Remote dairy farm grasps retail opportunities

Erin Harris breeds all of her farm’s cows to Jersey bulls because she finds the breed preferable in terms of ease of handling.  |  Christalee Froese photo

On the Farm: Kootenay Meadows in the southern British Columbia interior finds markets for its cheese and bottled milk

CRESTON, B.C. — These dairy cows have it good.

They graze on fresh organic grass every 12 hours. They are sheltered from blustery winds by a towering mountain range. They are milked on their own schedule. They don’t stand on concrete. And as newborn calves, they stay with their mothers for an extended period of time.

The idea behind this pampered existence is to create as little stress as possible for each of the 100 Jersey-Holstein cross cows that are part of the Kootenay Meadows herd. It is stress that leads to disease and disease is avoided at all costs at this certified organic, grass-based dairy farm.

“Our cows have so little stress that they tend to stay healthier longer,” says co-owner Erin Harris, explaining that 85 percent of disease in dairy cattle is stress-related.

“We’re definitely on the lower end milk-production wise, getting about 25 litres per cow per day, but the longevity of our cows is really good.”

As a graduate of the University of Guelph with a degree in organic agriculture, Harris has extensively studied the factors leading to the best herd health. The average dairy cow has a life expectancy of only five years, while the Kootenay Meadows cows can live up to seven or eight years, meaning more milk in the long run.

Foster Harris is the company’s cheese maker. | Christalee Froese photo

A Grazeway Gate and robot-arm milking system allow the cows to choose their milking and grazing times, as well as allowing all four sections of the udder to be milked separately, which means less milk left behind, and again, less opportunity for disease.

The philosophy of sustainable local agriculture was passed down to Harris from her parents, Wayne and Denise Harris. The British Columbia-raised couple bought an existing Creston dairy in 1991, putting their personal stamp on the operation by focusing on sustainable land management and organic milk production.

In 2007, the family decided to go into cheese making to add value to the organic raw milk they were producing. The Harris’s second child, Foster, studied to be a brew master at Olds College and is the farm’s cheese maker. He now oversees the creation of 36 wheels of raw-milk cheese per week. The artisanal cheese, sold under the brand Alpine Cheese Co., comes in three varieties that are aged from three to 12 months in cave-simulated aging rooms.

In 2013, after mastering the art of cheese making and distribution, the adventurous patriarch of the family began dreaming about what it might be like to have the milk from his prized cows leave the farm in glass bottles rather than in a tanker truck.

Twelve thousand litres of bottled milk and cream are shipped weekly to local stores. | Christalee Froese photo

“I was in my fourth year at Guelph and Dad messages me at 10 at night asking how to bid on an online auction,” said Erin with a laugh, adding that her dad had spotted milk tanks being sold online from a former prison farm in New Brunswick and they were just what he had been looking for.

Wayne won the bid and 18 months later, Kootenay Meadow dairy was filling those New Brunswick tanks with raw milk and bottling skim milk to whipped cream for distribution to retailers throughout the Kootenay region.

Erin says local demand for the pasteurized organic milk was immediately strong. Residents of the isolated Kootenay region, which encompasses the larger communities of Cranbrook, Kimberley, Fernie and Nelson, have embraced the Kootenay Meadows and Alpine Cheese Co. brands.

“We couldn’t farm this way anywhere else because of the support of our customers in the Kootenays,” says Erin, pointing out a recent example of the dairy running out of glass bottles during COVID-19 isolation. She posted a Facebook message saying she would park on a road in a central location if anyone wanted to bring their bottles to be recycled… Three thousand milk bottles were dropped off.

“In the Kootenays, we have the challenge of being remote, but that creates an attitude where people want to see local businesses survive and thrive.”

Kootenay Meadows now ships 12,000 litres of bottled milk, chocolate milk and cream to area stores per week.

Erin, who is in the process of buying the family farm from her parents, says she and her dad are the big thinkers in the operation, while her mom tends to be the voice of reason.

Erin Harris fills glass milk bottles with Kootenay Meadows milk, which runs from a pipeline in the barn to holding tanks in the bottling room. | Christalee Froese photo

“I’m the one who has to keep reminding them that there are 24 hours in a day and seven days in a week,” says Denise.

Erin, Wayne and Denise meet weekly to plan what has to happen on the dairy each day.

“We’re pretty religious about those meetings, especially in the fall and winter when we’re not as busy,” says Erin, adding that the three categories always discussed over coffee are time-sensitive issues, big-picture planning and the elephant in the room.

The job list for the 12 or so employees of the farm is enormous considering that Kootenay Meadows owns and operates its own refrigerator trucks for deliveries and also offers on-farm sales at its retail store.

All three Harris farm owners acknowledge that their schedules are incredibly busy, but it all comes back to the main goal of the farm: caring for their cows and land in a respectful and sustainable way.

Kootenay Meadows farm strives to create as little stress as possible for its Jersey-Holstein cross cows. | Christalee Froese photo

“My favourite part of the day is before the sun comes up when it’s just quiet out and there is some fog and I’m walking out to get the cows in the morning,” says Denise.

Erin agrees that Kootenay Meadow dairy is all about the cows.

“I’m passionate about my cows and giving them the best life possible with as little impact on the environment as possible,” says Erin, adding that she is open to partnering with young farmers who could share the expertise, facilities and distribution system that the Harris family has developed.

“Our farm is so mammoth at this point so I envision a young farmer or a couple who might be interested in goats or something like that using our processing and partnering with me to share the workload.”

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