A South Royalton company envisions a rebirth of Vermont dairy through small-scale pasteurization
Written onJune 01 , 2011
Local food and slow food frequently mean small food: small farms, small producers, small quantities. The English language happens to provide a nice term for very small: micro. So it follows that the antidote to a huge, consolidated milk production system might be a micro dairy.
If not exactly an industry term, the phrase “micro dairy” is being used with increasing regularity. A Google search on it yielded two producers of small processing equipment and several news stories about small farms and their products, from across the country and the world.
And several times in that Google search, Bob-White Systems, a company based in South Royalton, appeared.
He may not have coined the term, but Steven Judge, Bob-White’s founder, uses “micro dairy” to refer to a dairy farm with six or fewer cows that sells all its products—such as milk, yogurt, cheese, and butter—directly from the farm.
“It’s becoming an industry term,” Judge says. “It wasn’t even a term 10 years ago. Having only three or four cows was inconceivable.” Judge should know. He’s been in and out of the dairy business for “about 40 years,” and has seen a lot of farms fold in that time. He believes that micro dairy pasteurization will help individual farmers regain control of the dairy industry after years of consolidation.
Judge’s vision is this: hundreds of micro dairies throughout Vermont, each with a handful of cows providing fresh, “gently pasteurized” milk directly to neighbors. According to company calculations, a four-cow dairy selling milk at $7 per gallon—a theoretical price based on the going rate for raw milk—could net almost $21,000 annually. That’s not enough to make a living, Judge concedes, but enough to supplement another income stream from the farm, like a CSA, or an off-the-farm job. Milking four cows, and pasteurizing their milk, takes only an hour or two a day, Judge claims, leaving plenty of time for other endeavors.
The key to this vision is Bob-White’s low-impact, small-scale pasteurizer designed specifically for micro dairies. Although the company has yet to sell a single one—their system hasn’t met all the conditions necessary for state approval—Bob-White staff are hard at work promoting the benefits that small-scale pasteurization could bring to Vermont agriculture.
Currently, consumers can buy raw (unpasteurized) milk directly from dairy farmers. But not all consumers want to drink raw milk. Customers wanting pasteurized milk from local farms have few choices. Only Strafford Organic Creamery in Strafford, Monument Farms Dairy in Weybridge, Thomas Dairy in Rutland, and Oak Knoll Dairy in Windsor bottle exclusively Vermont milk for retail sale throughout the state.
What’s more, small farms wanting to sell pasteurized Vermont milk can’t easily do so. Over the years, the consolidation of the milk industry has made small-scale bottling a thing of the past. Bottling equipment is hard to find, tricky to repair, and, due to its relative scarcity, often expensive.
In a sunny storefront that was once a video rental store, Bob-White Systems (the company is named after the northern bobwhite quail, a game bird common in the small North American dairy pastures of yesteryear) sells new and used small-scale dairy equipment and cheese making supplies—and demonstrates a prototype of the company’s low-impact, small-scale pasteurizer.
Pasteurization, which has been used on commercial milk since the early 1900s, involves heating milk to a certain temperature—at least 161°F for fluid milk—long enough to kill potential disease-causing bacteria. Most large-scale and commercial pasteurization use a system called “HTST,” which stands for high temperature, short time. In HTST systems, milk enters the pasteurization unit through a tube, is heated to the required temperature, and is held in a loop for the necessary time, usually less than 30 seconds. The milk then exits the unit through another tube to another bulk tank.
Large commercial dairies pasteurize hundreds or thousands of gallons a minute. Monument Farms, which milks 450 cows, uses an HTST system to pasteurize 16 gallons a minute; the HTST system at Strafford Organic Creamery, which milks around 50 cows, uses an Israeli-designed system that pasteurizes slightly more than two gallons a minute. Bob-White’s system could pasteurize one gallon per minute.
HTST pasteurization differs from vat pasteurization, which is the small-scale system most commonly used by small cheesemakers. In vat pasteurization, the milk is poured into the tank, heated, and held at the required temperature for the required time, usually 10–15 minutes for milk, longer for butter, cheese, and yogurt. Vat pasteurization is a longer process and is “harsher on the milk,” according to Judge—thus the Bob-White claim that their system is “low impact” and retains the milk’s delicate, farm-fresh flavor.
Rather than shrink an existing HTST system, Bob-White chose to take the essential HTST concepts and apply them to a small, farmstead-scale machine. Consequently, current pasteurization regulations, written for large commercial equipment, don’t apply to its system. Bob-White engineers met with the FDA about their prototype and are incorporating the FDA’s feedback into their design process. Once the redesign is complete, the company will seek approval from the Vermont Agency of Agriculture for the unit.
The unit isn’t designed for milk that’s going to cross state lines, Judge says, so the company will seek approval from individual states, rather than try to comply with the federal pasteurized milk ordinance (PMO). Judge hopes the unit will be ready for state inspection in late summer.
