A Milkman with a Mission

Snowville Creamery's Warren Taylor

I was introduced to Warren Taylor in 2009. He and one of his dairy disciples were coming up to Cleveland to offer samples of their milk at local grocery stores. Their operation at the time was, as it is today, a lean one, and staying with believers was a simple way to save on travel.

Karen Small, chef/owner of the Flying Fig and an early user of Snowville Creamery’s milk, made the introduction, and an email from Snowville quickly followed. The subject line: The circus is coming . . . ! The text of the message was benign enough, except maybe for the part about having to make some custard at my house for an ice cream event. Just five gallons, with a promise to clean up. Seemed like a fair inconvenience when I had a sneaking suspicion that I’d be left flush with the state’s best dairy.

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What a circus they were. After a quick meeting and key handoff when they arrived, I barely saw Warren and his marketing director again as they barnstormed to events and tastings around town. When we finally caught up, late on a Saturday night, it turned out those five gallons of custard produced quite a bit more ice cream than they needed for the event. That’s a tough position to be in, having too much ice cream. But Warren had a solution.

They took the extra ice cream to one of the hot spots on West 25th Street where they were planning to have a dinner. Not one to let things go to waste, and being at a bar known for serving draft beer, Warren had an idea. Beer floats for everyone! Most people already had glasses of beer, so Warren simply went around the bar adding a scoop of freshly churned ice cream to all those glasses. Let’s just say, not everyone is as enthusiastic about pasture- raised dairy as Warren Taylor.

That weekend got me wondering—what is Snowville? Their tagline makes it seem simple: “Milk the way it used to be.” And at some level that’s what it is—a dairy offering non-homogenized, minimally pasteurized milk produced by grass-grazed cows. The result is a sweet, clean-tasting milk and an assortment of dairy products. But talk to Warren for a second and you’ll realize he’s more than just a dairy entrepreneur, and Snowville is fighting for more than just space in your grocery’s dairy section. We spent a day down at the operation in Pomeroy, right outside of Athens, in an attempt to understand what the creamery is all about.

Snowville’s lack of convention hadn’t changed since our visit in 2009. On arriving at the processing facility, Warren greeted us wielding a large crock filled with kefir, a fermented dairy beverage whose viscosity falls somewhere between that of heavy cream and yogurt. For the uninitiated, the sour assertiveness of the beverage would best be sampled first with a modest dose. Warren wasted no time pouring a pint for each member of our little group. When one member politely declined on account of being lactose intolerance, Warren insisted that he give it a try. He was not trying to make anyone sick—in fact, his intentions were quite the opposite. He simply believes that his milk is different, and healthier, than what we are used to.

His arguments attempting to allay fears of intolerance were based on science—kefir is low in lactose, and the dairy that went into the kefir was from cows tested to ensure they have A2/A2 genes, meaning the beta-casein in the milk is believed to cause less gastrointestinal distress than milk from the majority of dairy cows in America, cows which have A1 genes. Still, the kefir was politely refused. No worry, as Warren proceeded to guzzle the leftovers of his second pint of the morning, and off we went to tour the facilities.

Snowville’s dairy is processed steps from its main dairy producer’s pasture. There, a gleaming and surprisingly compact operation turns raw milk into finished dairy products, such as milk, cream, yogurt, and crème fraîche. While we were in his factory laboratory, workers plugged away on a maze of pipes to ensure that milk could be processed as soon as it was brought in. Warren, a dairy man well before his Snowville days, was proud of that aspect of the company.

In addition to supporting progressive farmers, Snowville is providing quality jobs in the community. This aspect of the company’s mission is not lost on its founder. Warren holds Snowville up as more than a competitor in the crowded and cutthroat dairy landscape, but instead as an anti-establishment social enterprise providing healthy food, good jobs, and a boost to a rural community.

