Limited processing appeals to consumers
'People who buy my milk know that they're getting the milk from my cows'
By LISA LIEBERMAN
For the Capital Press
LEMOORE, Calif. -- In a world of low dairy prices and rising feed costs, Barbara Martin, co-owner of Dairy Goddess, has found a way to bring some profits back to the dairy.
A third-generation farmer, Martin runs a 1,000-cow dairy. Most of the bulk milk is sold to California Dairies, but she keeps about 1,000 gallons on the farm to produce her own gourmet fresh cheeses and low-pasteurized, nonhomogenized milk, which has become a hit among consumers looking for less processed foods.
When milk prices hit record lows in 2009, Martin said she knew that her family had to do something different.
"There's a whole group of people who want less processed food that's affordable to families. And when it comes to the raw milk craze, they just can't make it fast enough in California. It's just very expensive to do," Martin said.
So, Martin decided to try the low pasteurization route.
Most processed milk is flash pasteurized at 190 degrees. Martin slowly heats hers in a vat to 145 degrees and leaves it there for 30 minutes before slowly cooling it. This is a relatively inexpensive operation with startup costs just under $20,000.
Martin's low pasteurization technique is enough to satisfy state safety regulations and still appeal to consumers who want a less processed commodity, Martin said. Consumers also like the fact that she doesn't homogenize her milk.
"The fact that it is very low pasteurized and it's not homogenized means that more proteins and enzymes stay in the milk," Martin said.
Martin's dairy is also one of the only ones in the state that makes its own chocolate milk, using cocoa and sugar during the pasteurization process.
Martin's cheeses, which are sold in 35 Whole Food stores in Northern California, have also been a huge hit.
The gourmet, spreadable, artisan cheeses, which she makes herself come in a variety of flavors, including spicy red pepper and garlic; Santa Maria seasoning with dill; ranch flavoring with real bacon; and a mix of pistachio, cranberry and chocolate.
While the state normally has many requirements for milk bottling and making fresh cheeses, Martin has a lot more leeway because she does everything on the farm.
Another big plus to marketing her own milk and cheeses is that all the product comes from one herd, which consumers also seem to like, Martin said.
"People who buy my milk know that they're getting the milk from my cows," Martin said.
Like most dairy farmers, Martin is also concerned about feed costs. She grows most of her own feed -- about 60 percent of it -- on 300 acres.
Martin's strategy of producing and selling her own dairy products seems to have come at the perfect time, due to the big "buy local" push, she said.
When she went to "audition" for Whole Foods in front of the company's "food foragers," Martin said she had never been so nervous in her life.
"That cheese was my whole life. It was my husband, it was my kids, it was my dairy," she said. "But I was signed before I was out the door."
The Whole Foods' dairy distributor was anxious to market as much of the cheese as possible, but Martin's strategy was to start out slowly and introduce her product to consumers in small amounts.
"I wanted to sell the product to the stores slowly because I didn't want anything sitting on the shelves too long and anything having to be thrown out because it wasn't selling fast enough," Martin said.
Martin's cheeses and milk have relatively short shelf lives compared to their more processed counterparts. The milk has to be consumed within 14 days of shipment and the cheese within 21 days.
Working with Whole Foods has been a good experience for Martin, who said it gives her special discounts on store demonstrations since she's a farmer. It also doesn't charge her for shelf space.
"In some stores, you have to pay $20,000, otherwise they don't let you sell your product," Martin said.
At the 14 farmers' markets she travels to, Martin has also been a hit. She usually sells her milk in half gallons rather than full gallons since it has to be consumed so quickly.
"I love talking to people about the milk," Martin said. "It's good for people who say they're lactose intolerant. It's not really the lactose they're intolerant to. It's just all the processing. Even if you look at barnyard cats, you'll see that they'll drink raw milk, but they won't drink processed milk."
Location: Lemoore, Calif.
Farmer: Barbara Martin
Cooperative: California Dairies