Milking it

In the elusive hunt for the cash cow, Halifax Farmers' Market regular Rick Rand created a hands-on farm-to-market business. But Nova Scotia's nascent organic milk industry is facing a lot of bureaucratic bull.Photos Aaron Mckenzie Fraser

Cows are simple. There's no other way to put it. They stare. And right now there's a good two dozen staring at farmer Rick Rand.

Staring, chewing, staring, chewing.

It's not love. At least not on the Holsteins' part. Cows respond to being fed and being milked, which takes Rand, for his herd of about 50, an hour and a quarter starting at five in the morning and another hour and a quarter in the evening.

Staring, chewing, staring, staring...

It's a little unnerving.

But Rand, a lithe 56-year-old with a clean-shaven smile, can see beyond the stare. It's finally summer; the lifelong farmer and his son have cut back pasture grass because the sun and rain have outmatched the speed of these bovine eating machines. But Rand, who farms 300 acres within sight of Acadia University and the Minas Basin mudflats, is picturing winter.

"They cross the yard and go out into the freestall barn through three feet of snow. It's fun to watch them; like kids bashing through snowbanks."

Rand can also see beyond these cows' milk. Or, perhaps, into it.

The fifth-generation farmer left school at 16 for this acreage, Fox Hill Farm, "to be home." Rand worked side-by-side with his grandfather until his death in 1976 and with his father until he passed in 1995; today Rand works with his 23-year-old son Patrick. "This is my heart and soul, the farm," says Rand, "what I eat and breathe and live every day."

But Fox Hill milk no longer just goes from cow to tank to truck and away. Around half the milk stays on the farm and gets made into yogurt, gelato and cheese---there's havarti, gouda, raw milk cheddar. Thirty-four products in all come out of Fox Hill Cheese House.

About 300,000 litres of fluid milk a year still goes to Farmers' Dairy. But Rand hopes to change that.

"We are looking at more specialty cheeses---a bocconcini; it's not made anywhere in eastern Canada that I know of. A nice blue cheese; we would need a separate room for that..."

Rand is a dreamer. And a doer. He started selling Fox Hill products at the Halifax Farmers' Market in January 2005. Sometimes you'll see his daughter Melissa, 26, there with him---she works as a cheese maker, plus she sells at the Lunenburg Farmers' Market on Thursdays. Melissa and Rand's wife Jeanita trade off Saturdays at the Hubbards and Wolfville Farmers' Markets.

Before 2002, Fox Hill Farm was just about milk, and a truck that rolled up every two days to take it away.

Rand had been borrowing to buy quota---basically, to have the ability to expand his herd and make his operation as big as he could.

"Beautiful facilities, beautiful cows, I loved what I did," he says. But "my son was 16 at the time, and we were just falling a little bit behind every month. I could see in five or six years major problems happening. My borrowing ability was nil, so we looked at dispersing."


"We took a chance."

On cheese.

He moved from producing more and more milk to ship to Farmers' to adding value to the milk he was already producing---making more from every litre, because he wasn't just producing an industrial product packaged by someone else, but a finished one, made and marketed on the farm.

That practical change came with a philosophical one.

"We shouldn't have to look outside of Nova Scotia for a lot of our basic foods," says Rand. "We can have food sovereignty if we choose. We all have communities. We all have little farm markets springing up and that is so healthy---to be able to bring more products to these small markets."

Instead of farms getting bigger and producing more of one thing to stay afloat, Rand advocates farm diversity and small-scale production of niche products.

"Let's get back to a whole lot of little" is the way he puts it.

And for Fox Hill, it's working.

"Hi! How are you this morning!?"

Rand is chatty with his customers at the Halifax Farmers' Market---"I talk to the cows," he says as a way of explaining. "I hoarded it up for years. That's why I like going to the market so much." His son Patrick jokes that four years of Saturdays in the city has made his farmboy dad a yuppie.

Rand leans across the cheese display to add up purchases, moves back to the coolers to grab yogurt, dekes left to scoop gelato. Two others work the 10-by-seven stall with him.

There's not much leftover space, but Rand's got another product he'd like to introduce, one about 20 new people a week ask him to bring: milk.

