Seated on a cold metal chair inside Ozark Mountain Creamery, co-owner Lori Fry plops two glass bottles of milk on a table. One is the creamery’s chocolate milk – a rich treat made with velvety whole milk and all-natural chocolate. The other bottle, dripping with condensation, holds nonhomogenized cream-line whole milk. Pop the top off and a thick top layer of pure cream waits to be scooped out of the bottle. Some customers ladle the cream over cereal or hot coffee; others use it to make whipped topping, but Lori simply shakes the bottle a few times, and the top layer of cream dissolves into the thick, buttery milk below.
“This,” she says, “is as close as you’ll get to drinking straight from the cow.”
It’s that pureness of flavor that has helped Ozark Mountain Creamery secure customers from northwest Arkansas to St. Louis. The key to the company’s success has been preserving dairy freshness in all of its products, a result of its processing methods – which, it turns out, came about by accident.
Surrounded by 260 acres of farmland, the creamery sits on the outskirts of Mountain Grove, Missouri, a farming community home to some 4,700 people. Green pastures stretch for miles only to be broken up by white clapboard farmhouses and rows of tightly bundled hay bales. A small apple orchard on the way to the creamery hugs the side of the road, and in late fall, the last of the season’s crop can be purchased for 25 cents per pound.
About half a mile down a gravel road, you’ll see the red building where Ozark Mountain Creamery is housed, and instead of a welcome sign, visitors are greeted by a ragtag bunch of farm dogs: Boo the lab, T-Bone the black-and-tan coonhound and three beagles.
Ozark Mountain Creamery dates back to 1957. Back then, it was known as Fry Dairy and was operated by Phillip and Dora Fry. In 2010, the Frys’ two sons, Dwight and David, along with their wives, Lori and Teresa (respectively), started the creamery and expanded the dairy business. A new milking barn was raised, and today Dwight and David each tends to his own herd of dairy cows and share farming responsibilities while Teresa and Lori run the office. Lori wasn’t familiar with farming when she married Dwight, but the Fry brothers have been farming since they could carry milk pails.
Working out of a small six-cow stanchion barn, the two brothers helped their dad milk the cows twice a day. During the winter when the cows were at their peak milk production (a cow’s ideal temperature is around 40°F), Dwight and especially David – who’s 9 years older – had to race around the barn carefully emptying their milk pails into the bulk milk tank. “I was always happy when summer came around,” David says. “You could milk two to three cows before you had to dump the pail.” When he turned 12, he got his first heifer in exchange for tearing down an old barn. Today, David has 55 cows going through the milk barn, and Dwight has 103.
The farm has seen a lot of changes since its early years, the biggest being that David and Dwight now process the milk on the property instead of selling the raw dairy to a co-op like their parents did. Also new is the milking barn, which can house 60 cows comfortably. As a result, milk production has gone up considerably since the brothers first started toting around milk pails. The creamery now sells about 3,500 gallons of milk each week, with deliveries all along Interstate 44 and Highway 63. Grocery stores, natural food stores and coffee shops stock Ozark Mountain Creamery products, which include 2 percent milk; skim milk; whole milk; heavy cream; chocolate milk; seasonal flavors such as orange cream, root beer, strawberry and mocha, which rotate during the year; and cream-line (nonhomogenized) whole milk. It’s an impressive operation, and it all starts at the milking barn, where the thundering hum of machines greets you at the door.
Inside the barn, two rows of cows line the walls as Dwight stands on the concrete platform below and attaches milkers to each cow’s udders. Next to him, a small dog sleeps in a plastic laundry basket. As the machines whir to life and start pumping milk, a loud clicking noise kicks up, like a metronome stuck on a fast tempo. When the udder is empty, the milker falls off, and Dwight dips each of the cow’s teats into an iodine-based solution to avoid infection.
Each Holstein cow can produce 51 pounds of milk each day (that’s nearly 6 gallons), and the brothers herd their cows into the barn twice a day – once at 5am and again at 5pm. As soon as they’ve finished milking the cows, they push open a metal gate, and the cows clumsily shuffle out, stopping now and then to lick any leftover feed stored in bins along the wall. As the brothers flush water through the milking room to clean it out, the muddy sludge rushes past the cows and down to the creamery’s lagoon, where it will be filtered and reused later that day to clean the cows’ holding pen.
Outside, cows wander into a walkway where silage is piled onto troughs. A few years ago, Dwight and David switched the feed from corn-based to forage sorghum grown on the property. The switch happened by necessity a few years ago, when the corn crop was so bad the family had to find a quick replacement to feed the cows. Protein-rich forage sorghum made the cut, and it wasn’t long before the dairy started receiving feedback from customers who loved the sweetness added to the milk – which was from the new feed and not any added sugar, of course. Today, about 85 percent of the cows’ diet consists of a blend of forage sorghum, rye and wheat, all harvested on the property.
Some of the cows are in their teens, and Dwight and David know them all by name. In David’s herd, there’s Scarlet (a Brown Swiss), Blitz, Rachael (she’s always the fifth cow inside the milking barn), Bubbles, Double Nickels and Hateful Hatty, who’s likely to kick if you don’t watch her. Most of the cows are Holsteins, and they’re all big, beautiful creatures.
The biggest of them all is Olaf, David’s breeding bull, who joined the farm in January 2015. Standing quietly by the gate, Olaf seems friendly enough, but David warns that he has his moments, just like Hatty. “They’re dangerous creatures,” David says. “Years ago, we had a big old white bull. I walked by him one morning when he was grazing; I talked to him as I walked by, and the next thing I knew he had me down. I rolled away from him and took off running, and when I looked back, he was just standing there looking at me.” It’s a lesson David and Dwight have taught their kids, who sometimes help out on the farm.
