On Thursday morning at the Stanford Walmart, Adam Coleman was shopping for groceries with his mother. At the dairy case, Coleman was adamant about the milk he preferred.
“No, no, the other one,” he told his mother. “The one with the cow on it.”
That would be Udderly Kentucky, the milk produced and processed entirely in the state that debuted about a month ago at Walmart stores in the region. It is promoted under the Kentucky Proud label and designed to cash in on the local food movement while earning some extra cash for Kentucky dairy farmers.
Coleman, who appeared to be in his early 20s, said he was vaguely aware of the marketing campaign and supported the ideas behind it, but was sold on Udderly Kentucky by another factor after trying it once out of curiosity.
“It’s just a better selection. The taste makes it better,” Coleman said enthusiastically. “It’s a great option if you can afford the extra dollar, and you know it’s going to help somebody out.”
Ray Sims, who’s been milking cows since 1959, and his daughter and farming partner Jennifer Smith, are two of the 105 Kentucky dairy operations that are earning an extra 7 cents per gallon for the milk they sell to Udderly Kentucky. They are among a handful of diary farmers in Lincoln, Casey, Mercer and Garrard counties that are participating in the program.
“I like the idea,” said Sims, 76, whose farm is on Mack Sims Road in the Parlor Grove community in southern Lincoln County. “Anything to help advertise milk and help make ends meet.”
On the surface, 7 cents a gallon for milk that is priced about $1 higher than Walmart’s Great Value house brand doesn’t seem like much. But for Sims and Smith, who currently milk 26 cows twice a day to produce about 115 gallons per day, it adds up. Rough math shows that means an extra $8 a day, multiplied by 365 days to equal nearly $3,000 a year.
“It will help keep the lights on,” Sims said.
Keeping the lights on in dairies across the state was the prime motivation behind Udderly Kentucky, Commissioner of Agriculture James Comer said Thursday.
“In 1980, there were 3,500 dairies in Kentucky. There are 750 today,” Comer said in a phone interview from the Kentucky State Fair. “The dairy industry has had a very difficult time over the last three decades. There’s no harder working group of farmers out there. We wanted to do something to help that industry.”
Sims knows that story first-hand. He said he used be able to count 20 dairy farmers among his neighbors. Now he can only count one. Milk consumption has declined and profits have fallen dramatically, he said. His herd is less than half the size it used to be. He’s stayed in the game, he said, because “I’m too contrary to get out.”
Smith, his daughter and partner, started milking when she was 18 and has never had a job off the farm. Her grown sons, however, will not become the fourth generation of the family in the business. They decided to pursue other careers after filling in for mom for a few months when she was recovering from eye surgery. They found the daily commitment too much, the work too hard and the reward too little, Smith said.
“They were amazed at Dad. He’s tough as shoe leather. He worked circles around his grandsons,” Smith recalled. “They decided after that to do something else.”
To help make Kentucky dairies more sustainable for future farmers, Comer helped broker deals with the Prairie Farms (formerly Southern Belle) pasteurization facility in Somerset and Walmart to get milk produced and processed exclusively in Kentucky into the coolers of the mega-retailer’s locations around the state.
The Department of Agriculture had to use its reputation and resources to make the deals happen, Comer said.
“It’s not something a country lawyer and a small group of farmers could get very far with. We have access to some high-powered law firms in Louisville,” he said. “You have to use your credibility as a department to get in the door to big corporations like Walmart. We used government to open the door and create a great opportunity for a group of small farmers, now we’re getting out of the way and letting the private sector succeed.”
Though Comer said no hard sales numbers for Udderly Kentucky are yet available, there is evidence the homegrown milk is proving popular with costumers.
“We believed consumers would respond. There’s a huge ‘buy local’ food movement, especially in the urban areas, and people will pay a premium for it,” Comer said. “They want to know where food comes from, that its sustainable, and they want to keep their money in their own communities.
“It’s doing exceptionally well,” he continued. “Walmart now wants it in half-gallon jugs. That’s a good sign. We can’t supply enough milk and are trying to get more farmers in the program.”
Janie Scruggs with Prairie Farms in Somerset couldn’t provide sales figures for Udderly Kentucky either, but agreed with Comer the product has quickly become a hit.
“It’s doing really well,” Scruggs said. “A lot of time we’re waiting for milk to process.”
Scruggs explained that tanker trucks are used to collect milk from program participants around the state and then processed and bottled separately at the Somerset facility, which handles several other brands of milk. The turn-around time from when Udderly Kentucky milk is picked up from a farmer until it is processed, and delivered to Walmart for sale is about three days, Scruggs said.
Much of the other milk processed in Somerset is hauled in from states to the north such as Michigan, Illinois and Indiana, and then distributed to states to south under the Prairie Farms or other brands carried at Aldi, Save-a-Lot and other chains. Comer said that most of the milk sold in Kentucky actually comes from Arizona and New Mexico.
“You know exactly where (Udderly Kentucky) milk was produced and processed,” Comer said. “There’s no question that this is a 100 percent local, Kentucky product. It’s the freshest milk you can get.”
“I think you can really taste the difference,” she said. “We think it’s a better product.”