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Crystal Ball Farms
by Ben Schultz
Organic Producer Magazine

Home delivery of bottled milk may seem like an anachronism, something that got left on the porch in the 1950s. It’s a reminder of another era, when farms weren’t so big and the milkman was just as prominent as the mailman.
   
But that anachronism is dusting off its old context and coming back because of a dairy farmer’s operation near Osceola, Wis. Troy DeRosier, owner of Crystal Ball Organic Dairy, a producer of non-homogenized, organic milk, takes his product right to his customers’ doorsteps, and can barely keep up with demand.
   
With an on-site store about 35 miles from the Twin Cities, Crystal Ball Organic Dairy can boast of its quality because of its freshness and the health of the animals.
   
“This is more than organic; that’s what people have to understand,” he said.
“You can’t get it any fresher. It’s from the cow to the bottle and then out the door.”
   
The milk is sold in glass bottles and has a longer shelf life than the average non-homogenized milk. Normally, non-homogenized milk can only keep for 14 days. The milk from Crystal Ball Organic Dairy can go for 16 days without turning sour because the herd health of the farms’ 100 Holsteins is consistently top-notch.
   
However, non-homogenized milk offers more difficulties than the conventional product. Troy noted that his milk is more susceptible to fluctuations in temperatures than the homogenized type.
“Homogenization extends the shelf life, that’s the reason it’s homogenized,” he said.
   
On the way to the bottle, the milk runs through a separator, which pulls the cream from the rest of the milk. The cream is put aside to make butter, which is also sold by Crystal Ball Organic Dairy.
The separation takes place before the milk is vat pasteurized to ensure quality. Separating afterward raises the risks of contamination but is more efficient.
   
Efficiency is one of the biggest challenges at the operation. Currently, empty bottles make their way back to the farm through a deposit system. They are all washed on-site before being refilled. The washing process requires a worker to manually load a machine, as does the filling process. Twenty-two bottles can be filled in a minute, but that rate will be raised as soon as a machine is put in place to do it.
   
While the creamery and farm serve as a model of self-sufficiency, Troy still grapples with the cost of fuel. He is looking forward to putting in a corn boiler to cut down on costs.
“Right now we’re using 1,200 gallons of LP a month to heat everything,” he said. “At about $1.60 a gallon, that’s cutting into profit.”

He estimates the cost of burning corn in an outside unit would be about a third of that.
As for fuel efficiency, another concern with home delivery of milk is getting it to the homes as cheaply as possible. Crystal Ball Organic Dairy uses a diesel van with separate compartments for various products to make home deliveries. It gets over 20 miles to the gallon and is the only new vehicle DeRosier ever bought.
Two drivers use full-size trucks to make deliveries to the Twin Cities, where milk, cheese and other products are sold to a distributor that transports them to Madison and Milwaukee.
Surprisingly, most of the market for Crystal Ball’s foods is not in the Minneapolis and St. Paul area, but in southern Wisconsin.

In Madison and Milwaukee, they were the first dairy of its sort to establish a market and is now reaping the benefits of getting ahead of the market. However, with a September 2003 opening of the creamery, Crystal Ball found itself struggling for business in Minnesota.
“We anticipated that the majority of our market would be the Twin Cities,” Troy said. “However, there’s already somebody doing something similar to what we are in the Cities.”
   
Still, proximity to the rapidly expanding Twin Cities metropolitan area has its benefits. With more commuters filling up nearby towns like Stillwater and Somerset, the sales at the farm store are climbing ever higher.
   
The drawback, however, is the spiraling price of land. DeRosier moved to the present site in the early ’90s and bought the farm buildings. However, most of the 650 acres that Troy and his father, Don, farm is rented. At this point, they simply can’t afford to buy it.
   
Don said the original intention of moving to the current site was to build up a herd. When they took sodium out of their fertilizer and saw a herd health difference, they figured it was better to go for quality rather than quantity.
   
“We just sat down one day and figured we could do better processing our own milk than milking 500 cows,” Don said. “Then we just kind of proceeded into this.”
   
Right now, the on-site store is the best retailer for Crystal Ball. A steady afternoon flow of cars passes through. Most people are just buying a half-gallon of milk for $2.50. At the stores they distribute to, it costs between $2.80 and $3.
   
With the organic market growing rapidly and more producers and joining the trend, Troy isn’t all that worried about up-and-coming competition. He’s assured that the quality of Crystal Ball Organic Dairy will sustain it.

“As long as you provide a good product, the market will stay there,” he said.


 


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