If you ask Michael Turley to define “a farm”, he smiles in a way that makes you think you’re going to find his answer a little weird. It’s a hesitant smile, suggesting he is already aware that you are most likely a skeptic. But he answers anyway:
“Remember the opening scenes of the movie The Wizard of Oz? Remember the farm Dorothy lives on in Kansas—there’s Aunt Em and Uncle Henry, barely getting by with a few hired hands to help them, a cow, a horse, some hogs, a few acres of field crops in the distance? Well that’s what I think of as the American farm.” Then he waits for the inevitable response that politely calls his vision “romantic,” “quaint” but in the end “highly impractical” by today’s agricultural standards.
Actually, Michael has described more than just a farm; he’s talking about what Dorothy spent a harrowing adventure to regain. Home. And while times change, industries shift and markets rise and fall, home is constant. At least we hope so.
Of course, in the beginning of the movie, Dorothy wanted adventure, something beyond that fence she sat on singing Over the Rainbow. And at one time or another, so do we—including Michael Turley. Especially when what you are trying to hang on to seems “beyond the rainbow” in the modern dairy market. But “home” has a way of putting down roots and staying put in your heart, even if, over time, it has to go through a few renovations.
Rolling Lawns Farm is located on 700 acres just outside Greenville, IL, and Michael will proudly tell you that cows have been milked here every morning and every evening since 1910. He grew up here, learning what he likes to call the art of “animal husbandry” from his grandfather, his father and his mom, Connie, who still is in charge of the newborn calves, who still mows the lawns and, if it’s nice weather and she’s not too tired at the end of day, likes a nice walk in the evening. “My mom has a way with the calves; she loves working with them and she simply knows what they need,” said Michael in a matter-of-fact sort of way. “My mother doesn’t miss a thing,” and then he grins.
Up until 2015, Michael was helping out on the family farm on weekends. He had “a real job,” a growing family and, not surprising to most of us, the usual stack of bills. So he kept his love for his parents and the 100-year-old farm he grew up on close in his heart by spending part of his life there, helping out as much as he could.
But life is what happens when you are busy making other plans, goes the John Lennon song. And in 2015, Michael found himself a full-time dairy farmer again, except now he was the guy in charge, and the dairy industry had transformed into something that did not resemble his experience growing up. (“Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore,” Dorothy whispered.)
“Today large and small dairy operations are held to the same high standards and scrutiny when it comes to the quality of milk,” he explains, and he is in total agreement with this principle. “But the competition for low prices makes it especially hard for small farms to compete.” There is also new competition from the organic side of dairy, as this sector of the industry has exponentially grown to be more accessible to more people, but it’s brought with it its own nasty version of “factory farming” that is often hidden beneath marketing jingles and happy little cartoon cows.
So, there’s cheap conventional milk—some good, some downright bad; there’s higher-priced and reputable, (and sometimes not-so-reputable) organic milk; and then…
There’s Rolling Lawns Farm milk, totally tracible and transparent, driven by common sense, connected intrinsically to the local land and committed to top-quality care for the classic Holsteins that have grazed the pastures for 100 years. There’s also something else happening at Rolling Lawns Farm that probably doesn’t show up in many other dairy operations: belief in and commitment to the local community—from the basics of providing healthy food to the value-added pledge of paying your blessings forward—forming partnerships for the future as you honor the past. Here’s how it happens….
His reentry into the dairy industry soon taught Michael that what worked before for small farms wasn’t going to work today. “There are only a handful of small dairy farms across this country that are making it by selling fluid milk,” he explains. He notes that there are plenty of small-batch artisan cheese operations and specialty dairy products—everything from milk-based soaps to fancy butters–but plain old milk is a much tougher proposition because nationwide its sells so cheap—at a price far lower than a small-batch producer like Michael can hope to meet and still make a profit.
Does this seem fair? Well, you can blame whoever you see as the enemy—the big box stores like Walmart and Costco where price alone drives the business model, or the USDA that often treats the BIG GUYS far better than the little guys with subsidies and tax cuts, or the milk-drinking public, (That’s us and we should own it.) who seems to value their Coke and Pepsi more than healthier options and considers rock-bottom prices their due.
Or…like Michael…you can just let all that go, stand true to what you believe, bring your best self to work each day, and start building a new model for your dairy operation that doesn’t depend on the past and looks toward the future.
So he needed another way, and it sort of sounded to me like he had three choices—like clicking your ruby slippers together three times…but which click would bring you home?
