digs, and let’s not forget the “cow mattresses,” which makes sleeping more comfy. Both provide a varied diet that’s rich in hay, which Simon claims boosts a cow’s immune system, and makes its milk frothier.
Industrial and organic milk is often ultra-pasteurized, which means the milk is heated to a high temperature, which extends its shelf life. Both Ronnybrook and Hudson Valley Fresh use low level pasteurizing—which they claim helps milk retain more flavor.
Neither use rBST hormones to stimulate milk production, and both cite low levels of bacteria and somatic cell count—quality measurements—that are well below federal standards. Yet neither operation has sought official organic labeling, which they say is expensive and unnecessary, even though both have practices and standards in line with or above organic requirements.
Ronnybrook and Hudson Valley Fresh promote traceability and hyper-locality. Most conventional milk that’s sold under a brand name is actually mixed together from hundreds of dairy farms. Milk purchased under the Hudson Valley Fresh or Ronnybrook labels can be traced back to the specific farm from which it came. The farms are located less than 100 miles from the customer, so the milk is fresher, traveling only short distances to get from farm to table. Hudson Valley Fresh’s motto: 36 hours from cow to customer.
Not All Roses
Despite their successes, it’s not all rosy: even for a larger, most established venture like Ronnybrook, dairy is a tough business. The farm is making a small profit, but cash flow for things like packaging or equipment can be tough to come by. Ronny’s advice? Don’t get into dairy. Or, if you do, get into more than just dairy. He sees diversification—selling not just dairy but other products like vegetables, flowers, or feed—as the way to stay afloat.
Yet, small producer-dealers like Evans Farmhouse Creamery and Battenkill Valley Creamery continue to pop up, and Ghent-based biodynamic dairy Milk Thistle Farm just secured $1.6 million in investment funding to build an LEED-certified organic processing plant, an encouraging sign for small dairy farming. Artisanal dairies like these may not be the fix-all solution to a broken dairy system, but they’re keeping many small farms in business, preserving thousands of acres of farmland, and providing the public with high quality, delicious, and sustainable local milk.
You can buy Ronnybrook and Hudson Valley Fresh dairy products at Whole Foods, NYC Greenmarkets, and specialty food stores across the New York region. We love Hudson Valley Fresh milk-based ricotta from Salvatore Bklyn, and we can rarely resist a scoop of Ronnybrook’s “Supreme Premium” ice cream, which you can get at Chelsea Market’s Ronnybrook Milk Bar.