Back at the creamery, Teresa is busy calling stores to get orders placed and shipped. One of the creamery’s newest areas of business is coffee shops, including Sump Coffee, Blueprint Coffee and Comet Coffee in St. Louis; Café Berlin in Columbia, Missouri; and Brick & Mortar Coffee in Springfield, Missouri. Once word got out about the creamery’s new, naturally sweet milk, orders started piling up – Teresa says the three Onyx Coffee Lab shops in northwest Arkansas go through between 350 and 400 gallons a week.
How the Milk is Made
In the creamery’s warehouse, pallets of empty glass bottles jingle as they slide into the corner. “This is the end of the process,” says Lori, picking up a bottle of cream-line milk. To see where it all starts, you have to head to the other side of the creamery – specifically, the receiving bay.
This is where Dwight and David haul the massive metal tank filled with milk from the milking barn. David and Dwight and two of the plant employees are certified milk haulers, a certification required by the Missouri State Milk Board to move the milk from the farm to the creamery. Fresh milk is pumped into a tank in the huge processing room where it’s tested for antibiotics by certified lab technicians, both at the creamery and at the milk plant where excess milk is taken. Along with testing for antibiotics, butterfat content is measured. “Anything above 3.25 percent butterfat is whole milk,” Lori says. Milk straight from the Frys’ cows usually tests around 3.9 to 4.1 percent butterfat, which is the percentage at which it’s bottled, even though they could sell the extra cream. “We don’t like to overly process milk,” Teresa says. “It’s a question of quality, in our opinion.”
To make skim milk, whole milk is pumped into a separator that pulls out all the cream, which is then bottled and sold by the half-gallon. Once the milk has the right butterfat content, it goes into the vat pasteurizer – a large metal vat set up in the middle of the creamery. The pasteurizer can hold up to 1,000 gallons of milk, which it heats to 145°F for 30 minutes. This is what makes Ozark Mountain Creamery’s products so delicious: Most commercial dairies heat milk to 161°F for 15 minutes, but the Frys use a low-and-slow method, with a lower temperature and longer heating time. Doing so helps retain the fresh and sweet flavor of the milk.
Although the process is now the creamery’s signature, it happened by accident. When David, Teresa, Dwight and Lori started the creamery, they planned to eventually use the same high-temperature method used at most dairies, but the equipment was expensive, and they couldn’t purchase it immediately. In the meantime, the dairy kept using its vat pasteurization, and the family started getting feedback about its products. Lori and Teresa even received calls from customers who were lactose intolerant but said they were able to drink Ozark Mountain Creamery milk.
“By using the lower temperature method, you can ensure that any bad bacteria are eliminated, yet preserve the natural flavor, nutrients and enzymes of the milk,” Teresa says. “At this time, we are the only licensed vat pasteurization plant in the state of Missouri selling our milk through retail outlets. Vat pasteurization is a slower, more expensive process and requires considerable attention, but the quality end-product is well worth the effort.”
Once the milk is pasteurized, it’s pumped into a homogenizer, which uses pressure to keep the cream from rising to the top. The dairy’s cream-line milk skips this step.
Pasteurized, homogenized and cooled to a chilly 40°F, the milk is finally ready to be bottled. Most of the bottles Ozark Mountain Creamery ships out return to the farm, but when deliveries are made to a new store, a good chunk of bottles are scooped up and used as piggy banks and pitchers for tea. The ones that make it back to the creamery are sent through a washer, which is nearly as old as the farm itself. The washer has been updated and parts have been replaced to preserve it, as it’s one of the few remaining working bottle washers of its age. Clinking as they move along the conveyor belt, bottles are lined up and hosed down with soapy water before popping out the other side squeaky clean. The washer holds 256 ½-gallon bottles, and it takes about 8 minutes to wash each batch.
Bottles are then shuffled under the filling machine. Cold milk fills the bottles before they’re wheeled into the large walk-in cooler where they wait to be loaded up and shipped out. Colorful plastic tops peek out from the crates: pink, blue, brown, green and more.
On bottling days, all four Frys are busy at the creamery packaging the milk, along with their five employees. Between loads, Lori and Teresa head into the office to take care of paperwork and orders. And just like in the farm’s early days, the kids come to help when they’re home. Both couples have two adult children each who help with milking or lend a hand during harvest. Dwight and Lori have two teenage sons still at home, as well, who help with milking in the evenings and feeding calves twice a day, and David and Teresa have a teenage son and an 11-year-old daughter who help out on the farm, too.
Two generations later and the family farm is still milking it for all it’s worth and providing longtime and new customers with their products, made from the cream of their crop.
Ozark Mountain Creamery, 417.926.3276, ozarkmtncreamery.com
Buy It and Try It
Ozark Mountain Creamery products are sold in grocery stores and retailers throughout Missouri, including in the following cities and locations:
St. Louis: Various Schnucks locations, Fair Shares CCSA, City Greens Market, Green Bean Delivery (a home delivery service) and Local Harvest Grocery
Springfield area: MaMa Jean’s Natural Market; Hörrmann Meats Farmers Market; Hy-Vee; Homegrown Food; Harter House in Nixa, Missouri; Howell Valley Grocery in West Plains, Missouri; Jean’s Healthway in Ava, Missouri; Richards Brothers in West Plains, Missouri; and Amish Country Store in Branson, Missouri
Columbia: Gerbes, Hy-Vee, Clovers Natural Market, Schnucks, Lucky’s Market and Root Cellar
Jefferson City: Gerbes, Schnucks and Root Cellar
Northwest Arkansas: Bentonville Butcher & Deli in Bentonville, Arkansas, and Ozark Natural Foods in Fayetteville, Arkansas