Today’s dairy farms are growing, with more cows concentrated on larger farms and milk production per cow continuing to rise. Along with these trends, the number of commercial fluid milk products plants has significantly decreased, with approximately 330 commercial fluid milk bottling plants and nearly 1,600 dairy product manufacturing plants existing today. The industry has consolidated.
In the mid-1970s, there were 1,400 commercial fluid milk bottling plants and almost 3,000 commercial plants producing value-added dairy products. This consolidation mirrors that of the dairy farms themselves, with a dramatic loss of dairy farms over the past five decades.
From 450,000 or so in the mid-1970s to around 100,000 today, small dairy farms are going extinct, while herd sizes and milk per cow increase on the farms that remain. But some small farms have bucked the trends, continuing today to do what they’ve done for decades: capitalizing on their own milk by bottling and selling it to their communities and turning it into value-added dairy products.
In 1975, Hubert and Grace Sell decided they would grow their small dairy herd and process as much of their milk as feasible by bottling it, making it into ice cream and utilizing it in the homemade foods served at their farm café.
Today, the cow portion of the dairy operation is overseen by their son Scott Sell, while their son Gary handles the field crops and the milk bottling. The ice cream making remains the domain Hubert, while Grace and daughter Audrey — along with Scott’s wife Lisa — work magic creating homemade food in the farm’s commercial kitchen. Various other family members are invaluable to the operation, too, as this value-added dairy farm continues to support several generations.
The freshest milk and ice cream in town
Crystal Spring Farm, in Schnecksville, PA, has long been promoting their dairy by offering the freshest milk, direct from the cows to the consumer in a matter of days, if not hours. They pasteurize, homogenize and bottle their own fluid milk right on the farm. And they take that milk — which never leaves the farm — and turn it into ice cream onsite, too.
Fluid milk in skim, one or two-percent, as well as whole milk, is sold along with flavored milk. Their chocolate milk, only available as whole milk, is renowned for its butterfat content of more than four percent. And, it is not homogenized. That’s because the chocolate doesn’t dissolve in the milk but goes into suspension, and homogenization would interfere with the process.
The farm specializes in unique milk flavors. While they are not all available all the time, flavors including cherry, orange and raspberry keep customers looking forward to these treats all year.
Rapid pasteurization helps to keep the milk fresher, longer, for customers concerned about milk spoiling prior to being fully consumed. Their high-temperature/short time pasteurization (HSTS) process is put in place twice per week as milk is processed and bottled.
The farm does sell milk from its bulk tank to a commercial processor, as their 130-milking head herd of Holsteins generates more milk than they can sell on their own. Selling dairy products off-farm would require additional licenses, more manpower, and remove the consumer from the producer. Direct sales keep the quality control in the family’s hands, too, with no concerns about handling by middlemen.
The farm produces an impressive 10,000 plus gallons of ice cream per year, all sold directly via their on-farm store, or their Tulip café and ice-cream parlor. The ice cream doesn’t contain a lot of air, due to the use of natural cream, making a solid product that remains hard and doesn’t turn to mush by the time the customer brings the carton home.
Crystal Spring Farm is focused on variety. Expect many ice cream flavors available both at the ice cream counter as well as in the take home ice cream freezer. Not only do quarts and half gallons occupy shelf space, but ice cream cakes and ice cream sandwiches add to the tempting selection of homemade ice cream treats.
“We are constantly playing with the ingredients, trying to improve it,” Gary said of their ice cream recipe. Hubert continually researches information on fat and protein contents, dreams up new flavors and seeks out the highest quality ingredients, which means using a lot of fresh cream.
They only use their own milk and cream, made onsite into an ice cream base to which natural flavorings and other ingredients are added. With a butterfat content of 14 percent, Crystal Spring Farm’s ice cream is known for its creaminess. During the winter the ice cream sales slow, and cream is frozen to meet the warm season increase in demand.
“We struggle to get enough cream, especially in the summer,” Scott said.
The total herd numbers 300 head. The milking herd is housed in a freestall barn, with sand bedding. Three hundred acres of field crops — rye, corn, oats and alfalfa— are grown on the farm, and ultimately mixed to make the ration for all of the cows. The same high forage ration is fed twice per day to both milking cows and heifers, with hay added to the mix for the heifers. Dry cows are grazed in season.
By growing all of their own quality feed, cows are fed the optimal diet needed to produce high-quality, great tasting milk. The low somatic cell count of under 55,000 on average is both proof of high-quality milk from healthy cows and the reason the milk tastes so good and stays fresh so long.
The farm has recently begun to breed some cows to Angus, to produce their own beef herd. Doing so offers the family another value-added product to sell in the store and use in the café. Retail cuts of beef are sold frozen by the pound. Their own smoked dried beef, sold at the deli counter by the pound, is a big hit with customers.
Today, the farm’s sales of fluid milk are only 75 percent of the amount they sold back in 1975, despite a large gain in the immediate population base. Some of that can be attributed to the growth of convenience stores, and the disconnection of food and farm. Per capita fluid milk consumption has also dropped in the past decades.
There are customers willing to travel to the farm for locally-grown food: Usually the ice cream.
Single-herd milk, bottled at the farm, shouldn’t be a thing of the past. Not only does it keep the milk money on the farm, it reconnects farms to the communities they feed. Crystal Spring Farm continues to offer local customers a direct connection to their food.
For more information, visit http://crystalspringfarmpa.com/crystal-spring-farm/3329135.