Eight years ago, I put a carton of milk in my shopping cart without thinking about it. I sliced cheese for a sandwich and scooped ice cream for dessert with a similar lack of thought about its origins.

Seven years ago I joined this magazine and the way in which I viewed dairy foods changed, totally and profoundly. I had no idea about the engineering, chemistry and technology (not to mention the veterinary science) involved in transferring milk from a cow to a dairy plant and then processing, bottling and shipping that milk to my grocery store.

The movement of milk from farm to plant occurs every day in the United States. I lost count of the number of plant managers who told me they receive milk seven days a week because cows never take a day off.

I’ve visited dairy processing plants in 23 states. My travels have taken me to some remote places (that is, remote to someone who lives in the Chicago area). I punched a ticket to Skowhegan, Maine, to visit Gifford’s Ice Cream; Cabot, Vt. (Cabot Cheese); Athens, Tenn. (Mayfield Dairy); Kent, Ill. (Nuestro Queso); Le Mars, Iowa (Wells Enterprises); Sandpoint, Idaho (Litehouse Foods); Roseburg, Ore. (Umpqua Dairy); and Fortuna, Calif. (Humboldt Creamery). After visiting  Central Valley Cheese, I thought that would be my one and only visit to Turlock, Calif. Eleven months later I was checking into the same Holiday Inn Express in the Central Valley on my way to see Joseph Gallo Farms in nearby Atwater.


Creameries large and small

There’s more than one way to bottle milk, make cheese and churn ice cream. I’ve visited small creameries like Kilby Cream’s farmstead operation in Colora, Md., Bill Weigel’s Broadacre milk plant in Knoxville, Tenn., and the Comfy Cow in Louisville, Ky., which makes ice cream in a batch processor.

I ducked my head to avoid overhead pipes in Westby Cooperative’s cramped but productive creamery in Wisconsin.

At the other end of the scale, I toured HP Hood’s expansive high-speed facilities in Winchester, Va., and Sacramento, Calif. Agropur in St. Paul, Minn., and fairlife in Coopersville, Mich., kindly showed me their operations. I marveled at the spacious new plants that Kroger and Bel Brands built in Denver and Brookings, S.D., respectively. There are dozens of other notable dairy plants I haven’t mentioned. I learned something at every one.

The me of eight years ago did not know you can separate milk into its component parts. To tell the truth, I didn’t know there were components. Nor did I know what a company could do with streams of fat, protein, lactose and calcium. I know now, thanks to you.

Milk and yogurt are some of the oldest foods on the planet, yet dairy processors in the 21st century are developing new ones. The aforementioned fairlife milk is one such product, and so are milks with  added-protein or omega-3s. There are grass-fed, organic, non-GMO conventional and rBST-free milks. Coffee has proven to be milk’s new BFF. Milk-coffee hybrids are in demand, and if you’ll excuse the pun, cold-brewed versions are hot.

The introduction of Greek yogurt to the United States, generally attributed to Fage and popularized by Chobani, set off a boom in that category. Now come drinkable yogurts. Dairy brands are marketing the beverages, long a staple in Hispanic households, to a broader demographic.

As Americans turn to snacking and eating away from home, dairy processors and their packaging partners have found new ways to keep foods fresh and to put them into single-serve portion packs.


There is no “I” in dairy

Producing this magazine over the last seven years has been a team effort. Managing Editor Sarah Kennedy reads every word we print and she still finds time to write features, post to social media and visit dairy processors. Before Sarah, Marina Mayer was on the team. Art Director Lindsay Leusby designs the covers and layouts and generally makes sure our words are accompanied by appropriate images. Ace photographer Vito Palmisano shot many of those images. Lisa Theut expedites the ad and editorial materials to the printer. Kathleen Peacock spots the typos and mistakes in grammar. Publisher Tom Imbordino and a team of sales representatives sell the advertising that supports this effort.

We also rely on a roster of writers who share their subject-matter expertise. I have had the pleasure of working with Kim Decker, Clay Detlefsen, Sharon Gerdes, Susan Larson, John Lucey, Greg Miller, Mike Richmond, Tim Rugh, Allen Sayler, Tom Suber, Bruce Tharp, Phil Tong, Tom Vilsack, Don Wilson, Steve Young and contributors from the International Dairy Foods Association and Mérieux NutriSciences. Reading columns by the late Henry Randolph was a special joy.

Among the many, many things I have picked up during my tenure at this magazine is an appreciation for better cheese and better ice cream. I thank all dairy processors who are working in this niche and who shared their output with me. This is my last column for Dairy Foods. I have retired. Thanks for reading.