But are there farms interested in selling bottled pasteurized milk? Judge gets calls from small farmers across the nation interested in doing just that. Bob-White’s modeling theorizes that Vermont could support roughly 1,000 micro dairies each bottling about 20 gallons a day—enough to provide milk to approximately 60 families—although the market for farm-bottled, pasteurized milk is mostly untested.
One small Vermont farm currently bottling milk on the micro scale is Farm and Wilderness in Plymouth. Chantal Deojay milks three cows and uses a 35-gallon vat pasteurizer to pasteurize milk four times a week. She sells the non-homogenized milk for about $7/gallon at the Rutland and Shrewsbury co-ops and the Woodstock Farmers’ Market store.
Her small-scale equipment—which fills only one bottle at a time—wasn’t cheap, Deojay concedes; she estimates that she paid or so $30,000 for all the components. But the milk sells well. “People love it,” she says.
It’s hard to know if Judge’s vision of 1,000 such micro dairies producing fluid milk could become reality. Diane Bothfeld, Vermont’s deputy secretary of agriculture, notes that “Vermont already produces more milk than it can drink,” shipping most of what’s produced here out of state. Even so, “small dairy is really booming” in Vermont, according to Dan Scruton, dairy and energy Chief of the Division of Food Safety and Consumer Protection at the Agency of Agriculture. He notes that a number of licenses are pending for small-dairy producers.
Judge also sees potential customers for his small-scale pasteurizer among Vermont’s small-scale producers of cheese, butter, and yogurt. Turkey Hill Farm in Randolph Center is one of those small-scale producers. Owners Stuart and Margaret Osha sell raw milk directly from their farm and will continue to do so, but they recently purchased a 45-gallon vat pasteurization system in order to make yogurt from the milk of their five cows.
“The vat is designed so you can do 45 gallons or 4 gallons,” Margaret explained. In addition to yogurt, the Oshas will likely also pasteurize milk for soft cheeses. “We like the versatility,” she added. “You never know when we’re going to have the next idea.”
The Oshas purchased their small vat pasteurizer from MicroDairy Designs in Maryland for $20,000. The unit includes a chiller and a filler/bottler unit, and if they so chose, the Oshas could adapt it to bottle fluid milk and cream as well as yogurt, although they aren’t currently planning to do so.
The Bob-White system, which Judge anticipates will retail for approximately $25,000, is equally versatile, able to process any amount of milk. Bob-White is also working on developing a filler/bottler to use with the pasteurizer, so that farmers can meet federal Grade A dairy regulations. Grade A dairy products, which include fluid milk and yogurt, can’t be touched by human hands. Thus, any farmer wanting to sell Grade A dairy products across state lines must also purchase a filler, a machine that fills and seals the container.
Judge thinks that doesn’t make sense. He’d like to see small-scale milk processors avoid the need to purchase expensive automated fillers; efficient, small-scale fillers can cost as much as $20,000, he estimates. So he’s been talking with the Vermont House and Senate agriculture committees, exploring the feasibility of regulating small dairy farms less like huge milk producers and more like delis and restaurants. “In a commercial kitchen, you’re allowed to have raw food and cooked food in the same place,” he notes. “You’re allowed to fill containers by hand if you’re wearing gloves and a hairnet.
That’s essentially how raw milk producers are allowed to sell.”
While the conversations have yet to yield action, “I feel optimistic because it would make sense,” Judge says. “You should be able to trust a farmer to produce a good, clean product as much as you can trust a pizzeria or a deli.”
So Judge soldiers on. A veteran of the dairy industry—he was a founding member of Vermont Family Farms in the 1990s and spent time managing the Woodstock Water Buffalo Farm—he appears to have the tenacity to stick with a good idea. And after years of milking a larger herd, he can personally confirm the smaller workload of a micro dairy. His own farm, just a few miles up the road from the Bob-White store, serves as the company’s applied research site; he milks four Jerseys to develop best practices for the equipment.
Since its founding in 2006, the company has raised almost $1 million in private investment to finance the development of the low-impact pasteurization system. Seven engineers have been involved in its design. Even if, for some unforeseen reason, the equipment isn’t approved in the U.S., Judge is confident that it can be marketed overseas. “The rest of the world has reasonable regulation,” he says.
Small-scale pasteurizers can also be used for products other than milk, such as juice and tea, so the equipment will have a market beyond dairy processors. Judge knows that demand exists for small-scale equipment, as Bob-White routinely stocks vat pasteurizers and 30–80 gallon bulk tanks from Slovenia.
“We’re selling [these] to small-scale farms that are selling raw milk, and some are pasteurizing and making butter or cheese,” Judge notes. Many of these farms call for advice, and Bob-White provides consulting services to farms looking to establish a micro dairy business.
In addition to sustaining small-scale agriculture, Judge thinks there’s another reason why micro dairies are an attractive idea. “Genetically, people like to work the land,” he comments. “And there are people saying they want local milk and they want an alternative to raw milk. The dairy industry is collapsing. This could reinvigorate it.”
Photo courtesy of Bob-White Systems