Rand received his licence to process fluid milk a year ago, but he still needs to build a new processing room at the cheese house and find a mechanical filler.

Rand's milk will be non-homogenized. That means pasteurized to kill bacteria but not agitated to break up fat and disperse it. It's old-school milk, with a little layer of cream at the top (not "raw" milk, which is unpasteurized and illegal to sell in Canada).

Fox Hill milk (not organic but quite ecological: Rand still uses an herbicide on his corn, but the farm is in its second year without pesticides and has gone five seasons without chemical fertilizer) will be sold in glass bottles that customers will own, rotating empties for filled bottles at the market.

The other thing unusual about Rand's milk?

When consumers buy it, they'll be looking at the guy who does the milking.

Cows' milk is different from most food Nova Scotians buy.

There are four major dairy processors in the province. Farmers and Scotsburn are local farmer co-operatives. Cook's is a commercial dairy in Yarmouth. Baxter used to be local, but in 2001 it was bought by Saputo, a multinational with plants in five countries. Still, when Nova Scotia consumers buy milk, they are almost always getting a local product.

There is a system within the Maritimes, Quebec and Ontario where fluid milk demand can mean milk crosses borders, says Liz Crouse, acting general manager of the Nova Scotia Department of Agriculture's Natural Products Marketing Council. "But, definitely, the majority of fluid milk comes from Nova Scotia cows."

Milk, then, gleefully bucks the big supermarket trend of getting local products catch-as-catch-can.

This locavores' utopia isn't achieved through a grassroots system of small-scale farm-to-consumer transactions, a la Rick Rand's "whole lot of little" philosophy, but through a complex milk marketing system, run by Dairy Farmers of Nova Scotia. A producer board authorized by the Department of Agriculture. DFNS has the power to regulate the dairy industry.

DFNS sets the wholesale price for milk and manages the supply of milk---from how much milk farms can produce, to how much processors are allowed to have and for what. DFNS is set up to protect farmers and the health of the industry overall.

But it doesn't always work for smaller producers.

Frazer Hunter's sheep bleat to make us deaf. A pair of the family's many dogs bark as they race the alley between pens. Outside, cows moo.

Hunter is a farmer in Knoydart, on Nova Scotia's north shore. You can see PEI in the distance from his front door. He also raises beef cattle and milks about 60 cows.

Soon the sheep are fed and Hunter gets his turn to talk---about how his milk is certified organic and has been since 2007. About how it still gets picked up in the truck with the rest of the non-organic milk from his area. About how he loses on every litre because organic feed can cost twice as much as the conventional stuff. About how the small organic milk co-operative he's a part of, Scotia Organic Milk Producers, has been unable to work out a deal with Dairy Farmers of Nova Scotia to get its organic milk to Nova Scotia shelves.

"We don't need any more rules and regulations," says Hunter. "Just let us take our milk to the marketplace."

SOMP is a six-member cooperative. Four farmers are in the final stages of organic transition; Hunter and Grande Pré farmer Herman Mentink are fully certified.

Like Rick Rand, SOMP has a product Nova Scotians can't get right now---local organic milk. Organic milk is available in abundance here, but it's all from Quebec and Ontario.

The transportation, some argue, erases the ecological benefits of the organic production.

So in 2006, Organic Meadow, a Guelph-based organic milk co-operative, made an agreement with SOMP to help market local organic milk. Organic Meadow would pull its milk (you've probably seen it: white carton with a black-and-white cow) from the Nova Scotia market, pay a premium to farmers in organic transition, and finance the marketing of the milk. In exchange for the investment, Organic Meadow wanted a long-term guarantee of milk, meaning the company could count on a certain number of litres each year, in perpetuity, being sold under its name.

Make sense?

Well, it would, but only if Nova Scotia farmers got to decide who processes and markets their milk once it leaves the farm.

And they don't.

Confusing. I know.

See, DFNS is the sole buyer and seller of raw milk in the province. All unpasteurized milk is sold to DFNS and then sold to a processor, even if the farmer and the processor are one in the same. (Rick Rand's milk, for example, runs just 100 feet or so in a line from the milking room to the cheese house, but on that building-to-building trip it is technically sold to DFNS and bought back by Rand.) DFNS decides which processors get milk and how much of it they get.

