Kootenay Meadows brings local milk back to the Creston Valley

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Mwee Gay Paw operates a refurbished bottle filler at Kootenay Meadows

Mwee Gay Paw operates a refurbished bottle filler at Kootenay Meadows

The once familiar sound of clinking milk bottles in local dairy cases has returned to the Creston Valley.

Kootenay Meadows, a family-owned organic farm in Lister, is now selling a full line of milk products, processed and bottled mostly with used and salvaged equipment. It’s another giant step for a family farm that has labored to create a value-added product line to sustain a future for owners Wayne and Denise Harris and their daughters, Erin and Nadine. The Harrises began making their alpine-style cheese (formerly under the label Kootenay Alpine Cheese) six years ago, and just began bottling their farm fresh milk this spring.

Since the commencement of milk bottling, no longer does the farm produce organic milk only to see it hauled off in tanker trucks to distant processing plants, where it is untraceable and processed as non-organic milk. And no longer do Kootenay residents lose out on the opportunity to purchase milk and cream from local, grass-fed cows. Single source, locally bottled dairy products haven’t been available in Creston stores for more than 40 years and the community’s appetite has clearly been whetted.

Not that starting a commercial bottling operation is easy. New equipment is either simply not available or cost prohibitive.

“Our bottle washer and case washer are refurbished,” said Nadine Ben-Rabha (née Harris). “No one is making new bottle washers any more, so we found two old ones of the same make — in terrible condition. Brad Issac, a talented local millwright, made one that works.”

The pasteurizer came out of a government surplus auction. It once did service in a New Brunswick penitentiary. The Harrises hope that the small two-bottle filler will soon be replaced by a more productive unit.

To create the capacity to separate, pasteurize, bottle and store milk, an addition to the cheese-making facility doubled the interior space. A retail room will soon be ready to sell the farm’s expanded product line in a large, sun-filled area.

Kootenay Meadows milk products are sold in 500-ml, quart (946-ml) and half-gallon (1.89-litre) glass bottles, sourced from Ontario, “the only supplier in North America.”

“Dad and I worked for weeks to calculate how much glass we would need to start and within a month we were starting to run short,” Ben-Rabha said.

Picture old-fashioned bottles with an elegant, simple clover and grass graphic, and it’s easy to imagine them sitting on kitchen windowsills, serving as retro-style flower vases.

Despite the appeal of keeping a bottle or two at home, Kootenay Meadows greatly appreciates when customers rinse and return the bottles to stores, so that they may be picked up when delivering fresh milk to be washed and re-filled again. Re-usable glass is used to be environmentally, and economically, responsible, “so please return your bottles for re-use,” is the plea from Ben-Rabha.

The Harris family is hardly unfamiliar with re-tilling old ground. Six years ago a venture into cheese making was seen as a huge risk. Now, Kootenay Meadows cheese is available in stores and markets from Vancouver Island to Ontario. The cheese-making venture provided a comfort level that allowed Erin to return to the family farm after earning a degree in organic agriculture in Ontario. Ben-Rabha, who has a degree in education, sold the cheese in the Lower Mainland markets before she, too, returned home. Only their brother, Foster, has resisted the temptation to move back permanently, but even he has returned to help with construction, first of the fromagerie, and then of the bottling plant.

A herd of 80 cows, a mix of Holstein, Swedish Red, Guernsey and Normande cows, is sustained with organically grown feed on a patchwork quilt of owned and leased parcels. The herd produces about 14,000 litres a week, 3,000-4,000 litres of which is used for cheese. Gravity-fed milk from the nearby milking barn makes its way gently through stainless steel pipes to be processed into cheese or milk and cream.

Two months into production, orders for milk and cream are up to about 5,000 litres a week. The remainder is shipped out in bulk trucks, an amount that, ideally, will dwindle to nothing as wholesale orders throughout the east and west Kootenays increase. Save-On Foods and Kootenay Co-op in Nelson, and Overwaitea Foods and Famous Fritz Meats and Deli in Creston are the biggest retailers, but equally important are the smaller outlets, many of which cater to customers demanding organic products produced as close to home as possible.

Consumers in Fernie, Cranbrook, Kimberley, Salmo, Kaslo, Crawford Bay, New Denver, the Slocan Valley, Castlegar, Trail, Rossland and Nelson have been quick to make purchases.

Retailers in Vancouver and Calgary are interested in Kootenay Meadows milk and cream, too, but transportation from a community tucked into the southeast corner of the province is a complicating factor.

“Our delivery truck (Foster at the wheel, for the time being) is on the road three days a week, 12 hours a day,” Denise said.

The addition of a milk-bottling plant has stretched the family’s finances, time and energy resources, but five full-time and six part-time employees are all benefitting from employment that comes through diversification.

Ben-Rabha, who handles most of the marketing of the farm products, also keeps busy in the fromagerie and bottling plant.

“So much is about the cleaning,” she laughs. “It’s the less romantic part, but that’s really what takes up a great deal of time and effort.”

Erin works primarily with the herd and crops.

For Denise, she gets the satisfaction working side-by-side with her family and employees that she also calls friends. The reward of producing healthy, wholesome dairy products for an appreciative market is immeasurable.

She looks out the east windows of the bottling plant and smiles, seeing the herd grazing contentedly just outside the building, with the Skimmerhorn mountain range looming in the background.

“How beautiful is that view?” she asks. “What other milk bottling plant has that?”