We seem to spend a lot of time bemoaning the state of food in America. There's so much that isn't the way it ought to be that sometimes we forget to celebrate and appreciate places that are producing food in creatively sustainable ways. One of those places is Snowville Creamery in southeast Ohio. We visited Snowville to bring you a peek at a dairy that is doing things right. Take a quick trip with us to this tiny creamery; you'll see a few herds of happy, healthy, sociable cows, and an owner who is practically a force of nature himself.
Snowville Creamery's story is simple, but still rather amazing. Warren Taylor, the owner, received a degree in Dairy Technology from The Ohio State University and went to work for Big Dairy, creating and installing top-notch efficient dairy plants for Safeway. He is an engineer's engineer, with a passion for things done right.
During this time he was living down in Pomeroy, Ohio, near a small college town and in the middle of prime Ohio dairy country. He had some neighbors, Bill Dix and Stacy Hall, who had been farmers for years and were just getting into dairy. They were building an unusual dairy herd: full of a number of breeds selected more for diversity and health than for their sheer capacity for milk production. Their herd includes Guernsey, Jersey, Brown Swiss, New Zealand, and other types of cows. This is unusual for a dairy outfit; usually a herd is made up of just one or two breeds, selected for their high capacity for production. A dairy cow in the average confined-milking operation will be milked three times a day and have a lifespan of about two years. Bill and Stacy's cows, on the other hand, are milked twice a day and live at least twice as long. Also, their cows' milk, Taylor discovered, was far higher in both fat and protein than the state-required minimum.
This was good milk, and Warren Taylor started buying it and pasteurizing it on his stovetop. He and his wife, Victoria, drank it and fed it to their kids. But this wonderful milk was going into one big collective hopper with all the other dairies in the area. Bill and Stacy's farm was not certified organic, even though they were feeding the cows on just grass and letting them have a true pasture-oriented life. The milk was far better than the other milk in the area, but no one was really receiving the benefit. It ended up tasting just the same as all other milk.
So, Warren, with all these years of experience in the big industry of milk and butter, decided to build his own dairy and do things his way. The resulting partnership between the Taylors and Bill and Stacy is called Snowville Creamery, and they produce the best milk I have ever tasted.
I could go on and on about Snowville's milk; the taste of the milk is remarkable, and their cream practically whips itself. Their packaging is lovely, with its old-fashioned, locally-designed woodcut of a milkmaid. ("My milk cartons don't need a cow," laughed Taylor, "Everyone knows milk comes from a cow! My milk's going to have a GIRL on it!")
But the thing that really got me that day at Snowville, was the amount of practical, well-thought-out solutions for sustainable production. Taylor is a true engineer; his plant — so tiny and toylike compared to the massive plants he used to design — is built like an efficient pocketwatch; no motion is wasted. Energy is conserved masterfully, and even the grey water used to wash down the plant between every run is sprayed out on the fields as irrigation. The plant itself felt cool, on a hot late summer day, but Taylor says there is no air-conditioning installed at all. It's self-cooling and self-heating.
Even the waste from the cows is conserved and used. Huge piles of manure, produced while the cows are standing to be milked, get spread on each pasture in turn throughout the year. This helps improve the soil, which is hard red clay. (This part of the farm is named The Brick. "So-and-so has dirt on his farm," said Bill Dix, when we met him briefly on our tour. "Having dirt, that's like cheating.")
In fact, the entire process of producing milk feels well thought-out, compassionate, and sensible. The cows live outside year-round. They line up to be milked twice a day; they are milked in a small, very economical pole barn. Cows are sociable animals, and they need no prodding or pushing to move throughout the farm. Just open a gate and they'll come. They meander through the farm every day, on cow paths built to support them safely and to keep them from tearing up the dirt. They are moved from pasture to pasture, with any weeds they leave behind mowed down after they leave to promote better grass growth.
After the cows are milked their milk is passed to the Snowville operation, in a low-slung series of small buildings next door. Everything is scrupulously clean and smaller than you might expect for a dairy with milk now in many major groceries throughout the state of Ohio. The milk is pasteurized at a much lower heat than most milk; it's still above federal requirements, but it's not heated as high as the milk you usually get. That milk, according to Taylor, is practically shelf-stable. Snowville milk, on the other hand, has a shorter lifespan, but the taste, freshness, and nutrients are all remarkably better.
Taylor is immensely passionate about what he does. His speech is peppered with references to Joel Salatin, Michael Pollan, Wendell Berry and other heroes of the sustainable farm movement. He's an interesting blend of engineer, businessman, and idealist. He obviously has had the right experience to make this dairy operation more than just a hobby or an idealistic excursion; he wants to be the best dairy in Ohio. And yet it's a labor of love, too; he's always in motion, talking about the future and the cheese, yogurt, and kefir he wants to add to Snowville's product line. (We tried his kefir; it was amazing!) It's very hard to capture Taylor on film; you really need video to capture his constant motion!
We think that everyone should get to visit Snowville, or a place like it, where idealism meets practicality in creating food that truly benefits the land and those who consume it. Snowville is obviously populated by happy cows; their coats were sleek and they looked for all the world like little old ladies, walking down the street in deep conversation as they plodded along their well-maintained cow paths.
But the milk they give here also benefits us; we love the clear, rich taste and the thick creaminess of it. We'll be buying milk from Snowville as long as we can, and it gives us a lot of hope to see their work. Here's to many more who can bring hard-headed business sense, good ideals, and true love of what they do to their work in the industry of feeding us all.
• Visit Snowville's website: Snowville Creamery
Related: Good Milk: Snowville Creamery