What SOMP wants, then, says Frazer Hunter, is "just to buy back our own milk."

That's what Rand does. But the difference is, Hunter and the other SOMP members don't want to be processors; they just want a stake in the processing---to have a say in where the milk goes. And in Nova Scotia's big milk system, there's no room for that. Producers have no say in where their milk goes. Processors have no say in whose milk they get, or how much.

Still, DFNS was willing to wiggle.

The marketing board offered the organic farmers a five-year deal---SOMP could choose its processor and however many litres it could build up to producing by year three would be guaranteed to that processor for years four and five. After that, SOMP would no longer choose its processor and would have no assurance it could market the milk with Organic Meadow.

Organic Meadow, in financing the marketing and paying a premium to in-transition farmers, contends it would be in a position of financial loss for at least the first three years. The payoff would come after that, once consumers are paying a premium for an established brand of local organic milk.

But under the DFNS offer, another company could come in just as Organic Meadow was breaking a profit, approach DFNS for that milk for its own brand, and potentially squeeze Organic Meadow out of the local organic game.

Big corporate interest is a legitimate concern---even without the appeal of a local product and with no market development, Halifax drinks more organic milk per capita than any other city in the country, save Toronto. According to Philip Nunn, president of SOMP, organic milk---at double the cost (at Superstore, Scotsburn milk is $1.96 per litre; Organic Meadow runs $3.89)---is seeing sales increases of 15 to 17 percent per year.

The upshot? More than two years of negotiations later, there's no deal to get local organic milk to Nova Scotia consumers.

Michael Main, Truro-based regional field manager for Organic Meadow, says ultimately it's because the system is designed for one big pool of milk and nothing else.

"When you come up with this product that is segregated from the farm to the table," says Main, "it ties the whole thing in knots."

There's this as well: what the SOMP farmers want is connection to their milk.

SOMP doesn't want to market its milk; it wants to choose a marketer (in this case, Organic Meadow). SOMP doesn't want to process its milk (Frazer Hunter probably could---his farm is highly diversified and he's running a new organic cheese plant set to launch its first products by autumn); it wants to choose a processor.

The big pool of milk doesn't allow for that connection.

But under the current DFNS offer, after five years, "once it goes off the farm, it's not theirs," says Main. "That kind of ruins the incentive in a lot of ways."

Rick Rand's solution has been to take on those jobs himself---to learn processing, to buy equipment, to build an on-farm store, to get up at 3am to drive into Halifax for the Saturday market.

Rand loves it. You can see it in his eyes at his crowded market stall. But that kind of work doesn't come without cost.

Rand has chased licence after licence to make his products---a processing licence for cheese, another for yogurt, another for parmesan-style cheese, one for fluid milk. He approached DFNS for permission to bring in milk from a Jersey cow farm for some products he's interested in trying out. No luck.

Liz Crouse from the Natural Products Marketing Council admits milk is a highly regulated product and the administration of dairy regulations can be "quite technical."

"In the dairy industry," SOMP's Philip Nunn says, laughing, "regulation is not something new to us."

Rand remains optimistic. "You can't just go do what you want to do. And half the battle is understanding that," he says.

He also stays positive about the debt he's taking on to build value into his milk, because it's different from the kind of debt that comes from striving to get bigger and bigger. "My father had a debt; my grandfather had a debt. I would like to change that someday, though I am more in debt that they ever were."

The sentiment matches Philip Nunn's, who decided, after four decades of farming, to go organic, trading the cost of chemical fertilizer for the cost of organic feed.

"We were hoping for a viable alternative to stay in the dairy business," he says.

Nunn milks about 20 cows now and would like to keep it that way---producing the same amount of milk---with the promise, once SOMP gets it on local shelves, of making more per litre---rather than producing more milk that's worth the same amount per litre.

Rick Rand would call it "a whole lot of little." And it may be the future of farming---and food sovereignty---in Nova Scotia.

The trick is figuring out a way to do it in a provincial dairy system that, for so many years, has been managed in a completely opposite way.

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