On-farm milk processing, retail sales move this traditional herd into the future
The dairy news these days, unhappily, has all too many examples of multi-generational, traditional-sized dairy farms calling it quits, often under great financial pressure. The Poole and Brown families at Trinity Valley Dairy near Cortland, N.Y. have found a formula to keep this 120-cow herd going strong. On-farm milk processing and an active retail sales program in the farm store and through area supermarkets has made the difference for Ken and Sue Poole and their daughter and son-in-law, Rebekah and Branden Brown.
Five years ago, the two families established Trinity Valley Dairy LLC, putting up a small building and purchasing used processing equipment. Branden, 29, had been an electrician for the railroad while Rebekah, 24, was a registered nurse. No one was interested in expanding the herd to add another family to the business and the rolling hills of the region don’t lend themselves to large-scale dairying anyway. The Poole's continue to work with the cows while the Browns run the processing and retail farm store.
Today, Trinity Valley produces 5200 gallons of milk a week using vat pasteurizers heating the milk to 145 degrees for 30 minutes, which, according the Branden Brown, keeps more of the natural enzymes and flavors, compared with conventional pasteurization at higher temps. The milk is not homogenized so it features a natural cream-line, too. Their approach promotes their grass-fed cows with the herd on pasture from April through November. During the winter the herd is fed non-GMO corn, hay and soybean meal, facts featured prominently in their promotional materials. The farm includes 200 owned acres for pasture and an additional 400 rented for cropland.
The dairy pays the farm $22 per cwt for all the milk processed while the balance is shipped to a local cooperative. The families are optimistic that growth will use more and more of the herd’s production and the co-op is ready to supply even more when that day arrives. Volume has doubled every year and the dairy store turned the corner profit-wise in 2017, year four.
Last year, they began making cheese curds, now producing some 1600 lbs. a week… each pound using a gallon of milk… being sold through the Wegman’s store chain, a popular, high-end East Coast grocer.
A key employee is Dan Sykes, 60, who has a background in dairy processing at Cornell and works four days a week from 1 a.m. until 12 noon. Two other staff work along-side him. Branden does the marketing and sales, delivering the milk to area supermarkets, local stores and even New York City.
The attractive farm store features the full line of their dairy products along with locally grown foods including honey, apples and produce, grass-fed beef, home-made baked goods and natural baking ingredients. Rebekah oversees the store and heads-up the bakery featuring a wide variety of delicious items.
The Browns have an active young family, too, with children Landen, 5, Lillian, 4 and Tanner, 10 months, with another baby due in the new year.
The farm was originally known as the Sunset Young Farm owed by Otis and Hazel Young. It passed to their son, Otis, Jr. and Kathy, one of five brothers who at one time all had farms in the area. In 1987, their daughter Sue and her husband Ken Poole took over the operation and have been there ever since. With Rebekah and Branden entering the business, a new LLC was created for the processing operation with each having a 25% stake. The timing and the method of transitioning the cattle and farming operation is more complex and the family has sought outside guidance for this sometimes challenging process.
Rebekah grew up on the farm and worked with cattle since childhood before going off to college to earn her nursing degree. Branden came from nearby and his farming was learned working for a neighboring crop farm when he sold sweet corn and produce as a youngster… as he says, he feels comfortable working with the public. When Ken and Sue transition to a slower pace, Branden sees robots and a new barn in the future.
This past summer, the Browns created a corn maze which was profitable on its own and attracted many more visitors who purchased items at the store, as well. Making ice cream is on the list of new projects, too. Branden says a key to their business is to always be working on new and innovative promotions and products, while focusing on their Trinity Valley Dairy brand.
-Photos by Roger William Thiese, Roger William Photography, Studio Loft & Gallery, 75 East Court St., Cortland, NY 13045 phone 607.591.0830. More information at https://www.rogerwilliamphotography.com/