Bottled milk helps save family farm
FOREST LAKE, Minn. — Pat and Sharlene Daninger are selling the most politically correct milk around.
It’s local. It’s hormone-free. It’s basically straight from the cow and sold in environmentally friendly glass bottles. And it is helping them save their 100-year-old family farm in Forest Lake.
Just six months after the debut of Autumnwood Farm’s creamery, the Daningers are selling about 500 gallons of milk a week, and at least a dozen metro-area stores carry their products. Dairy lovers also can get their fill at the farm’s retail center, which is stocked with half-gallon bottles of skim, 1 percent, nonhomogenized whole and chocolate milk.
"We knew how to get the milk out of the cows but nothing about processing," Pat Daninger said. "It’s labor-intensive. But to hear people say, ‘This is the best milk I’ve had,’ that makes you feel like you’re doing a service to the community."
Family and friends have been a driving force behind getting the business venture on its feet, with some of them donating their labor.
Friend Jim Riter and longtime neighbor Butch Bergmann, who are retired, each work 40 to 50 hours a week at the creamery. And they’ve repeatedly said to the family, "Don’t pay us a dime until you get it going."
"I’m here to help make it work and get it off the ground," Riter said as he hauled crates of milk from the 152-degree bottling room into the cooler. "It’ll be a success. Pat’s a successful man."
Pat Daninger’s family has been working the land since 1902, when his grandparents came from Austria and settled in Forest Lake. He took over the 250-acre farm from his father in 1982.
The Daningers knew they needed to boost revenue to keep their family farm competitive. Pat Daninger said an expansion would help, but it’s impossible to find land when your farm is in a growing suburb.
But their location also meant a lot of potential customers nearby. The family has given tours to schools for 15 years, and people kept asking whether they could buy milk from the farm.
That put the wheels in motion for a creamery. It took a few years of researching and planning, but with help from an Arkansas consultant and a $500,000 mortgage on the family farm, it became a reality.
The Daningers searched across the country — and even the continent — for equipment and other essentials. The bottle washer came from a Louisiana business shut down by Hurricane Katrina. They had to go to Toronto to find glass bottles.
Bottling is done Mondays and Tuesdays. The day begins at 5 a.m., when Pat Daninger starts the boilers for the bottle washer. Bergmann is there at 6:30 a.m. to get the bottles and crates in the washers to sanitize them.
On a good bottling day, Bergmann might be out of there at 10 p.m.
"It’s enjoyable," Bergmann said after he loaded freshly bottled milk off the tracks and into crates. "I’m retired, so I don’t have to come to work. I like coming down here and doing this."
Pat Daninger said offering customers milk straight from a glass bottle is worth all the work.
"It’s hard," he said. "But glass doesn’t affect the taste of the milk and keeps it colder."
The customers are there
In July, the creamery took in about $2,500 a week. That’s a dip from June, when sales peaked at $4,000 weekly.
Blame it on the summer heat.
"Everyone would rather drink anything other than milk in warm weather," Pat Daninger said.
But there are loyal customers even during the hottest months.
Linda Nanko-Yeager of Wyoming, Minn., stopped in on one of her twice-weekly trips to the creamery. She was at a friend’s birthday party when Jim Banta, an Autumnwood farmhand for the past 12 years, popped open a bottle of the creamery’s chocolate milk and set it on the table. It was an instant hit.
"You can just imagine a bunch of 50-, 60-, 70-year-olds getting loaded on chocolate milk," Nanko-Yeager said. "After that, we were sold."
The taste hooked her, and the glass bottles brought back fond childhood memories of milk delivered in crates to her family’s front stoop.
Although skim milk is Autumnwood’s most popular seller, Nanko-Yeager always gets the whole milk. And with both of her children at home this summer, she usually picks up six half-gallons at a time.
"We’re not exactly lactose intolerant in this family," Nanko-Yeager said with a laugh.
A family affair
Autumnwood Farm is now a fourth-generation operation. The Daningers’ four children always have helped with chores on the farm. But now they man the retail store and stock the shelves.
Luke, 18, ran the deliveries all summer. And Nathan, 14, started his own business with a loan from the local Farm Service Agency and is raising beef and selling it from Autumnwood’s retail center.
"It definitely is a family affair," Sharlene Daninger said. "Everyone is doing their part to make it happen."