To hear Warren talk is to hear Warren deliver a sermon. He’s a practiced pitchman, and he pitches with the zealotry of a true believer. Our inquiries were met with responses that were designed to evoke an emotional reaction. Why dairy? Because worldwide, more people consume dairy than eat rice or wheat, Warren replied. Is that true, we thought, before Warren quickly followed up by noting that along with honey, milk is the only product animals give us with no harm to the animals themselves. And milk is magical— mammary glands convert blood, the fluid of life, into milk.

Why insist on GMO-free? For Warren, an industrial agriculture skeptic who came up in the 1970s, it’s all about eliminating glyphosate, otherwise known as Roundup, from the food system. He explained that most GMOs consumed in the food chain come from Roundup Ready crops, meaning crops that have been genetically altered to enable them to thrive despite being subjected to Roundup, an herbicide applied to kill anything growing in competition with the desired crop. So rather than tackle the laborious process of targeting only the weeds in a field, a farmer can spray a whole field with Roundup. The weeds die, the theory goes, and the crop that remains standing is fine to eat.

Warren doesn’t buy the corporate science, based on the theory that if there is no consensus that a product or method causes harm, then the product or method must be safe. He subscribes to the more European precautionary approach for incorporating science into the food system. The precautionary approach places the burden on a producer to show that a new product or method is not harmful prior to implementing it, rather than just showing that there is no hard proof that the product or method causes harm.

Warren sees a history of pharmaceuticals and agricultural chemicals affecting not just the consumer, but also the consumer’s DNA, with negative consequences passed down for multiple generations. With respect to GMOs and glyphosate, Warren puts it simply, saying, “Don’t take apart something we can’t put back together.”

Out in the pasture that surrounds the processing facility, farmers Lin and Eric Karcher, who took over the farm in 2007, have been working to improve the cow herd’s genetics to produce healthy milk on Southeast Ohio grasses.

Like Warren, Lin comes from a big agriculture background, having spent years developing animal feed for Kalmbach Feeds in Upper Sandusky. She and Eric hit a point in life when they decided they would follow their dream and run a dairy. It’s an unrelenting dream, with two milkings a day—one at 5am and another at 5pm—and the cows don’t take holidays or weekends.

To hear Lin and Eric describe it, they are grass farmers, with an ultimate goal of finding the perfect combination of grasses, rotation practices, and cattle genetics to produce milk efficiently in the field, rather than the feedlot. Like other grass farmers, their pastureland is divided, with cows meandering from one lot to another to get that super nutritious first bite of grass. The gorgeous and healthy-looking cows are mostly Jersey, but breed is less important to the Karchers than the animal’s ability to thrive on the region’s grass and A2/A2 genetics.

The life of a dairy farmer isn’t glamorous. Besides the twice-a-day milkings, they’re mending fences, caring for the animals, and even handling artificial insemination duties. But Lin and Eric wouldn’t have it any other way. They have a reasonably sized farm at 350 acres, and a partner that pays a premium price for their output in Snowville. In a field in which bigger is generally regarded as better, the Karchers have figured out a way to create a sustainable farm, and a sustainable business, on a human scale.

Producing dairy products straight from the cow isn’t a cottage industry. The equipment is expensive, the relationship with farmers is delicate and needs to be long term, and the competition is fierce. Many of us have grown accustomed to cheap milk, and dairy products that will stay drinkable in the fridge for over a month. Or maybe we’ve given up on dairy altogether because of how it makes us feel or how we feel about how it’s produced.

Snowville’s milk is not priced like the stuff at the gas station, nor can you toss it in the back of your fridge and forget about it for month. It’s not even stamped organic. But this isn’t commodity milk. It comes from cows raised on pasture and processed intelligently. If you’ve had problems digesting dairy in the past, this milk might not make you sick. The question is whether Snowville is the future of dairy farming or an anachronism, a vestige from an idealized past? Either way, if you can find a better tasting range of dairy products anywhere we’d love to hear about it.