Over the Moon milk is about as close to straight from the cow that you will get. “We milk on Friday and sell on Saturday,” says Karl Johnson, owner of Johnson’s Farmgate which supplies the milk to farmers markets and speciality stores and cafes in New South Wales.
Johnson, an ex-publican from Sydney who has been in the milk trade for about six years, drives this liquid gold to Sydney himself. Then he mans the market stall and sells his wares himself. That’s about as hands-on as you will get.
Johnson processes around 4000 litres a week from a Jersey herd that grazes on the lush pastures of the Hastings Valley around the Lindsay dairy farm near Wauchope, Port Macquarie. The milk is bottled on the farm and isn’t mixed with milk from other dairies. It’s the antithesis of the today’s mass milk producers who process with bulk and the bottom line in mind, not respect for the product, or others in the supply chain.
Take it from a self-confessed (slightly embarrassed) cheap supermarket milk purchaser: the first taste of Over the Moon whole, homogenised milk is something of an awakening.
It coats the roof of the mouth and tongue, unlike the cheap, watery liquid that masquerades as milk. Pour it into a glass and it is cream in colour (not white), has body and a slight froth on top, unlike the listless supermarket-branded stuff. It tastes creamy, like milk did when sipped through a straw from small glass bottles that were distributed free to primary school kids once upon a time. In short, it tastes like milk did before we started mucking about with it.
That Johnson will pay a farmer 50 percent more than the major processors also leaves a pleasant taste in the mouth.
“We believe that farmers deserve a fair price for their milk,” he says.
At a time when some dairy farmers fear they will go under after Coles slashed its own-brand milk to $1 a litre, a move replicated by other supermarkets, Johnson’s fair approach and generosity of spirit stand out.
Others clearly think he’s doing something right, too. His produce won seven silver medals out of 10 categories at the 2011 Sydney Royal Cheese and Dairy Show.
Johnson is not alone in his independent endeavours, though small players like him are few and far between. Country Valley Milk based in Picton, NSW is in the same league. The company, which is operated by the Fairly family, took the gong for the most successful milk exhibitor at the 2011 show.
So what is different about the milk these niche players produce? Why do they win accolades and a loyal, albeit small, following that turn up on market day just to buy their milk? The answer is two-fold. First, it’s the quality of the milk they source. And secondly, it’s how they process it – or more specifically, the limited processing it goes through.
In Australia, milk for consumption has to be pasteurised by heating the milk to 72 degrees Celsius for more than 15 seconds, then cooled down quickly, which kills harmful bacteria.
After pasteurisation, most milk is homogenised, which is the process of breaking up the butterfat into smaller globules so that it no longer separates from the milk and forms a creamy cap on top. (Over the Moon also produces unhomogenised milk.) This is achieved by forcing milk through nozzles at high pressure. Homogenisation gives the milk an even, creamy taste and consistent texture.
Milk is also spun in a centrifugal separator to separate it from some of the cream – which is used for other things – to make low-fat milk. But that is where processing similarities end.
Small producers like Johnson and Fairley handle the milk as little as possible. They source it from dairies close by. John Fairley sources his from his own dairy farm and several others within 100 kilometres of his processing plant, saying that too much handling “upsets the nature of the milk”. Milk is a bit like fruit, he says “it bruises easily and the quality can be lowered if it is not treated carefully.
Mass processors truck milk in from all over and have little control over what cows eat. Both Johnson and Fairley source milk from pasture-fed cows, which doesn’t result in flavour taints from fodder crops or supplementary feed.
Because cows mostly eat grass, regional and seasonal variances lead to varying levels of fat and protein in milk. Whole milk is made up of fat, protein, milk-sugar (lactose), water, vitamins and minerals (including calcium). Milk produced in winter is high in butterfat, which heightens the creaminess of the milk. In spring, when the pasture is flourishing, there is more protein and less butterfat.
“When we get a real spring flush our milk tastes different,” Fairley says. “When we open the vat there is a real fresh smell. When we walk into the dairy we can smell it on the breath of the cows.”
“It is seasonal, local and tastes different every time.”
Fairley concedes that this fresh smell can be disconcerting for consumers – even those who are used to his milk. And milk that tastes different every time is not what supermarkets – or indeed, many consumers – want. They want a consistent taste every time.
For this reason, most large processors standardise milk to a minimum fat content. Under Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) regulations full fat milk must have 3.2 percent fat and 3 percent protein. Skimmed milk can have a maximum 1.5 percent fat, and 3 percent protein.
This is where milk processing starts to get murky.
“Components of milk can be added to or withdrawn from milk to standardise natural variations in fat and protein and produce a range of consistent products.”
This allows processors to add permeate – a milk by-product that contains lactose, vitamins and minerals – back in, effectively to dilute the fat and protein contents to meet the regulations.
While large processors say they add permeate to milk only to standardise levels of fat and protein to meet strict FSANZ regulations, critics of the process – including small producers who don’t standardise to a minimum fat content – insist that permeate is used to water down milk. They say large processors add excessive quantities of permeate to milk because, being a by-product, it is cheaper to purchase and a more economical – thus profitable – way to produce milk.
In 2008 the Kiama Shellharbour Albion Park Milk Suppliers Collective Bargaining Group told the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s grocery price inquiry that permeate was added to milk at up to 12 percent in some milk brands.
“The rationale used is that it standardises the fat and protein content of the milk. In reality we suspect it waters down the milk,” the group said.
Whatever the larger processors do to their milk, a uniform, generic product is generally the result.
Johnson’s whole milk is labelled as having a minimum 4.4 percent fat. But it can go as high as 5 percent depending on the season.
“You get what you get,” Johnson says.
Both Johnson and Fairley say their milk is selling well despite aggressive supermarket discounting: a sign that some consumers want – and will pay for – a more expensive branded product. Country Valley full-fat milk sells for $3.76 a litre in some supermarkets. My 2-litre purchase of Over the Moon set me back $6.99.
Johnson says if he can expand his business the price to the consumer will come down. He is about to bring another dairy farm on board, and expects to be pumping out about 10,000 litres a week within 12 months.
“The big thing is price. As we get bigger we will reduce the price into our distributors therefore the savings will be passed on to customer,” he says.
“I drive it myself down to Sydney so there is no economy of scale there. If we can ship more down we will get a better rate on freight.”
I’m not going to lie. At $6.99 for two litres i’m not going to buy Over the Moon milk every week. But when i see it at a farmer’s market, and i’ve got a cool-bag in tow, i’ll take a two-litre carton home. I’ll sip it slowly, iced from the fridge. Or warm it up for chai latte when the weather turns cold. The point is, i’ll appreciate it. Savour it. And if Johnson increases his output as predicted, and the price comes down, i’ll support his endeavours more regularly.
But what i have learnt from this exercise, what it has underscored, is that saying ‘you get what you pay for’. My days of blindly grabbing the cheapest milk from the supermarket fridge are over. It took Coles’ $1-a-litre campaign to make me stop and think, and a chat with Karl Johnson and John Fairley to cement my intentions.
I’ll find a happy medium – somewhere between the rock-bottom priced milk and the boutique products. And when i do buy the top-shelf stuff i’ll drink less, savour more. I’ll put my money where my mouth is: in the hands of farmers and smaller producers.
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