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Red Barn Milk Company brings bottling back to New Jersey

Tamara Scully for Progressive Dairyman Published on 19 April 2018
cows in pasture

Being the first farmer in New Jersey to begin bottling fluid milk for direct sales, bringing bottling back to the state after a decade-long absence, is quite the accomplishment for young dairy farmer Jared Weeks. Weeks, along with his wife, Treacy, owns Hun-Val Dairy in Hunterdon County. The dairy began bottling their own fluid milk in 2015 and expanded into ice cream, exclusively made with milk from their herd.

The farm’s bottling operation is outsourced. They send their milk out to a small Pennsylvania creamery, and their own milk is pasteurized and bottled and returned to them for sales. They then take their own fluid milk and make the ice cream themselves, on-site at the Red Barn Milk Co., the ice cream parlor and local food café, which the Weekses, along with their business partners, Robin and Jon McConaughy of nearby Double Brook Farms, co-own. Eventually they plan on processing the milk here too.

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The majority of the milk made by the Weekses’ 45-cow milking herd of registered Brown Swiss and Holsteins is sold to Readington Farms. Weeks appreciates the reliability of the milk being picked up regularly and consistently by the processor, and he plans to continue this relationship alongside his own fluid milk and dairy product sales.

“I could process a lot more and sell a lot more. The customer base is there. The demand is there. But Readington Farms has been very fair,” Weeks says. “They legitimately care about their producers,” and retaining this relationship is important to the health of his dairy.

But in order to run a profitable business, direct marketing milk and dairy products seemed to be a necessity. Weeks lucked into finding a processor willing to accept small batches of milk. To get the milk to the plant, he loads the milk from the dairy bulk tank into a bulk tank mounted on a trailer.

Jared and Treacy Weeks

Building the herd

Weeks gained experience working on a dairy farm as a teenager and fell in love with the cows. He purchased a few cows, and “it grew a little bit too large to be a hobby anymore,” he said. In 2006, he officially established the Hun-Val dairy herd, renting a barn and beginning his dairying career just one year out of high school.

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“I’m a cow man. I like breeding registered cows,” Weeks says. “I breed for type and feed for production and components. We produce everything on-farm for the corn-silage based diet.”

Animals are also fed roasted corn, soybeans, haylage and dry hay in the total mixed ration, all grown on 250 acres of land. The herd is milked twice per day in a tiestall barn with mattresses and tunnel ventilation. The herd is pastured as much as possible, but with only 25 acres of pasture, it’s not enough for a grass-based herd.

“Cows do the best when they’re outside. You need a lot of acres to do that correctly,” Weeks says. “We pasture as much as we possibly can.”

The rest of the 150-head herd is located in a second, newly built compost-bedded pack barn, where youngstock and bred heifers are housed. The manure and bedding is aerated regularly and ultimately spread onto the fields. This barn, designed by Weeks, also has 30 freestalls for dry cows, bedded with mattresses.

“It’s been a huge asset to my operation,” he says. They do not have to haul manure daily as they do with the tiestall facility.

With loans from farm lenders, land available in Treacy’s family and assistance from North Jersey Resource, Conservation and Development, the Weekses feel fortunate to have been able to build the new barn.

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“In this day and age, for a first-generation dairy farmer … I’m not sure you can really make it,” Weeks says. “It’s a tough scenario with the cash flow. It’s too volatile for me to be able to ride the wave with any kind of confidence,” and capturing value by bottling their own milk lends some stability, despite the challenges.

Hun-Val cheese

Direct marketing

“People are creatures of habit. They may not want to make a special stop at the farm or one of my retailers,” Weeks says. “But as we get product out there, people realize that it’s definitely different than what you’re getting in a store.”

The milk here is non-homogenized. Educating consumers about the cream on top is a part of the process. Many consumers have reported back to Weeks that they can drink the non-homogenized milk without digestive upset.

Sold self-serve from a small stand on the farm, as well as through other select local retailers, fluid milk sales have begun to catch on, primarily by word of mouth. Aside from a few articles in local newspapers, and a Facebook page, Hun-Val hasn’t done any advertising.

“We value the milk as a premium product. We go through a lot of extra steps to ensure quality and consistency,” Weeks says. “If people are going to go through the extra effort, I don’t want to give them something that they can go to the grocery store and get. We just want to give them the best product that we possibly can.”

Finding the right price point to make this profitable, while allowing for the additional costs involved in transporting, processing and bottling the milk, has been the most difficult part of the process. They know that some customers won’t or can’t purchase the product due to the price difference from grocery store milk. The milk’s retail price is in the range of $4 per half-gallon and varies somewhat according to conventional milk market pricing.

They do make chocolate milk, but don’t offer anything else besides whole milk, just as it comes from the cow. A cheesemaker produces cheese from the milk too, which is sold under the Hun-Val label.

Red Barn Milk Co. ice cream

Adding value

While bottling milk adds value, making your own ice cream from your own fluid milk adds more. And ice cream sales bring in the customers. Through the Red Barn Milk Co., the Weekses take their milk and turn it into ice cream, both hard and soft serve. They don’t use any premix, even for the soft serve. If stabilizer is needed, it is used in the smallest quantity possible. It’s a quality product, kept as natural as possible.

They offer nine flavors, plus seasonal ones that alternate. Pints and quarts to go, as well as cones, cups, sundaes, milkshakes and floats, are available. But the Red Barn Milk Co. sells local food, not just ice cream. Double Brook Farms supplies the pastured pork and beef for the burgers, brats, hot dogs and more.

Weeks is not shy about sharing his experience being the first dairy farmer to begin to bottle milk in New Jersey again. He offered his best insight for those wishing to explore this option.

“It’s not a lifesaver. It’s maybe a life preserver.”  end mark

Learn more at Hun-Val Dairy’s Facebook page and Red Barn Milk Co.’s Facebook page.

Tamara Scully, a freelance writer based in northwestern New Jersey, specializes in agricultural and food system topics.

PHOTO 1: Jared Weeks says they pasture their herd of Holstein and Brown Swiss cows “as much as we possibly can.” Photo provided by Jared Weeks.

PHOTO 2: Jared and Treacy Weeks established Hun-Val Dairy in 2006 and began bottling milk in 2015. Photo by Karin Belgrave, provided by Jared Weeks.

PHOTO 3: A local cheesemaker produces cheese made with milk from the Weekses’ herd, and it is sold under the Hun-Val label. Photo provided by Jared Weeks.

PHOTO 4: Through the Red Barn Milk Co., the Weekses make both hard- and soft-serve ice cream. Photo courtesy of Red Barn Milk Co.

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