Warren Taylor picked me up at Port Columbus International Airport in Ohio and right away I knew this wasn’t going to be the typical visit with the owner of a dairy company. I had barely settled into his Subaru SUV when he asked: “How many teenage ADD boys does it take to change a light bulb?” Then he blurted the punchline: “Let’s go outside and ride bikes.”
Next he pulled out a glass jar of homemade kefir and poured half into a clean yogurt cup for me. He said he drinks a jar of this every morning after he practices tai chi. The ancient Chinese exercise clears his mind, he said, and the protein-packed, probiotic-rich kefir keeps him going until lunchtime. Then we hit the road.
Taylor is the owner of Snowville Creamery located in the tiny farming town of Pomeroy, Ohio, 115 miles southeast of Columbus. He is not the typical buttoned-down CEO who carefully crafts answers to questions posed by a visiting journalist. He speaks his mind without regard to whose toes in the dairy establishment he is stepping on. With Taylor, what you see is what you get.
Taylor carries two sets of business cards. One identifies him as “dairy evangelist” and the other as “dairy revolutionary.” I saw both sides during a visit in October. Taylor has strong opinions about America’s food industry, big dairies, the politicians who write the rules and the federal agencies that implement the regulations. He’s against overly processed foods, factory farms, big agri-business and unlabeled genetically modified foods. He gave me an earful on each topic during the two days I spent with him.
Make no mistake, Taylor is pro-dairy. When it comes to promoting full-fat dairy products made from the milk of grass-grazed cows, Taylor is all in. In his view, there is no better food.
His compact creamery is located on the edge of a dairy farm that supplies some of his milk. Snowville bottles non-homogenized milk from rBST-free cows that graze on grass. Cream products are pasteurized using low heat and made without stabilizers. Cultured products (like yogurt and crème fraiche) are made from milk that is cold-concentrated by a microfiltration system which removes water and boosts protein. Customers include Whole Foods, Giant Eagle, Kroger’s and independent grocers in Ohio and neighboring states.
Snowville is David competing against Goliath. It is a very small, independent dairy processor going up against much larger competitors. Taylor faces big challenges. His premium-priced foods and beverages are fighting for shelf space with lower-priced store brands and other value-added milks in the dairy case. Taylor has to defend the price-value of his products against private-label and regional dairy brands. Also, his fresh-milk products have a 14-day shelf life compared to extended shelf life products that are salable for 60 days or longer.
But in Taylor’s favor is consumer sentiment towards food and food companies. A certain segment of shoppers wants to know what is in their food, where it is made and how it is made. When the research firm Mintel surveyed the Millennial generation, it found that 43% do not trust large food manufacturers (compared to 18% of non-Millennials) and 74% wish that food companies were more transparent about how they manufacture their products (compared to 69% of non-Millennials).
In an analysis written in 2014, Harvey Hartman, owner of The Hartman Group wrote, “I believe the single most important food trend of the past 30 years has been the rising consumer interest in fresh, less processed food.” In the report, titled “Reflections on Cultural Change,” Hartman concluded “the trend toward higher-quality ingredients –and, by proxy, food experiences –will continue unabated.”
Cows grazing on grass
Taylor’s company is a locally owned small business that makes minimally processed foods. That strikes a chord with many food shoppers. Also, the creamery sources milk from cows not treated with rBST, the artificial growth hormone. The cows don’t eat genetically modified grains. Instead, they roam through paddocks and graze on grass and clover. Milk is bottled and can be on store shelves within two days.
Snowville trucks pick up milk from area farms three days a week. The two tankers (a 2,300-gallon and a 5,600-gallon) make the rounds on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Bottling is done on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Currently, milk supply is not a problem. But it could be, and that is a point of irritation for Taylor. The dairy is required to pay into the federal market pool but gets nothing in return since the availability of grass-grazed milk is limited. In essence, he’s paying for access to milk that he can’t use.
Taylor came to dairy processing from the engineering side. He spent years on the West Coast designing dairy plants for Safeway Stores. On our two-hour drive to Pomeroy, Taylor told stories about the engineers, salesmen and dairy owners he encountered early in his career. Randall Dei, a Safeway executive who worked with Taylor, said “he was and still is a brilliant process engineer.”
