Story by Emily Mullin | Photos by Sara Mosher
About a half hour from Athens near the village of Carpenter, an old red barn sits atop a mossy hill painting a bucolic landscape of one of Southeast Ohio’s most distinct dairy facilities. Established in 2007 in neighboring Meigs County, Snowville Creamery has emerged in recent years as a prominent part of the Athens economy and lifestyle.
However, recent proposals to federal law put forth by dairy lobbyists in the nation’s capital threaten to wipe small, independent dairy businesses like Snowville off the map. Snowville Creamery, a small, locally-owned milk plant, produces fresh milk and cream by using sustainable management methods that help improve the environment. Warren Taylor, a self-described “dairy nerd,” and his wife Victoria own the business. Snowville’s general manager Steve Ferreira describes the creamery as “well-run, common sense farming.”
Snowville Creamery's milk comes from a herd of about 220 cows that live on a farm owned by Bill Dix and Stacy Hall, where the milk plant is also located. Snowville's entire process of making milk – from the cows to the carton – is done in partnership with the farm. Taylor says that for 70 years, dairy farmers who have been responsible for bottling their own milk have been able to reap whatever profits they make from selling their products.
However, if the proposed amendments were to be approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it would mean that small business like Snowville would be required to give a portion of their profits to a large pool of dairy farmers. The money would then be distributed equally among dairy businesses large and small. The recent proposals – originally introduced in February 2009 – are based on the principle that all farmers should get paid the same, which Taylor says, “is based on the assumption that all milk is the same – which is ever and ever less true.”
But Taylor says that under these proposed amendments, small dairy farms like Snowville would be penalized for providing an alternative to mainstream milk products.
“The cost to be in the pool is bigger than the profits you make,” he says.
Taylor equates this new system to giving his bigger competitors a handout. Consequently, Snowville would be forced to raise prices on its products just to make a profit. Taylor says the proposed law will undoubtedly “take away the incentive to make better milk.” Perhaps even more disturbing is that the new proposals would make it difficult to differentiate milk in the way it’s produced, because as Taylor knows, not all milk is the same.
Snowville has a radically different philosophy than its competitors, which Taylor says differentiates Snowville milk from most other major brands of milk. The milk is bottled on the farm the same day the cows are milked and delivered to local grocers within 12-48 hours. Ferreira says that people could easily buy other generic products, such as those sold in most grocery stores, but he says, “the important thing is what we’re doing differently.”
Snowville’s cows are pasture-grazed instead of grain-fed like most dairy cows, which makes the milk have a sweeter taste than the milk produced by cows that feed primarily on grain, Ferreira explains. And while most factory cows are pumped up on hormones and rarely have room to leave their barn to graze, the cows of Dix and Hall are genetically well-bred and free to roam the farm almost year-round.
Not only does Snowville milk taste differently than many generic brands of milk, Ferreira says the milk is high in essential vitamins like Omega-3 and Conjugated Linoleic Acids, a cancer-fighting compound, offering “a higher nutritional value.”
Snowville prefers to not homogenize its milk, and it uses the lowest temperature to pasteurize its product at 165 degrees for 20 seconds, which also contributes to Snowville’s sweeter, creamier quality. Pasteurization is the process of heating milk in order to kill live bacteria. Most store-bought milk is ultra-pasteurized and heated way above milk’s boiling point in order to ensure a longer shelf life.
“We believe that the heat treatment of the milk changes the flavor and the health value,” Ferreria says.
Snowville’s approach to producing a good product is simple.
“We want the milk to taste like it would right out of the cow,” Ferreira says.
In general, Ferreira says he thinks the dairy industry should get back to a fresher product.
“What we represent I think is choice and the benefits of a local product,” Taylor says. Big businesses and dairy conglomerates, he says, can’t compete with small businesses like Snowville on the base of being local or tasting fresher.
Ferreira describes Snowville Creamery as being “integrated” into the Athens area despite its physical location outside Athens County.
“Athens is a really unique place in terms of people’s view with the world, and we’re happy to be a part of that,” he says.
Plus, Snowville relies on Athens for much of its business. Ferreira says that the Athens Kroger supermarket boasts the largest number of sales for the creamery. About 120 to 130 cases of product are sold per week in the Athens store, Ferreira says.
And while that number is steadily growing, Ferreira says Snowville will always remain a local and community-conscious business.
“It’s not our model to try to get as big as we can,” he says. “Our model is local business and sharing the wealth within that locality.”
Ferreira says that even if Snowville were to grow “too big,” the creamery would put together its resources to help out another small dairy business.
Currently, the creamery delivers products to Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati and has a presence at farmers markets in the Athens and Columbus areas. Although the plant has only been in business since December 2007, Ferreira says Snowville grew by 10 percent in just six months.
Ferreira says that Snowville is proof that small entrepreneurs can succeed despite competition from big business.
“We’re making a local dairy successful and profitable,” he says.
And by developing a successful business model, Snowville is not only becoming a profitable small business, but it is bringing money to the area, which benefits the local economy in Southeast Ohio.
Taylor equates his business philosophy to the Buddhist idea of compassion and says that he hopes to help other small dairy businesses succeed, despite the odds.
“We’re not doing what we’re doing to make a business in Athens. We’re doing what we’re doing to change the world,” Taylor says.
Taylor says it’s not certain when the Department of Agriculture will decide whether or not to accept the proposed changes to current dairy laws, though he expects a decision to be made in late 2009.