Collaboration, innovation and sustainability collide

Written by Molly Schmitt
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Eight farms came together with DFA to start a unique plant project in Livingston County, N.Y. From solar panels to an anaerobic digester, Craigs Station Creamery is a model for environmental-friendliness, collaboration and innovative thinking.

Craigs Station, which began production on October 17, 2014, is designed to process customized, value-added dairy ingredients from rBST- and lactose-free to vitamin A- and D-fortified. Not only have the facility’s unique capabilities attracted both local and global customers, but the grassroots, farmer ownership is also a draw for today’s consumer. 

“Today’s buyers and consumers are very savvy and intelligent,” says Brian Paris, Craigs Station plant manager. “They not only want to know where their food comes from, but exactly how it is made.”

Brian has been with the plant since it was being built, and he is proud of the traceability Craigs Station offers.

“We are able to guarantee our source is one of eight farms,” Brian says. “We also have the ability to offer actual trips to any of our farms so they can be visited by our customers personally. In conjunction with animal husbandry, we have some of the best farms and farmers you would ever want to meet. They’re really top-notch people who love their cows.”

These “top-notch people” came together as partners in the Craigs Station project, each bringing their own ideas to the table. The eight dairies invested in the plant include:

  • Baker Brook Dairy
  • Coyne Farms
  • Lawnel Farms
  • McCormick Farms
  • Mulligan Farm
  • Noblehurst Farms
  • Southview Farm
  • Synergy Dairy

One of the creamery partners, Chris Noble, co-owner of Noblehurst Farms, says the collaboration between each dairy is why the project has been successful. Instead of competing, the farms share resources, skills and best practices with one another.

“Obviously, we’re all milk producers, but if we’re all part of the same cause, we can just get better together,” Chris says. “Rather than recreate the wheel, if you can find ways to work together or share ideas, you can make your business stronger.”

The dairies and creamery focus on sustainability in numerous ways, including flushing barns and parlors with reused water, utilizing vermicomposting to produce professional-grade organic plant food and generating electricity with solar power and an anaerobic digester.

“I would say that the most rewarding sustainability project has been the digester,” Brian says. “To take what is traditionally considered waste and turn it into energy is exciting.”

Craigs Station Creamery’s on-site anaerobic digester is fueled by waste and manure from each farm, food waste from the community and waste water from the creamery. Since April of 2015, Craigs Station has consumed more than 1.6 million kilowatts of green energy from the digester, which is the equivalent of powering 121 homes for one year.

The digester has led to another business, Natural Upcycling, that includes collecting food scraps from supermarkets, restaurants and other manufacturers. Everything put into the digester creates biogas, which is then used to power the creamery and reduce its carbon footprint.

Chris explains that as the food scraps collection grew, they noticed more food waste from customers who didn’t want to send it to the landfill. Items like packaged lettuce and yogurt cups that expired or didn’t meet retail specifications were then also collected and fed to the digester to create even more biogas.

“The really cool part is that we’re actually able to share customers between the creamery and the digester, so you can sell them milk, but also use products that aren’t sold or don’t reach the final consumer. They become customers on two different levels — ultimately helping create milk again to be sold to them,” Chris says. “We like how that is truly the definition of sustainability — we, and the customers, are closing the loop through that whole process.”

Dairy farmers are some of the original environmentalists, says Chris. He and the rest of the creamery partners understand that consumers are paying more attention to how their food is being produced and the impact agriculture has on the environment. They also know farmers need to continue thinking about the next steps and ways to reduce their environmental footprint.

While Brian and Chris are both proud of the achievements so far, they are always looking at more ways they can improve efficiency and sustainability.

“Being a small and nimble operation, we have authentically evolved into a work family in which we have a more caring and thoughtful approach to how we do things,” Brian says.

With the success of Craigs Station Creamery, the eight farms are working with DFA and Arla Foods to launch a cheddar cheese plant. This next project is well underway and is set to have product out the door by the end of 2017. The new cheese plant will have the same story as the creamery — that of a clean, natural product created by the active farm group. The cheese plant will also focus on sustainability by using the digester and implementing some new recycling practices and technology.

These two major projects — the creamery and cheese plant — didn’t come together overnight. Chris, and the rest of the farmers involved, spent years thinking about how they could best align with the consumer.

“I would like to encourage other DFA members to try having a stronger tie to their local community or with the consumer, and think about ways to do that with the Co-op and other farmers,” Chris says. “I think there are lots of opportunities to connect with consumers, and I think there’s a place for a lot of us, as members, to voice that.”