Tom Eblen

Family farm's niche: selling non-homogenized milk

Jason Schrock, 14, cleaned out the automatic milkers between cow, while his mother, Edna, sprayed fly protection on cows that had just been milked. Each of the Schrocks' eight children has a role in the family operation. With some financial help from the state, the business is growing.
Jason Schrock, 14, cleaned out the automatic milkers between cow, while his mother, Edna, sprayed fly protection on cows that had just been milked. Each of the Schrocks' eight children has a role in the family operation. With some financial help from the state, the business is growing.

RUSSELLVILLE — Non-homogenized milk in returnable glass bottles supposedly went out of fashion with the Ford Model T. But don't tell Willis and Edna Schrock.

The Schrocks and their eight children are working overtime to keep up with increasing demand for the farm-fresh milk they produce with 38 cows and a barn full of modern equipment.

"The boys bottled milk all night," Edna said when I arrived at their 130-acre farm in Logan County. "They were going to bed about 4 this morning as Willis left to make deliveries. He probably won't be back until tonight."

The Schrocks deliver their JD Country Milk, which is bottled in old-fashioned returnable glass, to groceries and farmers markets in Lexington, Louisville, Nashville and many places in between. (In Lexington, it is available at Good Foods and Whole Foods markets.)

Customers are willing to pay premium prices for the non-homogenized, low-temperature-pasteurized milk for two reasons: It tastes better than regular milk, and they think it is more healthful.

A sip will confirm the first reason. Pasteurization at 145 degrees, rather than the usual 185 degrees or more, kills harmful bacteria but preserves milk's naturally sweet taste. Forgoing homogenization preserves the distinct cream in JD Country's whole, 2 percent and skim milk, not to mention the buttermilk and chocolate milk, which is made with real cocoa and cane sugar.

Customers like that the Schrocks' cows eat grass and are not given hormones or antibiotics. They also think that enzymes preserved in low-temperature pasteurization make milk more healthful. Some people think homogenization of milk contributes to cardiovascular disease, but scientists are split on the issue.

The Schrocks moved to Logan County in 1998 from central Illinois, where Willis drove dairy trucks. The Mennonite family began Kentucky farm life by making and selling baked goods.

"We started going to farmers markets and realized there were people out there who wanted real milk," Edna said. "When you buy milk in the store, especially skim milk, it doesn't taste like anything."

Willis' 15 years of work around dairy plants gave him the courage to get into the business, which can be complicated because of strict health regulations and procedures. The Schrocks began processing and selling milk under the Rebekah Grace label, but they went out on their own this year, and that allowed them to reduce prices.

Willis and Edna get a lot of help from their children. Justin, 26, is in charge of delivery. Joni, 25, and Janette, 19, run the bakery. Jared, 21, works in the processing plant. Joe, 16, is in charge of bottling. Jason, 14, helps milk the cows. Jennifer, 12, and Jeffrey, 10, do what they can after school.

With weekly sales now topping 500 cases — and a new drinkable low-fat yogurt being introduced in September — JD Country Milk is about ready to take the next step of hiring outside employees and taking in milk from other small farms that share the Shrocks' natural methods.

"We've just about burned our kids out on this," Edna acknowledged. "Working for mom and dad isn't always the most fun thing."

Edna said Kentucky agriculture officials have been very supportive, because they see this as an important niche in a strong local food economy. In 2007, the Schrocks received nearly $500,000 in state and county agriculture development money to buy modern processing and bottling equipment.

"Our goal was to be able to help small farmers who have only 30 or 40 cows to milk," she said. "We can buy it and give them a fair price."

That was state officials' goal, too, when they awarded the Schrocks what amounts to a 10-year forgivable loan from tobacco settlement funds if certain goals are met. The Schrocks already buy some milk from Kenny Mattingly, who operates Kenny's Farmhouse Cheese in Barren County.

JD Country Milk is a rare bright spot in dairy farming these days. Many farmers are getting out of the business, complaining that the giant corporations now dominating the dairy industry pay farmers less for raw milk than it costs to produce it.

Consumers also are seeking alternatives to corporate agriculture, especially in the wake of contamination scares such as the recent egg recall. "We're doing this at the right time," Edna said.

The Shrocks have developed such a loyal following that many customers ask to visit their farm. They have scheduled an open house on Oct. 30, a Saturday. (For more information, go to JDCountryMilk.com.)

"We're trying to keep it as all-natural and healthy as we can," Edna said. "And the public really wants that, because people are paying more attention to their health."

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