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Springhouse Creamery offers big flavor with small-scale processing

Tamara Scully for Progressive Dairyman Published on 24 May 2018
Hannah Southway oversees bottling equipment

The final piece of the puzzle was finding the right pasteurizer. New Jersey dairy farmer Peter Southway and his family were seeking one that could gently pasteurize their herd’s milk without degrading its integrity and do so with as little time and labor as possible.

They found the Lili-B, a fully self-contained, continual-flow system that heats milk to 164ºF and does so in a compact design with its own heating unit and a self-cleaning cycle. The pasteurizer requires minimal monitoring and records the data for each batch automatically, simplifying record-keeping.

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Lili stands for “low input, low impact,” and the unit, manufactured by Bob-White Systems of Vermont, utilizes a high-temperature, short-time pasteurization process.

The family’s Springhouse Creamery has been making cheese – using a vat pasteurizer – for the past decade. That vat pasteurizer holds up to 1,000 pounds of milk for 30 minutes at 155ºF. Using it for bottling fluid milk wasn’t going to work for the family, who wanted a gentler and more efficient means of pasteurizing.

Milk processed using high-temperature, short-time “preserves the good bacteria and the enzymes,” Pete Southway says, and is as close to raw milk as one can legally get in many states, including New Jersey. The Lili-B met their specific requirements and fit into the pre-existing on-site creamery.

Milk flows from the dairy’s bulk tank, where it is held at 38ºF, via gravity flow pipe and into the pasteurizer, where it is heated and held for 17 seconds to just exceed legal pasteurization requirements, then cooled to 50ºF. In 20 minutes, the pasteurization process is completed, and the milk is ready for bottling.

The family opted to purchase semi-automatic bottling equipment, designed by an Amish farmer in Pennsylvania, which bottles a single bottle at a time, is adjustable for various-size bottles, is easily operated by one person and can fit into the space they have. The bottle washing machine, which by law has to be in a separate room than the processing equipment, luckily fit into an existing small anteroom leading into the creamery itself.

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Although they’ve invested about $200,000 in the pasteurization, bottling and washing equipment needed to process their own fluid milk, the anticipated revenue increase will be substantially higher, allowing them to recoup their costs quickly. Adding fluid milk bottling to their existing small on-farm creamery operation made sense.

Currently, the family is using 10 percent of their milk in their own bottling operation. Already in its second month of operation, bottled milk sales are bringing in 40 percent of the revenue. Unrelenting interest from retailers wanting to sell their milk, as well as higher demand from the outlets already doing so, make it appear quite realistic their ultimate goal will be reached.

“We’re working to become totally independent,” Southway says.

Herd basics

The 50-cow milking herd – all registered – is a mix of about 75 percent Jerseys, along with some Holstein, Guernseys and Brown Swiss. About 80 dry cows, heifers and calves complete the herd.

The Jerseys produce about 64 pounds per head per day of milk and the Holsteins around 80 pounds. The milk averages 4.9 percent butterfat, with all of that going into the creamline or non-homogenized, quarts and half-gallons being sold at the farm and through select retail outlets.

They grow all of their own feed crops on 220 acres and twice daily feed the milking herd a TMR of corn silage, alfalfa haylage, oatlage, high-moisture corn and a purchased protein supplement. The herd is housed in a tiestall barn and milked twice per day. The cows have access to 40 acres of pasture in-season.

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The farm is transitioning back to all non-GMO crops as part of their effort to produce a product consumers want to purchase. In doing so, they are not returning to the increased spraying schedule of chemicals often utilized to control weeds or pests when non-GMO field crops are grown. Instead, they’ve opted to return to their roots and use cultivation techniques, even incorporate some draft-horse power into their operation. Using red clover as a cover crop and interseeding it when planting corn has provided added nitrogen to the corn, enhanced soil health and reduced weed pressures. The cows like it, too.

“We can grow non-GMO feed to feed our cows without re-introducing the toxic chemicals,” Southway says.

Customer base

Currently, they bottle 1,000 pounds of milk twice per week. They also use 1,000 pounds of milk per batch of cheese, and they make cheese either once or twice each week. There is an ongoing relationship with another local cheesemaker, who purchases 8,000 pounds of milk each week. The remainder of their milk – about 50 percent – is sent to Dairy Farmers of America cooperative.

Springhouse Creamery had already built up a solid customer base with their soft pasteurized cheese products. Over the years, they’ve added a variety of flavors and now cheese curds too. They sell at area farmers’ markets, through specialty retail outlets and at other farm stands. They also have a small self-serve storefront directly on the dairy.

“A lot of our clients who are buying our cheese have added our bottled milk,” Southway says.

Having this built-in base of interested customers has helped to fuel the overwhelming response to their fluid milk sales.

Since they began bottling, three distinct types of customer groups interested in farm-direct fluid milk have become apparent: the older generation, those interested in sustainable and local food, and the more affluent and eco-conscious consumer.

Setting the price point for the milk meant taking into consideration the goals of the farm. They want to sell food directly to their neighbors, focusing on a majority of sales within a roughly 30-mile radius.

They calculated the price they’d need to cover all costs of producing, marketing and distributing the milk, and to make a reasonable profit. The magic number is $3.50 per half-gallon, plus a $2 refundable glass bottle deposit when purchased directly at the farm. Retail outlets are charged $3 per half-gallon and typically mark up the cost to $4.

“It’s what we need to make plus a cushion,” Southway says of the price they charge for their bottled milk. “It gives us the ability to move more milk ourselves,” reaching more of their own customers rather than selling through the bulk tank.

Affordable, quality milk that comes directly from a small dairy herd is rare these days, but it doesn’t have to be, Southway says. There is plenty of room for small dairy farms to consider direct marketing their own fluid milk. Despite the costs of establishing a creamery, this can be a profitable and satisfying enterprise for dairy farmers seeking to regain control over their product.

“We don’t add anything or take anything out of the milk,” Southway says of their direct-from-the-farm, single-source fluid milk. “It’s a win for everybody: farmer, retailer and consumer.”  end mark

PHOTO: Hannah Southway oversees bottling equipment at Springhouse Creamery. Photo courtesy Springhouse Creamery.

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

Learn more at facebook Springhouse Creamery LLC.

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