By Brianna Gwirtz, Ohio Country Journal field reporter
Following a downturn in milk prices, Christy Hulse and her family were looking for new, innovative ways to remain on their family’s dairy farm.
“Milk prices were low, so we knew we had to start doing something different,” Hulse said. “We thought maybe bottling milk might be an option for us, to keep things on the farm rolling.”
However, it took a visit from a fellow dairyman and his wife to truly spark the idea behind Buckeye Country Creamery. Christy, co-owner of the creamery located in Ashland, Ohio, had spent a summer in college completing an internship on a dairy farm in Australia.
“I would drink milk every single day and the wife of the dairy farmer would just watch me and say, ‘I can’t do that, I would be so sick,’” Hulse said. “She came to America to visit while we were building the creamery and came to the farm here and said ‘Hey, have you ever heard of A2 milk? It’s milk I can actually drink’ and that’s kind of when we started thinking it might be a great niche for us to pursue.”
At the time, A2 milk was fairly new to the United States, although it had been popular in Australia and New Zealand for years prior. After DNA testing their herd, learning more about the A2 beta-casein protein, and completing the building, Buckeye Country Creamery was officially opened in 2016, exclusively selling A2 milk.
The farm, which had been purchased in 1988 by Christy’s parents, Tom and Marcia Lahmers, already had an established dairy herd. After deciding on their business route, they DNA tested every cow.
“About half our herd already qualified to produce A2 milk, so it was easy for us to make that transition. We milked those cows first and would then use that milk in the creamery,” Hulse said. “Many people who can’t drink milk think that they are lactose intolerant, but sometimes that’s not the case. Sometimes it’s the milk protein that bothers people’s stomach, not necessarily the milk sugar.”
Casein is one of the major proteins found in milk. The A1 and A2 beta-casein are genetic variations of the beta-casein milk protein, which differ by only one amino acid. A2 beta-casein protein is said to be the “original” cow’s milk. Over time, the American dairy herd started to develop a protein combination of A2 and A1 beta-casein protein.
Today, most milk contains A1A2 casein proteins, but as one might guess, cows that produce A2 milk are found to only have A2A2 proteins. Multiple scientific studies have suggested that A1 beta-casein creates a reaction in the digestive tract that can lead to irritation. Many people who are sensitive to the A1 protein develop digestive issues that mimic the symptoms of lactose intolerance.
Not only does Buckeye Country Creamery produce A2 milk products, their milk is also non-GMO certified, following a recent business partnership with Pine Tree Dairy, belonging to the Matthew Steiner family of Rittman, Ohio. The farm milks 180 Holstein and Jersey cows. In order to meet the non-GMO certification, all the cows on that farm are fed non-genetically modified grains and haylage.
Joel Steiner, one of Matthew’s sons, works closely with the Hulse family and in the day-to-day operations at the creamery and on the dairy farm.
“Our farm in Dalton, Ohio is our non-GMO certified farm, and all the cows there produce A2 milk only,” Steiner said.
Steiner comes from a large family. In order for him and his siblings all to have some part in the farming lifestyle, they were looking for additional opportunities to get family involved.
“We saw the business partnership with the creamery as another way to diversify the farm. We saw the A2 market as something that consumers wanted,” Steiner said. “There’s not many other local places around here that are focused on using A2 milk.”
Milk is trucked to the creamery from the farm, where it is vat pasteurized, sometimes flavored, bottled and then stored or shipped. Currently, the creamery is producing roughly 700 gallons of milk a week. Five employees keep the creamery running, as well as make deliveries.
Another layer to their unique, bottled milk is the temperature at which they pasteurize. Since the creamery uses a vat pasteurizer, they are able to do low-temp pasteurization. Their milk is held at 145 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes. This type of pasteurization kills harmful bacteria but doesn’t denature the enzymes and vitamins that occur naturally in milk. Some customers interested in raw milk (which has significant health risks and is illegal) are looking for low-temp pasteurization as an acceptable (and legal) substitute.
Buckeye Country Creamery milk is also not homogenized. Homogenization is used to give milk a similar consistency from bottle to bottle and within each bottle, making it unnecessary to have to shake milk and mix the cream in before drinking it. Homogenization changes the molecular structure of the milk fat by putting it through high pressure to break up the molecules and change their structure.
Customers feel the non-homogenized milk has a better flavor and texture, and they also appreciate the quality and digestibility of the A2 milk.
Joel Hulse, Christy’s husband, is the creamery manager and works to develop new flavors and ideas. Currently, the creamery is producing 2% milk, whole milk, strawberry milk, chocolate milk, cookies and cream milk and featuring special flavors like vanilla and maple milk.
“Each season we try to feature some new flavors,” Hulse said. “Some of the more popular ones include orange cream and buckeye milk.”
In addition to producing flavored, non-homogenized milk, Buckeye Country Creamery also produces drinkable yogurt, butter milk and some ice cream. They recently purchased a separator and hope to sell cream as well.
When looking forward to the future, both Hulse and Steiner shared similar sentiment: growth. Currently, Buckeye Country Creamery sells their milk and milk products in their store front in Ashland. Shoppers can stop in 7 days a week to fulfill their milk needs. They also deliver and sell their milk in more than 120 locations in north central Ohio, including popular foodie destinations such as Weiland’s Market in Columbus and the Westside Market in Cleveland.
As they look to the future, Steiner is hopeful that with the addition of a homogenizer in the near future, they can expand their product offerings. He also hopes to continue to find new avenues and ways to market their A2 milk.
Hulse is most excited about the opportunities Buckeye Country Creamery has to educate consumers about the dairy industry and about A2 milk. Currently, they host group tours for many local 4-H clubs and Girl and Boy Scout Troops. Every so often, they will host every third grader in Ashland County as well, for a special farm tour day. They even sponsored milk for the winning Hillsdale High School softball team.
“When we got started, we thought the hardest part would be building the creamery,” Hulse said. “But really it’s been marketing and building our brand. We can’t wait to continue to grow in our marketing efforts. I’m excited to see what the future holds and do our part in teaching the public at the same time.”
Reprinted with permission by Ohio Country Journal