The Way to Great Milk

Originally Posted: Thursday, November 29, 2012


“All milk is not created equal.”


That’s the tagline on the Hudson Valley Fresh website and they are telling the truth. Hanging in the barn at Tollgate there are 32 prestigious top quality milk awards including the 2012 national quality award (their fourth win!) a testament to Jim and Karen Davenport’s dedication to premium quality milk production at Tollgate Farm in Ancramdale. Congratulations! Thank you for caring so much about the cows and feeding us lucky folks in the Northeast.


The sign at the gate of Tollgate farm reads — A Dairy of Distinction — and it lives up to its name on 140 acres with views of the Hudson Valley that you dream of … When I walked in, Farmer Jim was putting fresh hay into the calves’ houses “so they will be warmer and more comfortable in the cold,” he explained.


Jim and his wife Karen have smiles on their faces every time I see them. They love what they do and I love them for it. I cannot say it enough — meet your farmer — and source your food locally. It isn’t only healthier because it is more nutritious, but it helps support commerce in our community and in the long run saves you money.


You will look and feel better and you will take an active role helping farmers like the Davenports sustain profitability in agriculture. Clearly they are on the right path growing their business locally in a cooperative farmer-owned model that we can all support by simply making informed choices when food shopping.


Speaking of a dream — clean, comfortable and happy is the cow motto at Tollgate Farm because when cows aren’t stressed they produce better milk. Jim and Karen Davenport have been raising purebred cows under the Tollgate name since 1986, growing enough grass for hay and corn for silage to feed their current herd of 64 milking cows and 80 young stock at the farm in Ancramdale.


Each of their cows are registered and named properly with the “Tollgate Vu” prefix that is indeed enviable. These purebred cows (90 percent Holstein and 10 percent Ayrshire) are free-range, grass-fed and milked in the original tie-stall barn that came with the property. Jim likes the amount of room and ventilation in the barn. Each cow has its own fitted stall, determined by its length and width.


Jim is fastidious about maintaining a clean farm. “When I come in the barn and turn on the light in the early morning and I see all the cows are clean and all comfortable, well that is what makes it worth doing. If I’m going to be in the barn at 3 a.m. on Christmas morning, I want to work with cows that are attractive and nice to work with,” Jim explains joyfully.


The daily to-do list is plentiful at the farm and Jim must be bionic because his sleep deprived day, every day, starts at 2:40 a.m. when the alarm sounds. He’s in the barn by 2:55 a.m. to sanitize the milk, feed the cows, clean, scrape and pamper them and their stalls so it is spotless where they lay down. At 3:45 a.m. milking starts and fresh milk is cooled fast in a stainless steel tank, the key to quality.


It is then shipped via a double insulated truck to Agrimark — which pasteurizes and produces Hudson Valley Fresh milk, cream and yogurt (from a cooperative of nine local Hudson Valley dairy farms), Cabot cheese, McAdams cheese and many other products from cream that is separated during production to make sour cream, ice cream and different types of dairy products for specialty food makers.


Even Whole Foods Market baked goods in the city demand Tollgate farm milk — because the Davenports consistently deliver premium dairy products and you can taste the difference.


Agrimark is a farmer-owned cooperative with 1,200 local farmer members who feed their herds, their families and communities honestly. It’s important to know where our milk comes from and who makes it. And we should be willing to pay for that.


We will pay $2 for a 20-ounce bottle of water — the cheapest ingredient used to nourish cows — but balk at $3.50 for 64 ounces of nutritious milk opting for bigger corporate brands that are cheaper, don’t taste as good and are far less nutritious. “It makes farmers bonkers,” Jim exclaimed. It makes me think about food choices I make three times a day.


As an agriculturalist and fifth generation dairy farmer, Davenport’s farming journey from Massachusetts to Connecticut to New York gives Jim insight and understanding about high standards necessary to make milk we love — and win awards.


Cows love to eat — they live to eat in fact — and “by feeding them properly we make better milk,” Jim told me. And you cannot imagine the science involved in feeding them “for spot on nutrition” essential to make his economic model work and for the cows to yield 10 gallons of milk each day — two milkings every 12 hours — free from added hormones like rBst or antibiotics.


“If we don’t feed to genetic potential — we couldn’t afford to stay in business,” Jim explained to me in micro detail stressing importance of what is fed to cows. Their mix of forage, starch and grass is essential to yield protein-rich milk full of nutrition so important for human consumption. It’s beyond my comprehension — but clearly Jim’s talent is a passion and sure makes Hudson Valley Fresh milk a staple in my fridge!


All this has been going on for generations in Jim’s family — his grandfather Preston Davenport carried on the dairy farming tradition since 1939 and was Jim’s inspiration having started Tollgate farm in Litchfield, Conn. named for the toll gate at the end of the road. The name stuck and after Jim graduated from college he bought his own Holstein cow and carried on the family legacy in dairy farming. Jim initially studied engineering but wanted to be in agriculture to humor his mother.


Jim and Karen met in college, where they both graduated from the University of Connecticut with a bachelor’s degree in animal science in 1983. Karen went on to earn her master’s degree in animal science and an education certificate and now is currently the department head of the agricultural education program at Housatonic Valley Regional High School in the northwest corner of Connecticut where she teaches a diverse curriculum including biotechnology, animal science, life skills and chairs Future Farmers of America.


Karen makes learning about farming fun and engaging for kids — she is a real live dairy queen and heads up all of the farm tours and promotion of the products Tollgate produces.


The same practices on the farm are applied in the Davenport home, as their two daughters, Kristen and Lauren Davenport, are now top performers in their studies at college, and “there was no spare time to get into trouble,” Jim said. “Raising kids in Ag and having a gifted teacher like my wife gives a foundation for success that money cannot buy.”


Working 4,000 hours a year Jim has “quality milk production down to a science — but I’m not getting rich from it,” he says with a laugh as he looks around the barn smiling while Karen sweeps the corridor. Their eldest in the herd called “Sapphire” seems to be smiling too. She continues to produce milk at 14 years of age.


These cows are part of the Davenport family at Tollgate Farm and the atmosphere in the barn is relaxed and cheerful — because of the hospitality Jim and Karen show them — treatment many cows don’t receive. I see why cows are easily loved and today I appreciated their hard work too.


Take your own milk taste test challenge at home with Hudson Valley Fresh and trust me — you will never buy conventional milk again. FarmOn!


Copyright © 2012 Columbia-Greene Media