“He would think two steps down the road,” Dei said. To fix a problem, for example, Taylor would look at the causes and the effects and then take a holistic approach to resolving the issue.
Whether he was working for Safeway as an employee or as a contractor, Taylor was cost-conscious and spent money as if it were his own, Dei said. He recalled that Taylor would sleep in an empty conference room at a dairy plant rather than pay for a hotel room.
Eventually Taylor left Safeway, found his way back to Ohio and opened his own shop to design food plants. Taylor grew up in Columbus and graduated from Ohio State University with a degree in dairy technology. His younger brother Vincent, who now runs Daisy Brand, followed a similar path. Their parents bought wooded property in the southern part of the state to use as a get-away destination. There had been a post office called Snowville. When Warren Taylor moved back to the Buckeye State, he purchased land beside the family farm, where he now lives. He took the name Snowville for his company.
He met dairy farmers Bill Dix and Stacy Hall, who piqued his interest in grass grazing and the health benefits of grass milk. The stars were lining up. Taylor had a long-time interest in becoming a dairy processor and he had the expertise in plant design. In 2006, he started Snowville. His experiences as a process engineer – seeing how money is invested (and misspent) in equipment and design – shaped how he designed his own creamery.
Taylor is resourceful. He has to be. He’s running a start-up business funded with his own money. Dei said Taylor always “thought outside the box.” That’s true, literally. Taylor bought two shipping containers with the idea of using them for a processing room. Instead, they wound up as storerooms for packaging. He calls them the “container containers.” He also bought two used double-wide construction-site buildings. These form the executive offices. Equipment is often bought at auction, trucked to Pomeroy, reconditioned and put into service.
He already knew that the practices of a high-volume dairy (like Safeway) were not available to him. Snowville doesn’t have the cold-storage capacity or the high-volume demand that supermarkets have. Snowville only makes half-gallon cartons, while other processors offer formats from pints to gallons. When demand and sales pick up, he’s ready to add a quart filler, he said. But the consequence of that will be another SKU to manage, he acknowledged. As Dei said, Taylor considers causes and effects.
The grass-grazed dairy industry is growing, but slowly, said Joel McNair, publisher of Graze magazine. Farmers are known as “graziers.” The dairy industry is still losing family-owned farms due to retirement or economic reasons. Many of the grass-grazed operations are owned by Amish or Mennonite farmers, like the ones that supply Snowville. There is no federal standard or definition of grass-fed, but Pennsylvania Certified Organic does have a 100% Grassfed certification program. Despite the term grass-fed milk, an estimated 90% of farmers who pasture their cows still feed them a mixed ration of corn silage and grains, McNair said. The growth and “excitement” in grass grazing is in 100% forage feeding, McNair said.
Health benefits of grass-grazed milk
Cows that eat grass produce milk containing more conjugated linoleic acid, said to be a naturally occurring “good” fatty acid. In a 2014 article for Dairy Foods, Charles Benbrook of Washington State University wrote “Grass in dairy cow diets improves the nutritional quality of milk.”
Taylor speaks so forcefully in favor of milk from grass-grazed cows that I wondered if he saw any nutritional value in store-brand, commodity milk.
“Oh absolutely. Of course, absolutely,” he said. “It’s milk. I think it’s better than anything else that children can drink, and whatever, as long as it doesn’t give them a negative reaction. I think the first thing is, people should drink whole milk. The first thing I say is ‘God didn’t make milk wrong.’ You can quote me on that.”
Now, Taylor the “dairy evangelist” kicks into high gear. He’s preaching the virtues of whole-fat milk.
“And if you don’t believe in God, do you believe in Darwin? Because skim milk didn’t get the human race to where we are. And so whether you believe in God or Darwin, either way, there is no justification for lowering the fat of dairy products. With regard to our children, there’s ample evidence that the protein is best utilized in the presence of the fat that it’s produced in the cow with. There’s evidence that children will drink more whole-fat milk if that’s what they’re given. They’ll enjoy it more. Third, they have higher satiety with that. And they tend to consume [fewer] carbohydrates as a result. What’s not to like?”
