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the success of local dairy co-op Hudson Valley Fresh by Jamaine Bell

What’s a gallon of milk worth to you?

Dr. Sam Simon has been milking cows for 50 years, and knows a thing or two about the cost and value of a gallon of milk. Born and raised on a dairy farm in Middletown, NY, Dr. Simon left to become a surgeon as a young man, working his way through college while simultaneously tending his family’s dairy business. He became a successful orthopedic surgeon and set up practice in the Hudson Valley, with an idea that one day, he might “retire” from medicine and take up dairy farming again.

His retirement plans came to pass in the mid 90’s, when a patient, a dairy farmer in Dutchess County, offered to sell him his farm. But a lot had changed in dairy farming since his previous farming days—dairy farming had undergone the consolidation into the mass-produced, corporatized business model that most of the agricultural industry has undergone in the past 30 years.

For the small dairy farmer, this has resulted in a price for milk that is lower than the cost of production; in other words, they are literally losing money for their work. Across the country, more and more small dairy farmers have been getting out of the business altogether, leaving mostly the larger industrial dairy farms in their place. Dr. Simon knew going back into the business that he would have to support his farm with his own savings, but after a year or so, he realized that the price that he was getting for his milk was nowhere close to a break-even point. He would require a large subsidy to maintain that price, more than he was willing to put in himself.

Meanwhile, his milk was winning top awards for quality. He discovered that there were other small dairy farmers nearby who were also winning awards for their products, and were also facing the same situation of losing money. As he explains, “We had to think outside the box.” Why, he wondered, did they have to put their superior milk in with lesser quality milk, and get a bottom rate price? Dr. Simon decided that the high-quality local farmers needed to band together and segregate their milk from the rest, process it separately, bottle it, and market it themselves under their own label. And so the Hudson Valley Fresh brand was conceived.

Hudson Valley Fresh is a non-profit dairy co-op with a mission: to continue the small family farming tradition, preserve open space, and to provide a high-quality, sustainably produced product at a cost that is reasonable to the consumer, while also giving the farmers a fair price for their work. Getting the co-op off the ground took some effort and money on the part of the participating farms, but the non-profit status helped with securing grants to research and launch the project.

They started at the ground level, using coolers to keep the milk cold in transit before they bought their first refrigerated truck. Finding a local plant that would process their milk separately and with high standards was a challenge, but they found Boice’s Dairy in Kingston, who handled their milk with the same care the farmers put into producing it. The price for their milk is generally a $1.00 more per gallon than the generic, and a $1.00 less than organic. The consumer response to their products has been fantastic. Dr. Simon tells me that the co-op’s revenue and sales have grown 50% a year since they started in 2005.

Dr. Simon thinks the reasons for the popularity of their milk are because of the quality and taste, and because of the local public’s awareness and demand for locally and sustainably produced food. Hudson Valley Fresh cows are pastured and grass-fed, which, according to Dr. Simon, adds body and taste to the milk that the industrial farms can’t match, with their penned cows that have been fed a fermented diet. Also, because of the fact that the milk is produced locally—all the farms involved are within 20 miles of each other in Dutchess County—the milk is fresher than milk from Iowa or Ohio. Dr. Simon explains that generic, industrial-farmed milk can come from thousands of miles away and is all co-mingled into large batches for production. By keeping their production and products very local, they can have milk on the shelves within 36 hours from the milking of the cow. Also, the quality of their milk—based on the somatic cell count, tested and measured each day—is almost ten times better than the national average. (See for milk quality details.)

Dr. Simon and Hudson Valley Fresh do not negotiate on the price of their milk, even for wholesalers. Their price is what it is, and they believe it is a fair price. While a little higher than generic milk, they have found that in the right markets, people are willing to pay a little more for the quality and for the fact that they know they are keeping small farms viable. When asked about the value of their products to the local economy, Dr. Simon explains, “We represent 1,000 milking cows. Each milking cow contributes to this economy $15,000 per year. So this co-op contributes $15 million dollars to the local economy per year. How many jobs? Well the plant employs 43 people. Each farm has anywhere from 3 to 10. Every farmer that started with us, except one or two that retired due to age, is still with us.”

Competing with the other products on the market is the main challenge facing the co-op. Dr. Simon explains that demographics are important in marketing the milk. Educating the public about the food they buy and knowing how and where it is produced is crucial. He asks, “What is the value of knowing where your food is coming from? The carbon footprint here is 30 miles from the cow to the plant, and the longest distance we go is 100 miles; when the average gallon of milk in this country travels 1,100 miles? This region, the Northeast, consumes 45% of all the dairy products produced in this country, but we only produce 15% of it. Where do you think the dairy is coming from? So why should we be bringing in stuff from west of the Mississippi, when we can get it right here. Granted, it will cost you a little bit more, but what are you getting in return: beautiful, open space, maintaining the local economy, and you know where your food is coming from, and it’s fresher. You can’t tell me that milk coming from Idaho is fresher than Pleasant Valley, NY.”

Beyond the desire to provide high-quality, local, and sustainably produced milk, the Hudson Valley Fresh co-op also recognizes the value of keeping farmers on their farms, not only to preserve a way of life, but to keep people employed locally and to keep the economy vital. “There were 330 dairy farms in this county when I came here in the 70’s. There are now 32. What does that tell you?” Dr. Simon asks, “Where did they go? They didn’t go by choice. They were forced out because they couldn’t afford to do it. They could not survive; and the ones that are left who are tremendous managers and great caretakers are on the brink.”

So, by forming their own co-op and refusing to compromise on either quality or price, the Hudson Valley Fresh co-op has created an important and growing niche in the local economy. Local co-ops between farmers were a common way to do business before the days of industrialized and corporatized agriculture. By collectively pooling their resources and their work, these farmers are showing the way back to a more sustainable way of working and living. And the milk is downright delicious, too.

Hudson Valley Fresh milk can be found at Adam’s Fairacre Farms, Mother Earth’s Storehouse, and local grocery stores, delis and coffee shops throughout the Hudson Valley and in New York City.

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