The Denman family mulled over the idea of a milk bottling plant several years ago, but decided it against it.
Then, the pandemic hit last spring. The Denmans never had to dump milk, but it pained them to watch other farmers have to while grocery store shelves sat empty.
“It kind of felt like we were failing,” Dan Denman said. “To live this lifestyle, you’ve got to have some sort of reward for it. You’re not going to make money doing it. So, you pride yourselves on being able to feed people. What’s the point of doing this if we can’t get product to people?”
The beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the food supply chain. Schools and restaurants closed, taking away those markets for milk, but demand at retailers went through the roof as people spent more time at home.
The Denmans couldn’t fix all of that, but it quickly became clear what they needed to do to provide for their region in the future. Last May, the Denmans launched a plan to bottle and sell their own milk.
Construction on the milk plant started last summer, and the first bottle of milk came off the line in December. The Denmans and their team built the entire facility themselves, between milking 190 cows and planting and harvesting crops.
In addition to Dan, his father, uncle and aunt run the farm, as well as some hired labor. Denmandale Dairy was one of the first dairies in Ohio to get robotic milkers. Six machines milk cows on average four times a day.
They toured another bottling plant at a farm in Kansas, near where Dan went to college at Kansas State, to get ideas. They then created plans of their own, with guidance from their state milk inspector.
The harder part was finding all the equipment to run the facility. Some of it is new, and some of it used. The pasteurizer came from Wisconsin. The homogenizer from Tennessee. The bottling machine came from New York. The milk jugs are from Massachusetts, the caps from Pennsylvania and the labels from New York.
“I just started Googling to find stuff,” Denman said.
How it’s going
Milk is bottled on Wednesday and delivered to stores on Thursday. About 2,500 pounds of milk is diverted to the bottling plant. The rest goes to Dairy Farmers of America.
Denman said they usually start their days around 2 a.m. and get done bottling by 10 a.m. On delivery days, they can be done by about lunchtime.
The product line includes non-homogenized whole milk in half gallons and pints, as well as chocolate and vanilla, though they hope to expand to include a fourth rotating flavor. They built the plant with room to expand. Processing one batch of milk, like they’re doing now, only takes about two hours. They could bottle all of their own milk in a day if necessary.
The business has grown steadily. About a dozen stores stock their milk. The biggest limitation to growing more rapidly is time. The next step is to hire a person to manage the plant and the milk sales business.
New purpose. Bottling their own milk has brought them a different stream of revenue, and a more steady one at that. They get paid weekly for their milk, instead of biweekly from the co-op.
“It’s like adding another milk check,” Denman said.
But that wasn’t and still isn’t the reason they’re doing it. The goal was to get milk in the hands of local customers. That’s what they are doing, whether they sell it or give it away. The Denmans also donate unsold, surplus milk to a local mission.
Taking control of a small part of the supply chain has helped them, even during difficult times. It can be hard to get out of bed at 2 a.m. when milk prices are bad and you’re watching your neighbors dump their milk. The pandemic was hard on a lot of dairy farmers, not just financially but for their mental health.
Now, no matter what, the Denmans know they’re feeding people.
“We’re reinvigorated,” Denman said. “Now, you have purpose all the time … We’re doing something worthy here.”