For Catskills dairy farmer Shannon Mason, it all comes down to controlling her own—and her family’s--destiny.
Putting the fruits of her labor on a milk truck every two days meant surrendering to the economic realities of the commercial market, with its fluctuating prices and other forces beyond the producers’ control. That’s why Mason, a member of the sixth generation of Jefferson’s Danforth Jersey Farm, launched Cowbella Dairy Products back in 2010.
Left: Cowbella’s milk and kefir are now available at local stores, along with yogurt and butter.
“We wanted to get to the point where we’re controlling the outcome, and not so reliant on market prices,” Mason said one day this spring, showing off her brand-new production facility. In mid-May, Cowbella began processing and bottling 150 half-gallons of whole and skim milk a week, along with about 400 12-ounce bottles of kefir in four flavors: plain, maple, strawberry and vanilla. Since they began arriving on shelves in farm markets like Barber’s in Middleburgh and stores like Good Cheap Food in Delhi, the milk and kefir have regularly sold out, Mason said. Cowbella also makes butter and yogurt, which sell at bigger retailers like Price Chopper and Hannaford. Mason plans to market the new products there as well, and is already fielding orders from NYC shops for the kefir, she said.
Mason is just one of a group of seven local dairy farmers using creative thinking and good old-fashioned elbow grease to bust out of the old milk-truck model. By bottling and selling their own milk and crafting value-added products like yogurt, cheese and gelato in small batches, the members of the Catskills Family Creameries have made huge strides since they first banded together in 2013.
“Models like the Catskills Family Creameries are one of the keys to success,” said Beth McKellips, the farm-to-market manager at Pure Catskills, whose organization helps facilitate the group. “It’s an informal collaboration of people working together to connect to customers. Their ideas are realistic and practical, and executed really well.”
On July 4, the group hosts its second annual Travel the Milky Way farm tour, a celebration showcasing working farms where visitors can meet cows and get a backstage look at life on small, family-owned dairy farms.
Right: The production room at Cowbella is one stop on the Travel the Milky Way farm tour on July 4.
The tour caps a big year for all of the members, which include (in addition to Danforth Jersey Farm/Cowbella): Betty Acres Farm/Modern Milk Maid in Delhi, Lazy Crazy Acres in Arkville, Byebrook Farm in Bloomville, Dirty Girl Farm in Andes, Harpersfield Cheese by Brovetto Dairy & Cheese House in Jefferson and Sherman Hill Farmstead in Franklin.
“It’s a really exciting time,” said Aissa O’Neil, the owner of Betty Acres, which churns out both fresh and aged cheeses, along with a few maple syrup products. This spring, O’Neil began distributing her wares through Ithaca-based Regional Access, reaching markets like Eataly, Mario Batali’s giant Italian market in Manhattan, and the new Whole Foods grocery store that opened in Albany earlier this month. “We’ve been leading up to this for over a year of samplings and discussions. It was a very long time coming.”
Over in Arkville, farmers Jake and Karen Fairbairn of Lazy Crazy Acres make cow-to-cone gelato with milk from grass-fed cows, combined with locally produced ingredients like maple syrup and summer berries. Their micro-creamery, which was built in 2010, also bottles milk from their neighbors and farming partners at Crystal Valley Farm. Lazy Crazy Acres marked two big milestones this month: their gelato arrived on the shelves at the new Albany Whole Foods, and they raised $14,000 via Kickstarter. The funds were used to build an outdoor pizza oven and a large pavilion aimed at yet another new revenue stream: hosting events like Saturday night pizza-and-gelato parties.
While there’s still plenty of room for progress in helping farmers control their own destinies with value-added products, McKellips said, the Catskill Family Creameries initiatives are a large step in the right direction.
“There have been a lot of false starts at pushing the local food movement over the waterfall,” she said. “Catskills Family Creameries is really doing it.”
The Travel the Milky Way tour takes place Friday, July 4, from noon to 5 p.m. at the seven host farms. Products will be available for sale, with soft-sided coolers provided while supplies last. Five area restaurants are also participating this year, by offering dishes featuring local dairy ingredients over the holiday weekend. They are: Brushland Eating House in Bovina, Shire Pub in Delhi, Lucky Dog Café in Hamden, Stamford Smokehouse and the Andes Hotel.