For the past three months, Easy Way has been carrying products -- whole milk, skim, 2%, buttermilk, strawberry milk, chocolate milk -- from Rock Springs Dairy in Wildersville, located about 100 miles east of Memphis. Roger Stolzfus, who is a Mennonite, owns and operates Rock Springs with his wife, Lois, and their children.
Of the milks that Rock Springs sells, only the whole isn't homogenized.
"Everybody who drinks or buys whole milk knows that it has a lot of milk fat," says Stolzfus. "So people aren't really surprised to find cream on top of the milk. In skim milk and 2% milk, customers don't really want to see any fat separate, though."
Homogenization is the process that makes the milk "uniform." In milk that has not been homogenized, the fat globules are larger, which allows them to separate from the rest of the milk. Homogenization reduces the size of fat globules and stabilizes them so that they are dispersed evenly throughout the milk. Milk that has been homogenized often has a smoother "mouth feel," which is better suited for shipment in paper containers, and has an extended shelf life.
Stolzfus, however, isn't too concerned about shelf life. His milk has a 16-day "best-used-before" range, and taste is the driving force in his milk production.
Driving up to the Rock Springs' property, the only place to go is the little milk shop where dairy and farm products are sold. Stolzfus might show you around if time permits, but running a dairy farm hardly leaves a spare moment. The dairy's 35 Holstein cows need to be milked twice a day, at 4 a.m. and at 4 p.m.
The Stolzfus dairy is a small operation, averaging 1,400 gallons of milk per week, which is processed and bottled on Mondays and Fridays. Before milking and milk production became more efficient due to large-scale mechanization in the 1950s, farmers were able to make money by selling the milk they gathered from a dozen cows. Today, most dairies must have more than 100 milk-producing cows to be profitable. In the U.S., the herd size varies between 1,200 on the West Coast and in the Southwest to 350 in the Northeast.
Stolzfus takes pride in the way he operates his business and cares for his cows. He has spent all his life on a dairy farm -- first with his parents in Pennsylvania, then in Ontario, Canada, where he and his wife operated a farm for 22 years.
The Stolzfus children name every new calf and can tell all the cows apart, which seems nearly impossible considering the similarity of the black and white markings. During the summer heat, the cows are kept mostly inside the barn, where a fan blows cooling mist to help them tolerate the temperature. If weather permits, the cows will graze on the pasture at night.
No hormones to fuel milk production and growth are used on Stolzfus' farm, and he grows most of what the cows eat. Although the farm is not USDA-certified organic, Stolzfus is certain that his all-natural milk can measure up.
At Rock Springs Dairy, milk is pasteurized in a vat, using the batch method. In the vat, which looks like a giant soup kettle, the milk is heated to at least 145 degrees for a minimum of 30 minutes and immediately cooled to 40 to 45 degrees before it's bottled and packaged or homogenized. Large dairy operations typically pasteurize milk at 175 to 180 degrees for a few seconds in a high-temperature short-time pasteurizer.
"Cooling the milk as soon as the cows are milked and gentle pasteurization preserves a lot of the flavor," Stolzfus says. "But this is only part of why our milk tastes so good. You really have to start with the cows and how they are treated, then the milk production and the packaging. We use glass bottles because we believe it preserves the authentic taste."
The rise of the milk carton in the late 1920s is probably one of the reasons why small family-owned dairy farms vanished. The "Pure-Pak" container was a single-service carton that didn't need to be returned to the dairy, which in turn allowed the farms to expand beyond the local market.
Outside of Wildersville, Rock Springs' milk is available at the Jackson Farmers Market on Saturdays; the Milan Farmers Market on Mondays; and the McKenzie Farmers Market on Tuesday. In Memphis, it's sold at the Easy Way stores on Cooper, Mendenhall, and Stage (with shipments usually on Thursdays). Half a gallon of whole milk sells for $2.99, plus $1 deposit for the bottle. Java Cabana coffee shop on Young Avenue offers its customers the option of ordering lattes, cappuccinos, and the like with Rock Springs' milk for an extra charge.