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Rural Missouri Magazine

Milk from the farm to the table
Mountain Grove dairy farm starts creamery to glass bottle its milk

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by Erin Stubblefield

After the evening milking, Dwight Fry feeds his Holsteins. Although Dwight co-owns Ozark Mountain Creamery with his brother, David, the two keep their cattle separated by milking and feeding in different barns. The family hopes that launching its own brand of locally produced milk and dairy products can help them to maintain their farm and family tradition.

Years ago, dairy farms were prosperous and plentiful. Brothers David and Dwight Fry remember their father’s modest operation with one small milk barn next to his white farmhouse overlooking hundreds of acres devoted to pasture, corn and alfalfa.

The road leading out from their dairy farm connected to several others. Within a 13-mile radius of their hometown of Mountain Grove, nearly 90 dairy operations existed.

This is no longer the situation. According to the brothers, who continue the half-century-long family tradition, operating expenses have greatly increased, while profits are dwindling.

“Dairy farmers have cycles. One year you might not do so well, but next year’s profits will make up for it,” David explains. “Now, the cycles are further apart. You might have one good year out of four.”

Of those 90 farms once in operation, only a handful remain. In an era when the outlook for dairy farmers seems all too gloomy, David and Dwight, along with their wives and children, changed the way they do business.

Since April, they have taken the reins of the post-production aspects of their dairy business. Instead of selling all of it wholesale to Arkansas Dairy Cooperative, they opened Ozark Mountain Creamery where they pasteurize, bottle and distribute half-gallons of whole, 2 percent, skim and chocolate milk to more than 40 local grocery stores.

Dwight and David Fry have 150 Holstein milk cows on their dairy farm. When they aren’t being milked, the cattle graze in the rolling hills, filling up on green grass.

Their product is both nostalgic and in high demand in southern and central Missouri. It’s ice cold milk, reminiscent of the glass-bottled milk once delivered to each doorstep.

Although their business is taking a new direction, their self-sustaining farming practices remain unchanged. The brothers continue to farm on their 220 acres, in addition to rental ground, growing corn and alfalfa for their 150 Holstein herd, which grazes in the open pastures.

The techniques in their local creamery are as traditional as their farming operation. For instance, their milk undergoes a vat pasteurization process, where the milk is heated to 145 degrees for 30 minutes. That contrasts with most modern dairies, which zap milk at high temperatures for a couple seconds.

David’s wife, Teresa, claims the gentle pasteurization process, along with the glass bottling, preserves the flavor of their milk. She compares it to steaming vegetables instead of boiling them.

They aren’t stopping at standard milk products. Catering to the natural foodie and milk junkie alike, the next product they plan to introduce is a non-homogenized, cream line milk. Natural milk wants to separate, leaving a distinct line between parts. Homogenization blends the cream and milk so this disappears.

“We are returning to older practices,” Dwight says. “There is a big push by people wanting to know where their food comes from, and right now, Missouri doesn’t even produce enough milk to supply the state.”

Dwight’s daughter, Megan, sanitizes a cow’s teat before milking. The dairy business is a family affair for the Fry family. Megan, and her older sister Emily, have helped their dad with his evening milking since they were little.

The Fry brothers’ ultimate goal is to find their niche in the local foods industry, and they have. Almost 50 percent of their milk goes through Ozark Mountain Creamery. Eventually, they would like to process all of it.

“We could see the writing on the wall. It seemed like every year, it cost more to produce milk, and we would get less money for it,” Dwight, a member of Se-Ma-No Electric, says. “We are finding our niche, and more dairymen are doing the same by specializing in products like cheese and butter. It’s the only way to stay profitable.”

The suggestion for glass bottling came from David and Dwight’s sister a couple years ago, but they took the idea to heart after a trip to Jefferson City where they spoke with Missouri’s state representatives and senators about the fate of dairy farmers.

“We figured out right away that the government is not going to save us,” David says.

Plans began to develop in February of 2009, and by that fall, they broke ground, building the creamery just up the road from the two milk barns. One of the most challenging projects was furnishing it with vats, pasteurizers and homogenizers, for most small-scale creamery equipment isn’t made anymore.

The Fry family wanted to limit distribution to east of Springfield and a few towns surrounding Mountain Grove, and they gathered support from 16 local grocers who agreed to carry their product.

Since April, Teresa and Lori, Dwight’s wife, have promoted their product at local fairs by giving samples to potential customers.

Ozark Mountain Creamery only uses glass bottles. Dwight Fry runs an inspection on every bottle before it is filled and capped.

“The community has been very supportive, and the grocery stores really stuck their necks out for us when they decided to carry our milk,” Teresa says. “So at the fairs, we hit up people who shop at major chain grocery stores and hopefully get them to shop and support local products.”

The community’s support even exceeded their relatively high expectations. The first weekend, the delivery truck made three trips to the local grocery store to restock the coolers. Lori jokingly attributes the shortage of chocolate milk to Mountain Grove’s high school boys, many of whom carry a bottle from class to class.

Within the first couple months, the milk’s popularity grew exponentially, and the dairy truck now has three milk routes. The truck delivers in Springfield and goes all the way to Sullivan.

The creamery distributes 3,600 milk bottles per week. In the past month, six grocery stores were added to the delivery routes.

While the family works to meet the growing demand, the current responsibilities attached to the creamery are substantial. As a result, operating Ozark Mountain Creamery has become a family affair.

Milk bottling is a two-day process, meaning the other five are life as usual on the farm. Milking times are 12 hours apart, and David, Dwight and Dwight’s two daughters, Emily and Megan, milk the same time every day to keep the cows on a regular schedule. Feeding time follows, and in between, the Fry brothers busy themselves with typical farm chores such as cutting hay or hauling silage.

At Ozark Mountain Creamery, Monday and Tuesday are bottling days, while the rest of the week is spent delivering milk to surrounding grocery stores. At Mountain Grove’s Country Mart and elsewhere, the Fry’s milk is sold alongside commercial brands.

But all hands are on deck once the milk is ready for bottling. This summer, Teresa and Lori recruited all their children to help the regular employees bottle milk on Monday and Tuesday.

Emily and Megan, along with Ben and Isaac, operated the bottle washer. They also put the date stamp and labels on the filled bottles before taking them to the cooler. The younger children, including Luke, Caleb and Madison, helped keep the assembly line going by supplying empty bottles to the bottle washers and taking empty crates to the end of the line to be loaded.

Each bottle at the creamery is personally inspected before it is bottled, re-inspected and priced. David says that the entire crew must wear many hats to keep the operation running, whether they are cutting hay or bottling milk.

“Initially, we envisioned that Lori and I could handle the creamery and Dwight and David would only have to work on the farm, but they’re definitely needed,” Teresa says.
But the hefty responsibilities at Ozark Mountain Creamery also bring opportunity, and both David and Dwight acknowledge their business has room to grow.

Find out more about Ozark Mountain Creamery at www.ozarkmtncreamery.com or call 417-926-3276.

Erin Stubblefied is Rural Missouri's 2010 summer intern.

Rural Missouri magazine - April 2014 issue
 
 
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