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Dairy Farm Update: Bring On the Cheese!

The Sells in August 2009Quickly now, I have to get this news in before the little ’uns awaken.

On Tuesday, we had the state dairy inspector come and look over our milking facilities. This is a necessary step to getting our dairy license. One needs a state approved license in order to sell milk commercially.

Prior to Tuesday, we had been working to get that barn up and in order. Over the last couple months, we went from piecing together a milking system to milk Charlotte, to streamlining it with the additions of Tilly, Mabel, Anna and Bea. Then we continued to replace old parts and clean in the milk house and barn.

We pursued several local creameries to pick up our milk and one was very interested in us. We were along their current milk pick-up route, they were agreeable to our small number of cows and their field rep was completely ok with us selling raw on the side. This was Weyauwega Star Dairy. Then we added Leche and Isabelle to our barn.

Next, we had to make some FDA mandated improvements in the milk house. Install a hand washing station. Add a soap dispenser for said station. Have at least three milking claws (the tools used to actually fasten to the cows’ udder and pump milk, and we only had one). Wash the stainless steel pipeline system.

During all of this, we had to get our well water tested for chemicals, metals and bacteria. The field rep came out and took a sample and sent it to Milwaukee to get it tested at a state-run lab. The sample came back positive for coliform bacteria (pretty common in older wells and ours is nearing 100 years) and E. coli. That’s right, E. coli! We had the rep test from another source point on the well and resend it in.

The results were the same. In fact, the lab suggested we stop drinking the water and immediately buy bottled water and get a whole new well dug. My dad looked into cost, and the best case scenario was two weeks to wait and $4800 to dig. Ouch. Plus, we LOVE, LOVE, LOVE our water here. It’s the clearest, tastiest water we’ve ever had and somehow we are in a separate aquifer than our neighbors because they have really iron-y, yellowish water. Anyway, we were aghast. Having E. coli in the water meant that there was some sort of manure leak at the surface of the well that was contaminating the whole thing.

Now here’s the kicker. Knowing what we did, we couldn’t possibly continue to sell our raw milk because the animals drink that water, the equipment is washed in that water, everything touches that water! Then, try telling people that we have E. coli contamination and see them come flocking back to buy an unpasteurized product. We were about to lose our whole business. This was in June and one of the reasons we were so absent from the blog. We were scared of losing everything.

Days passed, and my dad began asking around about independent testing. We have a relative who is a certified plumber, and he offered to take a test up to an independent lab in Appleton. So, without us changing anything, he took water from the same source point and sent it in. We waited a few days. We busied ourselves with farm work. And then they called.

Positive for coliform bacteria. Negative for E. coli. Negative! It was then recommended that we “shock” the well with chlorine to clean it of the coliform. We did that and resent a new sample to the same lab. Two days. Then the results.

Negative in all areas! We passed! Now, what does that mean that one lab passes us and the other spells doomsday for our entire operation? Notice that one was independent and the other state run. We have a feeling, though there are no hard facts to back this up, that the state would like to eradicate all the old wells and bring them up to modern standards. Ours is grandfathered in to avoid a lot of regulations that our neighbors’ wells are not. We believe this is why our water is better tasting; we are at a much shallower level in the aquifer than modern standards would allow. But the water here is great! We are beyond blessed to have access to it for free. It is highly possible for a state run facility to see the age of a well and run some numbers a little high in order to eradicate said old well. We wouldn’t put it past the government, not for a minute.

In this time, we did not tell anyone what was going on. We needed to make sure, and there was no need to freak everyone out. We are so glad we didn’t have to tell them. We weren’t sick. Our animals weren’t sick. We just knew this had to be wrong, especially when we’d had our well tested last summer for other reasons, and it had come up clean and clear.

And this time, it did. We called Weyauwega back, and they accepted the independent lab test. Then they called the state inspector to come see our facilities.

Which brings us back to Tuesday. She came, she saw, she recommended, she passed us! Just like that, in less than an hour, three months of work and worry and testing and building and cleaning and repairing came to fruition. We have a Grade B Dairy License (grade A sells fluid milk, grade B sells milk for further processing, like cheese or candy).

That afternoon, Andy and Dad and Bret worked hard to get the old bulk tank (milk cooler) up and running. By milking time, Andy was milking nine cows with three milking claws into our pipeline system. It went from 45 minutes of milk time down to 15.

And on Friday, the Weyauwega milk truck will back into our driveway and pull the milk out from that tank for the first time in 13 years.

Oh, what a happy week! (And now the kids are up, so I must run!)

Blessings to you all!


Rebekah Sell lives on a small plot of land with her husband, Andy, on which they are hoping to build a sustainable homestead. With a small business and four kids, life is always interesting as Becky and Andy live fully the idea that the journey is the reward. Find her on .