A grassfed moo-vement: How one family dairy farm found its niche

Published: June 6, 2022


By Beth Janes

Even before the day’s first light filters into Slocomb, Alabama, Riske de Jong has already finished her coffee and had breakfast. She climbs into her four-wheeler and heads out to the pastures at Working Cows Dairy, the farm she owns with her husband, Jan. “I get right away to the cows to make sure everything is okay,” she says. After ushering 120 of her 200 or so animals to the milking barn, she tends to pregnant and calving cows and any new arrivals then opens various gates around the 430-acre properly so the cows can eventually make their way back outside. There, the “ladies” will spend the rest of the day meandering and munching on a tasty, farm-fresh buffet.

“They’re eating clover now, and the rye grass is starting to come in, so I’ll be making a lot of cheese from that milk,” de Jong says, explaining how the taste and nutritional content of the milk — and the dairy products made from it — varies depending on the season and what the cows eat. “It’s really yellow now because it’s so rich in beta carotene from the grass and so it’s much more nutritious.”

The American dream — and a reality check

The farm didn’t always run this way. Nor was it a linear path getting here. De Jong and Jan, who had worked on his family’s dairy farm in the Netherlands, first came to Florida in 1985 with $5,000 in savings looking opportunities and warmer weather and started their dairy business renting farm space and leasing cows. Six years and three sons later, they moved the family and the 220 cows they now owned to Slocomb, where the couple bought an existing 80-acre dairy. Over the next 15 years, it would grow into a large traditional dairy farm, with more than 400 acres, multiple barns, 16 employees and nearly 1,000 cows, 700 of which were milked 3 times a day, joining the ranks of 95 percent of other dairy farms in the U.S. that are family owned.

But the de Jongs didn’t see that growth as success, per se. “We were working 24/7 and any money we made we just turned around to pay the bills,” she says of what they spent on feed, wages, equipment and more. “It was so much stress and not the idea we had in mind when we decided to come to America.”

The de Jong Family.

The grass(fed) is actually greener

Competition for low prices also forced decisions on feed and milking that de Jong felt stripped their milk of many of its natural benefits, she says. So, they downsized and began the lengthy process of becoming a certified organic farm — the only one in the region. A few years later, they were still the only one. Unfortunately, they lost their contract with a national organic milk processor precisely because organic dairy farming failed to take off in the southeast.

But there was still a small niche market for local, organic dairy. The problem: “With no organic farms here, we were spending $10,000 a week trucking in organic feed from the north,” de Jong says. “Our cows were already doing some grazing, so we just said, we might as well do all grazing.” She began researching and then planting grasses and groundcover. “We knew we could buy organic rye seed from up north, but that sure didn’t want to grow in the south,” she says. “We went through all these learning curves because we were the first and only ones doing it here.”

Around the same time, the de Jong boys — now ages 19, 20 and 21 and skilled at welding—built an on-site bottling operation so the family could sell milk directly. “Our boys would drive the milk truck up to Birmingham and sell 800 gallons every Saturday,” de Jong says. Word spread like warm butter. “We were the only certified organic local dairy, so quickly Whole Foods came to visit us and said, ‘We need to carry your products,’” she remembers. Distribution grew steadily from there to all the Whole Foods in the entire southeast region. The farm bought more equipment and soon began selling cream, 2 percent and skim milk, then butter and now, award-winning cheese. “This was always our goal; all we wanted was to have a small profitable dairy,” de Jong says.

Pasture perfect

The de Jongs managed to become profitable ultimately because they offer their southern community a unique product. While not everyone is willing to pay a premium for milk, butter and cheese, many appreciate the seasonal flavor variations that come with the cows’ varying diet, Rinske’s special herb butters and artisanal cheeses that capitalize on the flavor, and that the dairy pasteurizes milk at lower temperatures and never homogenizes, keeping the milk as close to its raw form as allowed by USDA organic and FDA standards. (Homogenization combats milk separation by breaking down fat and protein so they stay mixed together rather than fat rising to the top.)

Grassfed dairy has also become more popular since it’s been found to be higher in omega-3 fatty acids (the same type of healthy fats fish is famous for) as well as other nutrients like vitamin E, according to a study in comparing grassfed, organic and conventional milk in Food Science & Nutrition.

And then there are the environmental benefits. Like many organic and grassfed dairy and livestock farms, Working Cows utilizes what’s called regenerative agriculture, which has been identified as a top way to reduce greenhouse gases, a quarter of which are currently produced by the agriculture industry, reports to a paper in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition.

What is regenerative ag exactly? It’s an umbrella term and approach to land management that can involve, among other things, use of native cover crops and no-till farming, cows that naturally fertilize fields and rotate pastures, and other ways of conserving soil health and biodiversity that ultimately traps greenhouses gases that might otherwise be released into the environment.

Rinske de Jong slicing Working Cows Dairy cheese.

Dairy Queen

While the de Jongs may not be working 24/7 like they used to, they aren’t taking it easy. Rinske now channels her energy into making butter and cheese, which she hopes will be the future of Working Cows Dairy. It’s a good bet: Despite milk consumption declining over the last few decades, Americans have been steadily eating more cheese and butter than ever every year.

Having already sanitized the molds and tanks in preparation for a day of cheesemaking, de Jong has a brief window of time while waiting on milk for her next step in the process. Currently she makes different types of Gouda and farmstead cheese, including the award-winning Slocomb Tomato-Garlic, plus herbed and salted butter from the cow’s rich, springtime milk, the recipes for which she’s personally tested and perfected over time. “We use butter in sandwiches instead of using mayonnaise, I cook everything in butter, and when I bake, I use the herb butter. And I’m really happy to have cheese at every meal,” de Jong says, before adding, “but I’ve got to quit talking now — I just got the call that the new milk is ready.”

Reprinted with permission of Feast and Field

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