All about the cow
Every day at Rolling Lawns Farm starts and ends with the cow. For more than a century, the Greenville, Illinois, dairy has been committed to providing top-notch care for its purebred Holsteins. With bloodlines dating back to the late 1800s, their ancestors are living long, healthy lives on the farm today.
Yet, it wasn’t long ago the farm’s legacy – like many small dairies – was in jeopardy, as expenses outpaced income.
“My family has been milking cows on this farm every morning and every night since 1910,” says Michael Turley, who along with wife Jennifer purchased the 700-acre operation after his father, Neal, passed away. “Our small, aging farm is definitely not viewed as a business model that’s going to make it.”
The fourth generation to lead Rolling Lawns Farm, Turley admits he wasn’t all in when they took over ownership in 2012.
“I had a successful career as the chief executive officer and part owner of a St. Louis-based advertising agency,” he says. “The dairy was my side hustle. I wasn’t focused on it, and it was treading water.”
Rather than let a business that took more than 100 years to build go down on their watch, the couple decided it was time to return to the farm full time. Coming back at the end of 2015 also meant it couldn’t be business as usual.
A changing market
For more than 30 years, the Turleys shipped their milk to Prairie Farms, where it was bottled and sold under the cooperative’s brand. Concerned about dramatic changes the milk processor faced in the marketplace, the Turleys opted not only to produce the milk, but also to process, distribute, market, and sell it themselves. (See “The Milk House” on page 35.)
“The milk market is changing as retailers like Walmart enter the industry. There is so much pressure on the supply chain, and I don’t know how a commodity like milk is going to be able to thrive when there is continuous pressure by the value creators. That pressure then becomes farmer to co-op then co-op to retailer, who is going to take its share,” Turley says.
He also felt Rolling Lawns Farm had a message it could best communicate independently. “I believe in the value of our brand and that it has to be related one-on-one in the right way,” Turley says. “We need to move away from the negative marketing claims – no antibiotics, no hormones – and engage consumers in a positive way to set the record straight.”
Leveraging a legacy, animal husbandry
In today’s connected world, consumers are inundated with confusing messages about the food they eat.
“Fortunately, dairy has a great sustainable nutrition story to tell,” says Paul Ziemnisky, executive vice president of Global Innovation, Dairy Management Inc. “It starts at the dairy farm with the farmer caring for the land and animals while producing a nutritious and delicious product that is in 94% of American households today.”
Telling the story of Rolling Lawns Farm, Turley believes, includes not only leveraging the lineage of its 120 registered Holsteins, but also emphasizing how well these purebred beauties are cared for.
In 1920, Turley’s great-grandfather registered his first animal when he joined the Holstein-Friesian Association. Not long after, all of the farm’s animals would be a part of the association.
Today, this trusted documentation serves as a verified source of ancestry, performance, and genetic information for every animal at Rolling Lawns Farm. This pedigree has also served as a valuable resource in tracing the farm’s most loved and revered cow family.
“Four generations of the B family, which began with Buffy in 1969, grace the pastures and pens at the farm today,” Turley says. “The ability to have multiple generations on the farm at one time is rare.”
A commercial dairy cow has, on average, about five to six years and lactates 3.2 times before it’s usually processed for meat, according to Leo Timms, professor emeritus of animal science, Iowa State University.
Turley wants to double his herd’s lifespan. “Our oldest cow from the B family is 11 years old,” he says.
Ensuring cows live a long, healthy life starts by providing impeccable care and comfort – two areas that have drawn a great deal of criticism.
“Consumers are looking for more transparency when it comes to how and where their food was made,” says Ben Laine, a dairy analyst with Rabo AgriFinance.
When considering a dairy purchase, over two thirds of consumers want to know more about the ingredients, sourcing, and manufacturing processes, according to a report by McKinsey & Company.
Turley admits that addressing consumer concerns over animal welfare, including the use of modern medicine, is one of the industry’s biggest weaknesses. “Oftentimes, the term animal welfare conjures up negative emotions with consumers.”
He wants to change that perception by bringing back terms like animal husbandry and emphasizing that healthy cows are happy cows who produce high-quality milk and more of it.
Relationships drive credibility
As the Turleys chart a different course than most in the dairy industry, finding the sweet spot for profitability and growth means focusing on a core group of food influencers in and around the St. Louis region.
“The notable chefs and food artisans we work with demand a high-quality product, and they drive our credibility,” he says.
Today, the farm’s milk, half-and-half, and heavy cream are used in more than 60 coffee shops, cafés, ice cream parlors, and restaurants in the area. Turley is also forming relationships with local growers to connect people with food and where it comes from.
“As farmers, it’s on us to tell our story,” says Angie Eckert, vice president of retail operations for Eckert’s Country Store in Belleville, Illinois. “We have to explain why a product is special and what we do that makes it better.”
While signage in their store tells the story of Rolling Lawns Farm, the Eckerts also host special events, so guests can meet Turley and sample products – an experience they can’t get if they buy online.
