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Shake-up in Solway

Solway, Minn. — At Blackstar Dairy, the cream really does rise to the top.

Rod and Sue Cloose and their cows make milk and yogurt the natural way — no bovine growth hormones, yogurt with active cultures, and non-homogenized milk delivered fresh every week. Customers shake the bottle to mix the cream back into the milk.

The Cloose duo had a shake-up of their own last year when they decided that 12 years of modern dairying were separating them from their five kids. Hoping to blend work and family and keep it on the farm, they enlisted the help of the Farm Business Management program at Central Lakes College in Staples, Minn. There they “ran those numbers,” Sue says, and decided that farm-based milk and yogurt production was “way too good a business to not do it.” On March 28, they started bottling milk; on May 26, they began packaging yogurt.

The Clooses’ Blackstar Dairy is selling milk and yogurt in area grocery stores, where customers can pick up fresh products with a local connection.

“Some people don’t care if it’s natural,” Sue says, “they want a local product. Some are concerned about the natural, non-homogenized milk — it has more available calcium.” Consumers like the freshness, too. “Our milk is 24 hours from cow to shelf,” Sue says.

A lot to know and learn

Research told the Clooses they needed 90 to 100 cows, and a city of 10,000 within 20 miles of the dairy. Their northern Minnesota location — 13 miles from Bemidji and Bagley on U.S. Highway 2, 20 miles from Clearbrook — was ideal.

“There’s a lot to know and a lot to learn,” Sue says, “but it’s not rocket science. The hardest part is marketing.”

At Blackstar Dairy, each cow has her own choice of bedding: wood shavings, paper, straw or sand. “Cows are like people,” Sue says, “they have their own preference.” The Clooses are proud of their cows: “You can’t produce a good product without healthy animals.”

Blackstar employs two full-timers and one part-timer to produce milk and yogurt and handle the extra paperwork. Five yogurt flavors are in production, with three more in development, Sue says. Blackstar mint yogurt is unique in the marketplace. Their fruit yogurts — strawberry, raspberry, wild blueberry — are made with fresh, uncooked fruit. Milk production is split between two percent and skim.

While researching the marketplace, Sue and Rod considered how to improve on products already in stores. “First and foremost, you have to have the best product available,” Sue says. “Look at the market, and find something you can do better than anybody else out there.”

“I can’t make good ice cream, so we settled on yogurt and milk.”

Making the most of milk

When the Clooses took their idea to Lueken’s Market in Bemidji, “the yogurt sold them,” Sue says. Blackstar had “full commitment and backing” from Lueken’s; the grocer printed fliers and featured Blackstar products in advertising.

The Clooses and Lueken’s thought they could sell everything Blackstar produced. So far, that hasn’t happened, but the Clooses believe they may reach that goal in a year or two. Milk not processed on-farm is sold to Associated Milk Producers Inc. The Clooses plan and bottle just enough milk to retail in a week, so they have no milk returned.

While getting the natural milk accepted by consumers hasn’t been difficult, Sue says approval from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture was a struggle. For the MDA, milk is defined as vitamin A-and D-fortified, so approval without those additives took some negotiating.

At first, “they wanted us to label our milk ‘imitation,’ ” she says. However, the milk and labeling were finally approved. AURI food scientist Charan Wadhawan also helped the Clooses with nutritional information and compliance with state and federal regulations.