Meeting this farm family showed us how a grocery store staple has roots in local agriculture
There’s a gravel lane that winds its way from the Muskingum River bottom to a hilltop meadow on the Knoch dairy farm.
“I come up here a lot. Especially in the winter. I like to walk,” said Christie Haines, the fourth generation to farm here, as she surveys the secluded landscape.
The bountiful grain from the flatlands and the pockets of forest-bound pastures have made this an ideal place to raise a herd of black and white dairy cows that are milling about in a paddock behind the barns.
“I think that everybody farms according to the region that they live in,” said the Washington County Farm Bureau member.
Indeed, this farmstead has the feel of the many others that are tucked between the Appalachian foothills. A train track cuts across the property on its way to a nearby coal power plant. The tidy white farmhouse and well-kept barns tell the story of a family carrying on a decades-old tradition.
It’s a story that continues to evolve. As farming became more specialized, the farm long ago sold off its hogs and then, more recently, its beef cattle. But twice a day, family members still meet each other at the milkhouse.
“Every day I come down here about 5:30 in the morning, and then I go back up home, put one child on the bus, gather up another child, and then I come back down here,” said Haines, who farms with her parents. “And the afternoon routine is just as crazy.”
It offers a glimpse at the unique ways that seemingly identical containers of milk arrive at grocery store shelves. In all, Ohio has nearly 3,000 dairy farmers who milk 270,000 cows. It ranks the state 11th in the nation for milk production (not to mention the top producer of Swiss cheese). The Haines family’s herd of 60 cows comes in slightly below Ohio’s average-size dairy farm.
Here, the process begins when her son takes on the role of a 21st century cowboy. Using an ATV, he revs up the hill to persuade a few straggling animals that haven’t yet lined up for their evening routine. The herd lumbers down a sloping path into a barn that also serves as its winter quarters.
Haines is at the far end of the building that is divided into sawdust-padded beds. With wide swings of her arms she brings her hands together. Clap. Clap. Clap. Her cues to the animals echo sharply against the concrete and start a faint but steady thunking of hooves. She follows behind, pauses, then claps another measured set of three. Calmly, the cows flow into a holding pen.
And while the ritual seems almost meditative, Haines says she still marvels at the experience of farming.
“You see life, you see death, you see food and how it’s grown,” she said. “We put the seed to the soil and basically let Mother Nature take over.”
A tanker truck will stop by every other day, usually in the evening, to test and pick up the milk. Within hours it will be at Broughton Foods, a processing facility in Marietta that, according to its website, began in 1910 as a small family-owned dairy farm selling fresh milk, cream and butter to local families and businesses from a horse and buggy.
Today, it’s a division of Dean Foods, one of the nation’s largest milk processors and distributors. But it still remains an important hub in this community for farmers like
Haines to get their milk to area customers.
It also begins to reveal the diversity of dairy production in Ohio. Travel to the opposite corner of the state, for instance, and you might see farmers milking thousands of cows, and facilities like a Dannon’s yogurt plant, which the company says is the largest in the world, producing up to 3 million cups of yogurt per day. Or in northeast Ohio, you may come across Amish families that frequently maintain smaller herds and rely on more traditional methods.
In all, from farmers and milk haulers to processors and distributors, the estimated economic impact of Ohio’s dairy industry is $4.2 billion and 14,350 jobs.
Of course, those are just statistics. They can’t tell you much about Haines’ excitement to show off a newborn calf or her meticulous maintenance of the milkhouse. And the way the cows meander down from the hill on a golden autumn evening is just something you have to see for yourself.
But Haines says she welcomes questions about how food is produced. In fact, she’s often fascinated about what it must be like to live in the city. Ultimately, she says she’s just doing what she knows, trying to raise her children well and taking part in her community.
“I see us as no different than any other family,” she said.
More to milk
For many consumers, milk may just be another item on the grocery list. But you have more choices than you may realize. Here’s our quick look beyond the color of the cap to see how milk processors are competing for your business.
Pasteurization – This is a required process of heating milk to remove dangerous pathogens. However, processors may vary their techniques, resulting in differences in what you drink. The method is often indicated on the label.
Low Temperature: Milk is heated at 145 degrees for 30 minutes, which proponents say is a gentler process that maintains milk’s natural characteristics.
Ultra Pasteurized: Milk is heated to 280 degrees for two seconds wiping out bacteria that cause spoilage and extending the shelf life. In some cases, ultra pasteurized milk may not require refrigeration. For better or worse, some consumers are able to detect a “cooked” flavor.
High Temperature Short Time: Milk may be heated at a ratio closer to 161 degrees for 15 seconds, which balances the benefits of the other pasteurization processes.
rBST-free – Some consumers have expressed concern about the use of the synthetic hormone rBST, which boosts milk production. Responding to this, a number of milk processors have vowed to source milk from cows not given rBST. But because the hormone also occurs naturally, there is no test that can detect if it was used. Farmers typically sign an affidavit stating that have not provided it to their animals.
Antibiotic-free – When cows receive antibiotics, their milk must be withheld from the food supply until it is antibiotic free. All milk is tested multiple times for antibiotic residues. Fewer than .1 percent of samples indicate an issue where milk must be rejected.
Organic – Organic milk must be produced in a way that meets the standards of the National Organic Program. Requirements include the cows have certified organic feed and access to pasture. And while antibiotic residues are prohibited in all milk, cows are disqualified from organic production if they ever receive an antibiotic treatment.
Homogenization – This is a mechanical process that evenly distributes the fat globules in milk. While homogenized milk is the standard, a few Ohio processors offer non-homogenized alternatives. Because the cream rises to the top of nonhomogenized milk, it’s best to give the container a good shake before pouring.
Containers – Due to concerns that light rays can alter the flavor and quality of milk, some dairy processors have moved to light-blocking containers to prevent exposure.
Local Milk – Sometimes it’s specifically indicated on the container, but if not, there’s still a good chance your milk was processed in Ohio. To find out, this website allows consumers to type in a code found on the container that will show where that dairy product was made.