Cream of the Crop
Happy cows mean happy customers at Working Cows Dairy
Words by Jennifer Stewart Kornegay
In Slocomb, Alabama, Working Cows Dairy is the only 100 percent grass fed, certified organic, animal welfare-rated dairy in the Southeast and one of only a handful in the entire United States.
For Rinske de Jong, these characteristics simply describe a decision she and her husband made about the way they wanted to treat their cows and run their farm. “I guess it’s a list of pretty exclusive labels,” Rinske says. “But it’s really just the old-fashioned, traditional way to raise and milk cows.” And labels tell only part of the Working Cows tale. What really makes the difference is a sip of thick, rich milk or a bite of creamy cheese. It’s a difference you can taste.
With just the tiniest hint of a Dutch accent adding a melodic quality to her speech, Rinske shares the Working Cows story and the mindset that shifted the dairy into its current form. She and her husband Jan came to the United States from the Netherlands in 1985. Jan grew up on a dairy farm and wanted to start his own, so they began in Florida, first working for another farm until they were ready to buy their own. In the meantime, they started a family, raising three sons. When they bought their land in Slocomb and opened their dairy in 1991, they had 220 cows and quickly grew to a 900-cow dairy with 18 employees.
That may sound like success, but for Rinske, it was the opposite. “That was too big,” she says. “We were just turning dollar bills but not enjoying life. My husband had been studying going organic and understood the benefits for us, the cows, and our land, so we did it.” They began the transition in 2006, and by 2009, all the cows and land were certified organic. A few years later, all Working Cows were switched to completely grass fed.
Being organic means Working Cows’ fields (on which they wholly depend to feed the cows) cannot be sprayed with chemicals, pesticides, or herbicides. They don’t use commercial fertilizers or genetically altered grass seeds, and Working Cows uses regenerative and sustainable farming practices such as waste composting and rotational grazing.
The dairy’s treatment of the cows earned it animal welfare-approved status and sets it apart from the majority of mega-dairies in the country. Instead of being confined to a barn and fed concentrated grain, Working Cows freely roam the farm’s green, grassy fields. Modern methods make cows produce more milk but also stress out their systems. “We didn’t want to work our cows to the bone like a big commercial dairy, so we went back to the old ways,” Rinske says. “We don’t push the cows. We treat them well, and you can tell in our products.”
Initially, the dairy raised its cows, collected their milk, and sold it to someone else to process and distribute. But when their organic processor closed down, the de Jongs had to add processing and distribution to their workload in order to remain organic. So, in 2010, they made a major investment in the necessary equipment to take their product straight from the cow to the jug. In 2016, they added a cheese plant.
With two helpers, Rinske milks 140 cows twice a day. Here again, Working Cows does things differently, using a light touch that also affects the final product’s taste and texture. “We do vat pasteurization, meaning we pasteurize at a lower temperature for a longer time period, which allows the milk to retain the true flavors and the beneficial living enzymes and bacteria in milk,”
Rinske says. And since Working Cows doesn’t homogenize its milk, the cream rises as in the old days, and you have to shake the milk before drinking.
The flavor profile of milk is influenced by the land and is therefore unique to the farm, varying depending on the exact grasses the cows are eating. Maybe they’re munching on clover, or maybe chewing on rye grass. Working Cows milk is slightly sweet and feels rich and smooth in your mouth. The chocolate milk is an indulgence you can feel good about; it’s like drinking melted chocolate ice cream. “A lot of people tell us our milk tastes better,” says Rinske. “It can taste a little grassy sometimes, because what the cows eat is what it will taste like. We, of course, drink a lot of it. I make yogurt with it, and we go through four gallons a week.”
Experts have deemed the cheese made from Working Cows milk to be delicious; its Farmstead Cheese won an award from Good Food Awards—which annually honors America’s outstanding craft food producers and farmers—in January 2020. Consumers agree. “We are shipping whole cheeses across the country, to Maine and to Colorado,” Rinske says. She also makes butter from the milk, including an herb butter. The butter and cheeses can be ordered on Working Cows’ website, and its milk can be found in most Whole Foods stores around the South.
As the emphasis on clean, organic eating and responsible, sustainable agriculture continues to grow, Working Cows’ business should be booming. And yet, Rinske admits sales have been slow, in some part due to the pandemic, and to farm costs that never stop rising. “We have this special product. Nobody in the Southeast does what we do, but to get the word out in the market, that’s been tough,” she says.
To keep afloat, her husband has taken another job, leaving Rinske to run the farm and dairy with her eldest son and just a few other employees. “That’s been rough too. Jan is gone now many nights a week, and I hate him being away,” she says. Add to that the chore of finding good help, one Rinkse calls an “ongoing challenge.” “Farming and owning a dairy is a lifestyle, not just a job. I’m up at 4:30 a.m. and back to bed well after 8 p.m., so you have to really want to do this work.”
It’s work that is hard and unending, meaning that Working Cows isn’t the only dairy with an uncertain future. “There are only 20 or so dairies left in Alabama as of 2019,” Rinske says. “I remember at dairy association meetings when there were 300. There are just not a lot of young people who want to get into it or even follow their family into it.”
The de Jongs continue doing it, and Rinske is proud they’re doing it the right way. Plus, she still enjoys the results of her labor. “I’ve really never had much milk from a store,” she says, “so for me, I’m so happy to have our milk. I just love it.”