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Shoe designers find a win with show cows and dairy processing

Julie Ashton for Progressive Dairyman Published on 19 September 2017
Melaine (EX-96-3E)

From thousand-dollar stilettos to million-dollar cows, George Malkemus and Anthony Yurgaitis have built an empire in the busy streets of New York City and the quaint town of Litchfield, Connecticut.

Arethusa Farm and its subsidiaries are known coast-to-coast, all thanks to these two visionaries. And now, it’s not only their high-end shoes that are sought after but the Jerseys, Holsteins and Brown Swiss cattle they have developed.

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The story of Arethusa Farm begins when Malkemus and Yurgaitis, president and vice president, respectively, of Manolo Blahnik in North and South America, sought quiet from the hustle and bustle of NYC and found refuge in Litchfield.

After doing some research, they learned the open acreage across from their property had once been a dairy and, wanting to preserve its history (and their view), they purchased the historic Arethusa Farm, first established by the Webster family in 1868. What started as five cows roaming the hills has turned into a 300-head dairy farm known throughout the world.

See Arethusa Farm’s diverse operation, champion cows and restaurant in this slideshow.

A show-winning empire

With the hiring of Ernie Kueffner and Terri Packard to manage the herd, the farm was propelled into the world of cows. The 2004 World Dairy Expo was one for the record books when herd matriarchs Hillcroft Leader Melanie (EX-96-3E) and Huronia Centurion Veronica 20J (EX-97) were named Supreme and Reserve Supreme Champion, respectively.

Huronia Centurion Veronica 20J (EX-97)

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This was the first time an exhibitor had won both titles in the same year. This huge success fueled the entire Arethusa team’s enthusiasm for growth.

In 2005, a new state-of-the-art milking facility was built, and the herd grew from 20 to 80 cows. With the introduction of embryo transfer and in vitro fertilization, they began to focus on building and developing their herd even further. Melanie, Veronica and many of their early purchases became the foundation of what the herd is today, which is now almost entirely homebred.

With the development of their herd has come even more success in the show ring and the global marketplace. Veronica has gone on to win two Supreme Champion banners at World Dairy Expo while also becoming a transmitting phenomenon. Arethusa Farm has been named Premier Breeder four times and, in 2010 and 2011, that banner was earned with points only from Veronica descendants.

Veronica is one of the most well-known names in the Jersey breed, with over 15 sons in active A.I. and 25 milking daughters whose average score is “Very Good – 89.” Arethusa Response Vivid (EX-95) is her highest-profile daughter to date, taking Reserve Supreme Champion honors at World Dairy Expo in 2012 and Supreme Champion honors at the Royal Winter Fair in 2014. Vivid is fresh again this year and looks to make a return to the tanbark this fall.

On the Holstein front, Melanie herself is still impacting the herd through her Dundee daughter Mallory (EX-94) with granddaughters by Goldsun and Gold Chip. “They are just great young cows that align with our breeding goals,” comments herd and marketing manager Matt Senecal, who’s been at Arethusa for nearly 10 years.

Senecal has played a key role in continuing to develop the Arethusa brand as it is today and has helped market the genetics they have created. While Malkemus and Yurgaitis take a more hands-off approach to the daily activities, they always have the best interests of the cows and farm at hand. “They’ve built such an elite brand in the fashion industry it’s only natural for them to want the dairy to succeed in the same light as well,” Senecal comments.

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Milk bottling and beyond

One area Malkemus and Yurgaitis did have a specific hand in developing was their farm’s start into niche marketing. While doing research on the original Arethusa Farm, they learned the dairy used to bottle milk for the local community.

When they first purchased the property, they thought they too might process products for their personal enjoyment. However, in 2008, after the farm’s expansion, they decided to take that idea even further and coined the slogan “Milk like it used to taste.”

Initially, they began processing their milk at Fish Family Farm in Bolton but, in 2011, they purchased an old firehouse in Bantam and converted it to a processing facility and retail store. While the dairy isn’t organic, cattle are pasture-grazed during nice weather, and high-quality forages are a main focus. One of the main differences between their milk and that from other processors is the pasteurization process.

The plant uses state-of-the-art equipment in conjunction with the age-old vat pasteurization technique. While most milk nowadays is ultrapasteurized (heated to 280ºF for two seconds), vat pasteurization heats raw milk to at least 145ºF and holds it at that temperature for 30 minutes. This age-old process helps preserve the flavor, creating what they feel is a better milk drinking experience.

“If we provide the cows what they need, in turn they will produce the superior milk we are looking for,” Senecal explains.

Today, the dairy provides milk for a full-service dairy processing plant whose products include milk, cheese, yogurt, butter and ice cream. They now have retail stores in Bantam and at Yale University while also distributing wholesale locally, as well as to customers in Boston and New York City.

Recently, they opened Arethusa a mano, a café and bakery where the freshness of dairy products helps enhance the small-batch baked goods along with hand-roasted Stumptown coffee beans. “Our standards create an experience that is truly by hand. A mano,” states their website.

Malkemus also had the idea to create a dairy farm-to-table restaurant adjacent to the processing plant. Arethusa al tavolo opened its doors in 2013 and prides itself on procuring only the finest local meats and seafood to complement the farm’s fresh dairy products for its daily menu. The chef’s motto is a Julia Child quote: “If you’re afraid of butter, use cream.” And the menu reflects just that.

The newest venture is Arethusa Gardens with two greenhouses and a 5-acre parcel of land being developed to grow produce used in both the restaurant and café. It is slated to begin harvesting greens this fall and begin planting through winter and spring.

With this addition to the Arethusa portfolio, Malkemus and Yurgaitis will complete their vision of the Arethusa farm-to-table experience. They have really stimulated the economies of Litchfield and Bantam, with the creation of job opportunities and a specialty destination for visitors.

With visionaries like Malkemus and Yurgaitis at the helm, coupled with a tremendous cow man like Senecal, Arethusa Farm is in a class of its own. While the farm will celebrate its sesquicentennial next year, the next 150 years is sure to bring even more excitement, whether in the dairy barns or the niche they’ve created for themselves. And at the heart of it all are the beautiful cows Malkemus and Yurgaitis care for so much.  end mark

PHOTO 1: Arethusa Farm quickly rose to fame during the 2004 World Dairy Expo when herd matriarchs Hillcroft Leader Melanie (EX-96-3E). Huronia Centurion Veronica 20J (EX-97) were named Supreme and Reserve Supreme Champion, respectively, the first time an exhibitor had won both titles in the same year.

PHOTO 2: Huronia Centurion Veronica 20J (EX-97) were named Supreme and Reserve Supreme Champion, respectively, the first time an exhibitor had won both titles in the same year. Photos provided by Arethusa Farm.

Julie Ashton grew up on a registered Holstein farm and specializes in the dairy industry.

Julie Ashton is a freelance writer based in northern Illinois.

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