Deborah Jeanne Sergeant
TIVERTON, R.I. — Back in 1977, 100 dairies populated Rhode Island. Low milk prices, land development and an aging dairymen population contributed to the decline. Only 22 dairy farms are left now, a number that R.I. Dairy Farms Cooperative wants to grow. Founded in 2004 by five dairy farmers, the Rhode Island Dairy Farms Cooperative has helped resurrect the state’s dairy industry by creating a local market for local dairy.
“They thought if they used local milk, people would buy it,” said Steve Volpe, chief operating officer, about the cooperative’s founders.
By selling premium milk and cheese products in local markets, producers can get a higher milk price. The cooperative’s milk is priced 15 to 30 cents more than other milk.
“People are willing to pay more because it’s local,” Volpe said. “We have a lot of support in Rhode Island for local farming.”
Part of that is through the cooperative’s production and marketing. By providing a consistent product and marketing message, the cooperative can brand “Rhody Fresh” as a premium product.
“Before, you gave it away practically, if you sold locally,” Volpe said. “We do the pick-up, processing, packaging, and through all this, we have come up with a profit back to the farmers. Being part of the co-op helps even out the pricing. They still get premium retail prices.”
Volpe hopes the company can get as many farmers that want to participate in the co-op to join and that all the milk produced in the state can be used in the state. But he’s a realist.
“Not every farmer is going to join the co-op,” he said. “We have a couple of farmers who do their own pasteurizing and sell it right on the farm. We have people who’ve contracted with other entities so we don’t expect everyone to join. But we’d like to see our membership go up.”
The Rhode Island State Department of Environmental Management-Division of Agriculture, federal government and other private entities have helped support the co-op. An initial $125,000 loan and state funds helped launch the Rhody Fresh brand.
Escobar’s Highland Farm in Portsmouth is one of the founding farms. Owner Louis Escobar is the co-op president. Getting the co-op rolling wasn’t easy for him and the four other founding farms.
“We pulled together and worked pretty hard founding the co-op,” he recalled.
One of the biggest hurdles was finding a processor since they could not afford to build a processing plant. The group used a $21,000 grant from the Division of Agriculture to hire someone to “do some of the legwork. It takes a lot of time to research this and we don’t have the time as farmers to check with all the processors that were available,” Escobar said.
Guida’s Dairy in New Britain, Conn., was selected to process the cooperative’s milk, amounting to nearly 160,000 pounds of raw milk daily separately from its other milk.
“They do an excellent job,” Escobar said. “Most of the major markets and quite a few independents sell Rhody Fresh. I was very, very confident that if we could get our milk in the dairy case, that our endangered species of dairy farmers could sell it. I’m glad to see our Rhode Island farmers to be highly respected in the state. People want to support. We’re a niche market.”
He believes that the timing couldn’t be better, because buying locally has become popular. Receiving a premium price for his milk has helped stabilize the farm’s income.
He advises other farmers seeking to establish a co-op to research their area to see if there’s a market for their product. In Rhode Island, Escobar saw plenty of opportunity.
For example, the close-knit culture helped bolster his confidence that fellow Rhode Islanders would purchase local milk as evidenced by his local Independence Day fireworks not needing corporate sponsorship. Everyday people donate enough for a nice display.
“There’s a spirit of community in just about everything,”
Escobar’s own enthusiasm for farming hasn’t hurt, either. In addition to milking 100 head, raising 100 young stock and feed for his animals, he also grows 3 1/2 acres of you-pick pumpkins and an 8-acre corn maze on his 95 acres. He volunteers his equipment and hay for hayrides for community events when he can.
For the Escobars and other co-op members, the organization has succeeded. Within six months, the co-op met its three-year projected goal and it has been growing ever since. In an industry fraught with hardship and struggle, Rhode Island Dairy Farms Cooperative and the Rhody Fresh brand represent a welcomed exception.<\c> LS20130720_EDR_Sergeant-RhodyFresh1
Rhody Fresh offers Rhode Islanders milk from the Rhode Island Dairy Farms Cooperative members statewide.
Rhody Fresh milk capitalizes upon the buy local trend.
Louis Escobar feels that the attractive packaging adds to the appeal of Rhody Fresh.
Offering more than just milk, Rhody Fresh’s half and half gives Rhode Islanders home-grown cream for their coffee and cooking needs.
Pint cartons of Rhody Fresh provide single-serving containers for institutional settings.
Rhody Fresh also sells milk in quarts.