Tuesday, July 15, 2008

from the Sugar River Dairy

Several weeks ago, we were just finishing up our veggie hunt at the Westside Community Market. I looked at my still not too full basket. Potatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes, peas… what’s missing? Yogurt. I like it with dill on a baked potato. Or with sliced cucumbers. It’s a very Polish thing – sour milk, yogurt, kefir – ubiquitous products in the old country. We drank them for supper, with potatoes on the side, or mixed with fruit, as an afternoon pick-me-up.

The vendors at the Sugar River Dairy stand were selling containers of plain yogurt and ones with fruit. We purchased both, polishing off the blueberry one right there on the spot. It stopped me short.

Pretty much the best I have ever tasted. This is no hyperbole. This is a fact.

The sun is still warm as we bike past the Sugar River. We paddled here once, before all the flooding spilled the Sugar waters beyond the river banks, creating green ponds around trees used to drier meadows.

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Purchase photo 1891

This is farming country. Cornfields. Dairy farms. We see hints of family pride in doing things well.

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Purchase photo 1890

We’re close to Albany, Wisconsin and the hills are something else. Our water bottles are almost empty by the time we reach 7346 County D – the address we picked off the Sugar River Dairy yogurt container.

We hadn’t announced our visit. Asking for an appointment is like asking for a commitment of someone’s time. I’d be happy just to see the place. And at this point, we would be happy to simply dump some more water into our empty bottles.

But, are we at the right place? There’s no huge building announcing production of anything. Yes, yes – there are some cooler trucks in the yard. This must be it.

It’s 5:30 and Ron, Chris and their oldest son are finishing the clean up for the day. And they are so welcoming! Would you like to look around? See how we do things?

Small. Yes. The whole operation could fit into a garage! But what care is taken into the making of this most wonderful, tangy, creamy yogurt!

Milk, brought in by Ron in his own milk-carrying truck. Three times a week, from just one farm twelve miles away, where they pasture graze their cows.

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Heated (to pasteurize it), then cooled to introduce the culture. And then it all goes to this adorable machine which adds fruit and seals the containers.

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Lids are placed by hand and then away it goes, to incubate, and finally cool off.

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Buy photo 1889

So it’s a no-sweat operation, right?

No, not right. We’re a dairy state, correct? We produce milk, cream, butter, cheese. More and more, we note the appearance of wonderful artisanal cheeses, made right here, in Wisconsin. Small, family-owned businesses. Emphasis on quality. Last I counted, there were some five dozen artisanal and homestead cheesemakers in our state. What a nice support network!

How about homestead yogurt? I’m told we’re down to two – one near Green Bay and Sugar River Dairy.

Dannon, Yoplait (General Mills in the US) – they are the big players. Dannon has maybe three plants in the entire country. These spit out millions of little tins of yogurt that fill grocery shelves.

But wait, if Ron and Chris can do such a superior yogurt, where are the other local yogurt makers? Why aren’t they buying up machines that throw fruit into that heavenly, creamy, cultured milk?

We had to go to Israel to get this machine. None here for the little guy. And the fruit? Blueberries, peaches – you think we get them locally, right? Wrong. Michigan, right next door, producing all the fruit we could use, but they don’t prepare it for the little guys, in the quality way that we want. So we have to go to California for fruit!

Oh, but there’s moral and technical support for what you’re doing, no? I mean, we're so proud of what's happening here! Our state should throw accolades and awards your way!

No. It’s lonely out there, at the helm. Homestead production is so rare, so rare, that it’s one uphill struggle just dealing with bureaucracies and inspectors and agencies that cannot work out between themselves what it is that they hope to accomplish.

And still, The Sugar River Dairy continues to make the very best yogurt I have ever tasted. Why do they do it? Oh, that’s the wrong question to ask. The real puzzle? Why isn’t it easier for more farmers to do the same, so that our pasture grazed cows get to show off their milk and our dairy farmers can shove the giants to the side and place their own product out there, with the quality that they are so capable of producing?

We fill our jugs with cool well water. Delicious. We’re refreshed. We pedal home past many sad (in my estimation) cows standing in mud, waiting for their feed, primed to pump milk like robots for the big guys, and just one or two pastures of happy cows, grazing. Happy cows and great yogurt, supported by happy eaters like me.

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Purchase photo 1888

And you. People who eat the stuff should demand quality. Look for the Sugar River Dairy yogurt at Whole Foods, or Willie Street, or Metcalfe's Sentry, or Brennan’s, or the Westside Community Market (among other places) and if your store doesn’t carry it, ask them why not. And say thanks to Ron and Chris if you see them at the market. For doing it the good way. Leading to this, one of the very best yogurts you’ll ever eat, on either side of the ocean.

(For the curious: the yogurt is not YET for sale outside of Wisconsin. Don’t even ask why. A tale of further continued frustration.)