Meet Country Dairy, located near New Era, Michigan. While much of the attention on a non-GMO dairy supply chain has been on the East and West coasts and in small niche markets, Country Dairy is trying to create a larger presence in the Midwest.
The company is located in west-central Michigan’s Oceana County, about 30 miles due north of Muskegon and 65 miles northwest of Grand Rapids.
As a producer/handler, Country Dairy is able to control its dairy supply chain from start to finish. However, the ongoing journey to non-GMO certification has been a lengthy process, and the snags they encountered illustrate the challenges others may face.
A combined dairy farm and milk processor, the company was on a path to non-GMO certification in 2014 and 2015, says Jeff Swanson, a 12-year Country Dairy employee who serves as sales and marketing manager.
However, miscommunication and errors by seed suppliers resulted in the planting of some biotech seed varieties in those first two years – detected after the crops had already been planted – preventing sourcing of home-grown non-GMO feeds.
With the 2016 crop harvested, testing and certification steps are underway, with the goal of achieving non-GMO certification and labels in early 2017.
“The transition to non-GMO started three years ago and has taken longer than anticipated,” Swanson says. “In addition to the challenges related to seed, feed company traceability has been an issue.”
Country Dairy is working toward non-GMO certification through NSF International, a third-party auditing firm offering organic, non-GMO and other product certification services. According to its website, NSF’s Non-GMO True North verification follows standards similar to the Non-GMO Project (see related story).
Country Dairy’s 1,500 cows are housed in three locations within 8 miles. With replacement heifers and calves, the dairy has about 3,000 head in total. The farm produces 90 percent of its dairy feed, including alfalfa, haylage and corn silage, on about 4,000 acres, half owned and half leased. All heifers beyond 1 year old and the cow herds receive the same home-grown forages.
Acquiring non-GMO protein sources are a bigger challenge. Country Dairy purchases soybean meal traced to non-GMO sources.
Country Dairy Inc. is a fourth-generation, family-owned business that has been dairying at the same location for 110 years. The company built a dairy processing and bottling plant on the home farm in western Michigan in 1983.
The company processes virtually all of its milk – about 70,000 to 75,000 gallons per week – producing and marketing their own lines of fluid milk, high-end cheeses and ice cream. It also bottles private-label milk for another company. Due to a contractual agreement, County Dairy would not disclose the name of that company.
Country Dairy’s market reach is primarily Michigan, with some of the private-label milk marketed into other Midwestern states.
From its inception, Country Dairy has sought to serve a particular market niche – local and premium. When its fluid milk customers balked at the launch of recombinant bovine somatotropin (rbST), Country Dairy decided to keep its dairy products rbST-free.
“We’re not saying there’s a difference,” Swanson says. “Our customers want it.”
When the same customers and private-label client asked for non-GMO milk, they decided to give it a try.
“We already had a self-contained milk supply, and we wanted to be on the cutting edge to set us apart in the market,” Swanson says.
Country Dairy already receives a premium price for its fluid milk (about $3.99 per gallon at retail) and will seek a 25- to 50-cent-per-gallon premium for non-GMO.
Once certified, all of the company’s fluid milk offerings will be non-GMO. They were forced to seek non-GMO cane sugar for their flavored milk varieties, which were previously sweetened with sugar sourced from the region’s sugar beet industry, which is nearly all GMO.
Beyond fluid milk, traceability and certification challenges for additional ingredients make it likely Country Dairy will not immediately pursue non-GMO certification for its other products. They are, however, exploring an option of labeling cheese and ice cream products as “produced from non-GMO milk,” Swanson says.
The company also feeds out approximately 150 head of Holstein steers per year but hasn’t yet pursued non-GMO labeling for its meat products, which will require a separate certification process.
Adding to its “local and premium” marketing efforts, Country Dairy provides farm tours for school groups throughout the year, with tours open to the public daily between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Tours are offered on Saturdays and by appointment in May, September and October.
Swanson says the company plans an extensive marketing campaign once the milk is launched, including television. He admitted there is a lot of consumer confusion over GMOs.
PHOTO: Country Dairy, New Era, Michigan, plans to begin marketing non-GMO verified packaged fluid milk in 2017. Courtesy photo.
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