It’s a muddy day at Randy Lewis’s farm. The milking herd waits to return to pasture after being milked and fed. In other fields, cattle raised for beef and young heifers munch on hay and watch us taking photos. Red, the 15-year-old farm mascot, gives us the eye and saunters to the other side of the yard.
Randy’s great grand-daddy built the farmhouse in Alamance County in the late 1800’s. The family grew some tobacco and cotton as well as doing subsistence farming and sawmilling before becoming a dairy farm, run by Randy’s grandma, in 1950. Back then, feed was cheap and running a dairy farm was a good living. A milk commission kept an eye on feed prices, changing milk prices when the cost of feed fluctuated. Since 1983, Randy tells us, when the milk commission was voted out, the milk business has been a roller coaster: “It seems like there’s months of good and years of bad.” Selling his milk to the commercial dairy industry is no longer sustainable. “Everything’s tired,” Randy says. “We need to find a different way.”
Randy believes in the high quality of his milk and has set about to bottle his own and sell it locally. In addition to the benefits of being local and from cows on pasture, the milk is non-homogenized: homogenized milk is shaken to distribute the fat throughout the milk, but Randy’s will have a layer of cream at the top. Some people like to skim the cream off and use it in their coffee, resulting in a lower fat milk. “Me? I like rich milk, so I shake it up and drink the milk,” Randy says. “We do have to pasteurize it, but we are essentially doing the minimum of everything we have to do…. We’re gonna leave it as close to the natural product as we can.”
A grant from the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) in Pittsboro helped Randy buy the equipment he needed, like a pasteurizer and a bottler. He had the novel idea to set up the bottling operation in a refridgerated truck trailer that’s parked outside the milking barn. Randy hopes that selling his own milk will make the farm more sustainable, enabling him to hire help and to spend more time looking after crops on the farm and tending to the cows. Being on pasture and not cement, the farm’s cows are generally healthy. Randy does use antibiotics but only to treat the occasional sick cow because he thinks it would be unethical to let it suffer. Randy grows silage for the cows and also buys it locally. Since we first met him, he has begun to use all non-GMO silage.
From his childhood, when he was tasked with holding a baby bottle for a calf, Randy has been a dairy farmer. Times have changed for milk producers, but Randy is hoping this new change will bring back small dairy farming as a viable option.
Watch a video of our visit with Randy below.