Like many small dairy farmers across the country, Michael could have decided it was time to sell the farm, set his mom up all nice and comfy and, perhaps, even tuck away some college tuition money for his two sons. But I’ve met his mom, Connie, and I doubt being “set up all nice and comfy” is anything she’d be interested in. The farm, since she came there at age 19 as a young bride, is her whole world. Her home.
Though he never mentioned it, Michael could have possibly “gone big” and retooled his family farm into one of those enormous operations that leaves “animal husbandry” behind and concentrates on a bottom line of profit at any cost. But like I said, it never came up. And by the looks of the beauty around me on the day I visited, it never came close to entering his mind.
So there was this third option and something must have…well…clicked. What if you bought an empty building in your hometown, renovated it using mostly what you had available or could get secondhand to create your own production facility and put a bottling facility right on the farm—in essence knocking out some of the middlemen that drove the price of milk so low. Then, what if you partnered with your creative wife to broaden your definition of a dairy operation to include authentic farm-to-table dinners at an on-site restaurant, cooking classes to bring people to your product in fun and innovative ways, gave farm tours to remain true to transparency and show firsthand your commitment to the environment and the animals under your care, and used good old-fashioned personal conversations with local chefs and independent retailers to sell and distribute your product? Well, you’d have Rolling Lawns Farm.
“We took a big risk,” Michael explains. “We decided to zig while the rest of the industry is zagging, But I feel there is a renaissance coming in farming, and I want to be part of it.”
On the day I visited, there was a small herd of lovely ladies in the maternity pasture, near the main buildings so they could be carefully monitored and tended. And, BTW, one of them is actually named Lovely. “Their sole job is to relax and be healthy,” explained Michael. It’s a hands-on approach of feeding a high-quality diet, rotating your herd, and keeping tight tabs on the new and expectant moms.
“Of course, we use a lot of technology now—we have cameras that help us keep an eye on moms about to deliver, so we can be there when we are needed—even at three in the morning–but most of what we do on the farm is hands-on and labor intensive,” he said, (no pun intended, I thought.). But while the focus is on quality care, Michael is the first to admit that some things had to change—just change carefully: “It’s still a fine line,” he said, speaking of modern farming, “because we couldn’t begin to produce the volume of food needed today, if our farms didn’t advance in some ways. The U.S. population is nearly three times what it was back in 1930.”
Indeed, just like homemade bread or from-scratch stocks and stews, at Rolling Lawns Farm much is done as it’s always been done from calving, to milking and feeding, to grazing, to growing the non-GMO crops the cows eat as a regular part of their diet. And though Rolling Lawns is considered a “small” dairy, we are still talking over 250 cows with approximately 110 in milk production. During our ride around the farm, we actually passed the lady who comes every morning to do the 3:30 a.m. milking. (And I thought I got up early!)
So much is the same, you could say, except now bottling, processing and distributing are also in the mix. And further, some changes Michael has decided to make don’t necessarily translate into immediate profit…or even profit at all, as defined by traditional agribusiness models. Take for example the soon-to-be-planted pollinator field: “We will be taking a few acres on the property and converting them to native plants and prairie in the near future,” said Michael. I thought about asking him why, but by then I knew the answer—because it’s the right thing to do. Environmental responsibility and sustainability—stuff earlier generations probably didn’t even consider but just did—factor heavily into the renaissance that Michael envisions, as does making the farm itself a destination for anyone wanting to better understand where their food comes from.
At the Milk House
Just a few miles from the farm right outside downtown Greenville is the Milk House, where Rolling Lawns milk is processed and sold directly from the dairy case, just hours old. The Milk House is Michael Turley’s biggest investment and, some would say, his riskiest decision. In the near future, the Milk House will serve not only as the processing and distributing center for Rolling Farms milk, cream, and yummy treats like the ice cream (Yes! Ice Cream!), it will also be home to a commercial kitchen, a farm-to-table restaurant and a demonstration area for cooking classes—you might even learn pie baking there from my friend Jane Zappia, owner of Pop’s Pies. School groups are already visiting and one class got to churn their own butter.
Michael’s wife Jennifer is the genius behind the look and feel of this amazing place. From the outside, it is big and industrial, but walk inside and, even in its currently unfinished state, its beautifully rustic, invitingly warm and truly festive, all woody with planks of reclaimed barnwood and blown-up images of life at Rolling Lawns Farm.
