For 60 years, bottling milk and selling it was never in the plans for the Bickels.
The family mulled over the idea of a creamery when a neighboring farm was going to sell their processing equipment in 2018, but when the farmer decided to stay in business, the idea was taken off the table, even though they already had a building ready to house the equipment.
“It’s not that we didn’t want to continue to pursue the idea, we just didn’t know where to start. It’s one thing to take over a successful business. It’s another to start one from scratch,” reflects Donald Bickel, who currently operates Happy Cows Creamery at New Horizon Farm and Dairy.
So, the family went back to business as usual, milking cows. Then, the pandemic hit. The Bickels never had to dump milk, but it pained them to watch other farmers have to while grocery store shelves sat empty.
“It kind of felt like we were failing,” Bickel said. “To live this lifestyle, you’ve got to have some sort of reward for it. You’re not going to make money doing it. So, you pride yourselves on being able to feed people. What’s the point of doing this if we can’t get product to people?”
The beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the food supply chain. Schools and restaurants closed, taking away those markets for milk, but demand from retailers went through the roof as people spent more time at home.
The Bickels couldn’t fix all of that, but it quickly became clear what they needed to do to provide for their region in the future. In March 2020, the Bickels launched a plan to bottle and sell their own milk.
The first bottle of milk was processed in May 2020. The Bickels built the entire facility themselves, between milking cows and planting and harvesting crops. In addition to Donald, his father and two brothers help run the farm, as well as some hired labor. “I couldn’t do what I do without the help I get from my dad (Howard) and my brothers, Todd and Raymond.”
It was an overwhelming project during a time that the dairy industry was unstable. New Horizon Farm is now the last dairy operating in Clinton County…a title that is bittersweet, knowing the number of farms that quit milking over the past decade.
Determined, the Bickels toured several creameries in Ohio and Indiana to get ideas. Donald’s wife, Jackie, then created a business plan, with guidance from their state milk inspector.
The harder part was finding all the equipment to run the facility. Some of it is new, and some of it used. The pasteurizer and bottling machine came from a farm in Indiana to stop processing milk and focus on making ice cream. “I just started Googling to find stuff,” Donald said. “I’ve spent my entire life milking cows but processing it and getting it to the consumer was very daunting.”
Today, Happy Cows Creamery at New Horizon is bottling milk every day of the week and delivering it to area stores. A retail store was opened on the farm where customers can purchase milk and other local products. About 15,000 pounds of milk is diverted to the creamery. The rest goes to their co-op, Scioto Milk Producers, where it is shipped to a processing facility in West Virginia.
Bickel said they usually start their days around 6 a.m. and get done by 10 p.m. On delivery days, they often work past midnight.
The product line includes non-homogenized whole milk in gallons, half gallons and pints, in a variety of flavors. Chocolate, Mocha, Strawberry and Orange Creamsicle are always available, with seasonal flavors added throughout the year. The Bickels built the creamery with little room to expand. Now, they are processing up to three batches of milk a day, which takes about three hours each, and are looking to enlarge the facility to accommodate the increase in sales.
The business has grown steadily. About a dozen stores stock their milk. The biggest limitation to growing more rapidly is time and labor. The next step is to hire a full-time person to manage the creamery and assist with deliveries. “We are starting a home delivery service that will cover 26 counties in the Cincinnati and Columbus area. The thought of our milk being available to so many people still boggle my mind,” remarks Donald.
Bottling their own milk has brought the Bickels a much-needed new source of revenue, and a steadier one at that. There were times when they were certain the farm could not weather the downturn in the economy. Now, they get paid at delivery for their milk, in addition to the biweekly payment from the co-op.
But that wasn’t and still isn’t the reason they’re doing it. The goal was to get milk in the hands of local customers. That’s what they are doing, whether they sell it or give it away. The Bickels also donate unsold, short-dated milk to local organizations, knowing that milk is a much-needed, but rarely donated item for food pantries.
Taking control of a small part of the supply chain has helped them, even during difficult times. It can be hard to get out of bed at 5 a.m. when milk prices are bad and you’re hearing how others are forced to dump their milk. The pandemic was hard on a lot of dairy farmers, not just financially but for their mental health.
“It’s amazing to think that the pandemic may have saved our operation. Empty grocery shelves reminded consumers that their food comes from somewhere other than the store. We have a very loyal customer base that is willing to shop locally and appreciates paying for a wholesome product that is always in stock.”
Now, no matter what, the Bickels know they’re feeding people, as a family. “Sixty years ago, my dad started this farm with just my mom, me and my three siblings for help. Today, it’s still a family effort, but the effort includes my wife and my children, as well. My dream is to grow the farm for the next generation and knowing that I can achieve that aspiration makes all the blood, sweat and tears worthwhile.”