“Guests want to know there are real people behind a product,” she says. “If they can meet a farmer, it makes his or her story more authentic. It’s that one-on-one experience that guests value, and it elevates the brand.”
Every time a customer interacts with a product, it’s a moment of truth for Turley. “It sounds silly, but the milk actually tastes like milk,” Eckert says. “Once people taste it, they recognize the difference.”
“We want people to experience how fresh milk should taste, but more importantly, we want them to share our reverence for the registered Holstein,” Turley says. “Every day on the farm starts and ends with her and the promise of providing healthy, fresh, and local milk to all.”
A cow’s family tree
Connecting the customer to the cow, Michael Turley believes, starts by showcasing the heritage of his registered Holstein herd at Rolling Lawns Farm, a legacy that dates back to 1883.
“My great-grandfather became a member of the Holstein-Friesian Association in 1920 and registered his first animal,” says Turley, the fourth generation to lead the farm.
Because the cows are part of a breed registry housed at the Holstein Association USA in Vermont, he was able to trace one of their animal’s bloodlines back to its origins.
“Buffy, who came to the farm in 1969, had an ancestor that was imported from the Netherlands to New York in 1883,” he says. “Each of Buffy’s female descendants have been mated to a carefully selected bull, so the family’s impact would continue.”
Today, 15 animals and four generations from this cow family – led by Barb, who, at 11 years old, carries the torch as the herd’s leading matriarch – get special attention to ensure that legacy endures.
“We know more about these purebred beauties than I do my own family,” he says.
Buffy’s family tree will eventually be displayed on a 1228-foot wall at The Milk House, where the milk from the farm’s 120 registered Holsteins is processed and distributed to over 60 businesses in and around the St. Louis area. •
Coping with crisis
Since 2014, dairy producers have struggled with low prices as large supplies outweigh demand. In 2019, the industry lost 3,281 licensed dairy operations, the largest decrease since the USDA began collecting data in 2003.
This prolonged period of tight margins, coupled with the recent pandemic, has farmers weary and concerned about their farms’ future. “It’s going to be a pretty terrible year; the worst in at least a decade,” says Ben Laine, a Rabo AgriFinance dairy analyst.
The bleak outlook can create grief, depression, and emotional instability – all of which can lead to suicide.
“A farmer might feel so tired that he can’t go on or he may feel his family is better off without him,” says David Brown, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach behavioral health specialist. “Even as issues get better, the emotional and economic tail might be long,”
About 40% of people may experience emotional distress six months to a year after a disaster and may need ongoing support, according to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
“Suicide is the most preventable kind of death, and intent is often communicated the prior week,” Brown says. “Look for clues like abnormal sleep, emotional outbursts, comments of ending this misery, observed hopelessness, and actions of preparation.” •
Since opening in 2017, sourcing local premium products for traceability, quality, and freshness is what drives the menu at Vicia. Depending on the time of year, the restaurant buys from as many as 20 local growers in and around St. Louis.
“When I worked with chef Dan Barber of Blue Hill and Blue Hill Stone Barns, I learned about the power of the relationship between the chef and the farmer,” says Michael Gallina, co-owner and executive chef at Vicia. “When I decided to open a restaurant in St. Louis, working with producers in the area was always a part of the plan.”
Today, about 85% of the restaurant’s purchases are made locally to create a unique and memorable dining experience. Those purchases include milk, half-and-half, and heavy cream from Rolling Lawns Farm, which are used for things as simple as coffee creamer to making homemade ice cream and freshly churned butter.
“The Turley family is the perfect example of why we, as chefs, need to support local producers,” Gallina says. “I love what they stand for, and the product speaks for itself. I want to do everything I can to make sure they stay in business and continue their family legacy.”
Consumers are eager to try new dairy brands and products, according to a report by McKinsey & Company.
“The strategy for our unique business model and profile is to pursue indulgent products that make the dairy case interesting again,” says Michael Turley. “The precursor to this was totally conceding the commodity milk market.”
During the 2019 holiday season, the Greenville, Illinois, dairy producer introduced a red velvet eggnog. Priced at $8.79 for a 50-ounce container, the product sold out quickly.
“It was a beautiful deep reddish-pink color,” Turley says. “People really responded to it.”
The milk house
From the outside, The Milk House looks like any other large commercial building. Once you’re inside, it’s clear the 25,000-square-foot facility, with its reclaimed barnwood and historical images of life at Rolling Lawns Farm, is being transformed into much more after sitting idle for three years.
Michael and Jennifer Turley initially bought the former retail store in 2017 to process and distribute the milk from their 120 registered Holsteins.
“When we first looked at the building, we thought it was too big because we only needed 10,000 to 12,000 square feet to process our milk,” Michael Turley says. “We wanted to start small. If we did well, we could expand from there.”
Yet, the couple also knew the purchase would be an investment in the rural community of Greenville, Illinois. Today, the extra space has been used to host church gatherings, school groups, weddings, and other community events. Future plans for the space include a café, a commercial kitchen, and a demonstration area for cooking classes.
“We underestimated the community support and the need for a venue like this in the area,” Turley says.