From evangelist to revolutionary
The dairy evangelist later gives way to the “dairy revolutionary.” His targets include large-scale dairies and food companies, corporate lobbyists and anyone who deceives or misinforms consumers.
Grass-grazed milk, with its higher levels of conjugated linoleic acids, is “way better than the industrial milk” from large processors, he said. Then he goes after the dairy farmers who pour molasses over the grass they feed to their cows. Taylor calls molasses “corn in drag” and farmers who do so “posers.”
“I’m really upset about the conventional commodity dairy industry. But I’m not happy with all the aspects of the alternative dairy industry. I’m not happy with organics sterilizing milk and telling mothers it’s better.”
Then Taylor steps outside of the dairy industry and looks at what’s happening in the United States. He doesn’t like what he sees. He said he is for representative democracy but that he believes that lobbyists have taken decision making away from the citizenry. Consider mandatory labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms. Taylor favors it, as do certain other interests in and out of the food industry. Large food companies and grocery chains, for the most part, prefer a federal, voluntary system rather than state laws.
A right to know about GMOs
Gary Hirshberg is the chairman of Just Label It, a coalition of more than 700 businesses and organizations fighting for a mandatory disclosure system for products containing GMOs. He is the co-founder and former CEO of Stonyfield Farm. Representing Just Label It, Hirshberg told the Senate Committee on Agriculture on Oct. 20, 2015, “Our position is simple: Consumers have the right to know what is in their food and how it is grown – the same right held by citizens in 64 nations.”
He said that nine out of 10 Americans, “regardless of age, income, race or party affiliation want the right to know whether the food they eat and purchase for their families contains GMOs,” Hirshberg said. “Consumers give many reasons for wanting these disclosures, but chief among them is the extent to which GMO crops have increased the use of herbicides linked to serious health problems.
“Let me be very clear: we strongly support a national GMO disclosure system that provides factual information. We do not support a warning or a disclosure system that renders a judgment on GMOs and are certainly not seeking a ban on GMO crops. Rather, we support a value-neutral disclosure that respects the right of consumers to make their own choices.”
Taylor asked if 90% of Americans want GMO labeling, “why can’t we have it? Because [FDA Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine] Michael Taylor (no relation) says we’re too ignorant to make the choice. I believe that all men are created equal. I believe that we have inalienable rights. And I believe in the will of the people. He’s blocking the testing of our food to find out how much poison is in it.”
Taylor was talking about the herbicide glyphosate used on genetically modified crops. The International Agency for Research on Cancer termed glyphosate a “probable human carcinogen.” Glyphosate enters the food system from animals that eat GM corn and soybeans. It can’t be scrubbed or washed off.
“We have to take control of our government, and we have to take it away from Monsanto, and Bank of America, and Shell Oil, and Merck, and the medical device makers, and the medical insurance companies. We have to take it away from all of these people who are raping the American people; constantly extracting and reducing the wealth of the American people,” he said.
Then Taylor became reflective.
“If I want to be one of the leaders in the American dairy industry, I better not just be known for throwing stones at everything we’re doing. Not at all. We’re all dairy farmers and we’re all in it together,” he said.
“We ought to be linked by our commonalities and not be putting ourselves at each other’s throats over these minor differences. But having said that, the next thing is the dramatic difference in the quality of the fat if the animals are on grass, because it’s black and white. And there is no arguing it. There’s no credible argument that the commodity milk fat is as nutritional as grass-grazed. I’ve never heard anybody try to argue the point. They just try to not discuss it,” Taylor said.
Next for Snowville: milk from A2 cows
Taylor’s next move is to source milk solely from cows with the A2 gene. A2 milk was popularized in Australia and New Zealand. A dairy there, called the a2 Milk Co., re-entered the U.S. market in 2015. Some in the dairy industry believe that A2 milk is healthier and easier to digest than A1 milk. Taylor is working with a professor at nearby Ohio University in Athens on a simple test to identify cows with the A1 gene.
During the two days we spent together, he had voiced strong opinions about the Dairy Establishment. So before I left, I wanted to know who Taylor considers to be his friends. He thought for a bit, then said his friends are all the mothers in America who want to feed their children healthy foods. They are the ones who appreciate what he is doing, he said. He’s looking out for them.
Photos by Vito Palmisano