Turn to the right, however, and peer through the viewing windows, and everything becomes ultra-modern, cold, sterile and scientific. The processing area reminds you of some hi-tech laboratory, which is exactly what it is, I guess. “This is where we invested most of our money,” said Michael. “The air in here (I was just shivering) is kept cold and its clean,” he explained, pointing to the immaculate ductwork above our heads, “hospital quality. We intend to do this right.”
And while everything looked shiny, squeaky clean and brand new, there was actually quite a bit of recycling and reusing going on. “We saved money by buying our processing equipment from other farms—many that just couldn’t make it. It worked for us and it worked for them.” And, I thought, it kept large, perfectly good equipment in use and out of the landfill. Loved it!
On our tour of the facility, Michael introduced me to Emmanuel Nava, JJ for short, who is a senior at Greenville University, majoring in chemistry. JJ is one of the renaissance links between Rolling Lawns Farm and its surrounding community. “JJ is our intern and does our testing. He monitors the processing of the milk,” explained Michael. And how’s it going for JJ? “I never really considered the food industry as a possibility,” said JJ, “but working here has been great…even fun,” he said, smiling sort of shyly, while eyeing his boss. In fact, it was JJ who approached Michael for this opportunity to work and learn. And it has been another win-win.
The link between Michael’s farm and Greenville University is part of the new Rolling Lawns business model—it is an economical asset for the farm, to be sure, and a great opportunity for students like JJ. But it also represents an investment in the future—a way to bring a new generation of smart talent to farming and food production by showing them that there is a way to do all this that is smart, ethical and profitable.
So Who’s Got Milk?
I asked Michael who was buying his milk because when he left the traditional co-op a couple of years ago and started doing the entire cycle of milking, processing and distributing himself, that meant he had to do the marketing and the selling, too. Who has that kind of time and energy? Michael.
“Our hope is to be in groceries all over southwestern Illinois and in the St. Louis market, as well. We currently have 70 customers consisting of restaurants, coffee shops, ice cream and bakery specialty shops. And, of course, small, local markets are usually neighborhood gems!” Certainly Greenville, Edwardsville (lucky me!) and Belleville are part of his intended territory.
“We also sell ice cream to Ice’s Plain and Fancy in St. Louis; it’s eight hours from cow to ice cream,” he said. Other buyers in St. Louis include Raintree School and Straub’s Markets. But I was most interested in one of his newest customers—Green Earth Grocery in my hometown. I see this as the perfect partnership because they have a lot in common. Green Earth has been in Edwardsville forever—all the 40 years I’ve lived here, at least. And they are, like Rolling Lawns Farm, a very small fish in a very big and competitive pond. But I think Michael’s milk will do well there. It’s a neighbor helping neighbor kind of thing, and Green Earth customers are all about that.
Michael has a few more clients and several prospects he’s working on, but there’s a special one, I think he’s most proud of. He explained that on Mondays and Thursdays Rolling Lawns Farm delivers milk free to the local food pantry. “You know, when you look at the shelves in there, they are lined with processed foods. And, of course, I can understand that” he concedes. “The processed foods are easy to transport, store well and have a long shelf life, but they can’t be someone’s entire diet. So we provide milk each week, and it just flies off the shelf.” Okay, again, this component probably isn’t in a lot of dairy farm business plans. But it’s in Michael’s, and you can tell it makes him so proud.
When we finally said goodbye, he’d packed me into my truck with a reusable, biodegradable cooler filled with Rolling Lawns Farm milk, half and half, heavy cream and chocolate milk. I had the nerve to ask if he also had buttermilk—you know the REAL buttermilk, not the watered-down stuff currently in the stores. He smiled and said he was working on it.
Don’t you get sorta tired? I asked. Or nervous? I mean, the big guys have all the advantage here and don’t work near as hard. “We are just taking a path that seems to be the best opportunity for our family farm,” he answered, as if people did this kind of stuff and cared this much every day. “We shall see, as it’s very risky and challenging. To say that David and Goliath are alive and well in the dairy industry is a safe bet. But in the case of milk, I’d much rather be David.”
And then, I was on my way.
You know all the climate change stuff and all the dire predictions really get me down sometimes. I am depressed over corporate greed and the unwillingness of some to even admit we’ve got big environmental and social problems worldwide. But not the day I visited Michael’s farm. As I drove back out ahead of the Milk House and past the road to Rolling Lawns Farm, all I could see for acres and acres was hope… and home.
Want to learn more about Rolling Lawns Farm—see the FEAST Magazine article from a while back, like Rolling Lawns Farm on Facebook and contact them via their website. And above all, it’s important to support what you believe in with your most powerful consumer tool—your money. Be the change you want to see in the world.