Mauthes back in business seven years after Hurricane Katrina
Calves soak up the sunshine on the Mauthes’ 50-acre farm in southern Mississippi. As of late February, the temperature there was a balmy 70 degrees. Photo submitted
2/27/2012 11:27:00 AM
PROGRESS, Miss. - The winds of change hit the Kenny and Jamie Mauthe family hard, back in 2005. Infamous Hurricane Katrina not only damaged the barn and other buildings, but destroyed the family's milk processing and delivery business, too.
"Katrina messed up our whole market area. Our whole income went," recalled Jamie.
At the time, the Mauthes and their daughters - Sarah Tullos and Katie Cutrer, and sons, Travis and Daniel - milked 40 cows on their 328-acre farm near Progress, Miss. The farm is in Pike County, just about 100 miles north of New Orleans.
The Mauthes bottled the milk from their herd and made a variety of dairy products, selling them at farmers' markets and to restaurants and in grocery stores. Katrina roared in on Aug. 29, 2005, changing the Mauthes' lives, but not their dreams.
Mauthes' Progress Milk Barn lay directly in the path of the storm. It created the most costly natural disaster in the history of the United States and is among the top five deadliest hurricanes to hit the United States.
On the Mauthe place, the hurricane ripped the roof off the cow lot, took a few shingles off the house, and knocked down the hay barn.
"Our daughter was fixing to get married in that hay barn in one month, and it flattened it," Jamie said.
The storm also took part of the roof off the dairy barn, letting moisture in. The water damaged the electrical system, forcing the Mauthes to milk the 40 cows by hand that night. "Thank goodness we had 14 people staying with us," Jamie said.
With their dairy market in shambles, the Mauthes had no income to pay their mortgage. They eventually ended up selling all but 50 acres, paid the mortgage, sold the cows, and scrambled to make ends meet until they could regroup and get their dairy business up and running again.
Kenny took a variety of jobs, including working at an oil refinery. But, his wife said, "He was totally out of his element."
Kenny later found work on the beef farm of the person who bought some of the Mauthe land. Jamie, meanwhile, worked at a garden center.
The Mauthes began renovating their dairy barn, too. Delaying their re-entry into dairying was the fact that it took two years for them to be granted the environmental quality permit for the farm's oxidation pond.
In all, the Mauthes were out of the dairy business four years, until June of 2010. But there was no doubt in their minds that they would rebuild their business and their lives.
"We knew that we were going to do it," Jamie said. "We knew that it would have to come slow. We bought a couple of cows. We knew we would go back to dairying."
The Mauthes began by selling their products at farmers' markets in southern Mississippi. They've been back in the New Orleans market since last November and are becoming reestablished in stores and restaurants.
A boost to their business could come from the television programs "Bizarre Foods" and "Appetite for Life." Jamie noted that episodes of each were recently filmed at their place.
Perhaps the most interesting of the Mauthes' dairy products is Creole cream cheese. Jamie describes it as similar to mascarpone or yogurt, with a tart taste.
Creole cream cheese, she said, originated in the 1800s, when people of French ancestry made it somewhat like conventional cheese. But instead of forming the curds, they hung the "clabber" in a mesh bag, in a tree and let the whey drain off. Then the cream cheese went into a bowl, with cream poured over it. This Creole cream cheese, Jamie said, was traditionally eaten on French bread in her area, but on cornbread in other parts of the South.
Today, it's "legendary throughout this area as a breakfast food," she observed. "People sprinkle a little sugar on it and eat it straight out of the container."
Butter, buttermilk, and cheesecakes are also Mauthe products. The cheesecakes include not only milk from the farm's 15 cows, but eggs from the free-range chickens.
But it's the farm's whole and skim milk - sold in returnable glass bottles - that's the Mauthes' mainstay. It fetches $3 for half a gallon, and $2 for a quart. Yogurt brings $2 per pint, and cheesecakes are priced according to size.
Overall, Jamie figured the business generates about three times the normal milk price in her area, which is about $20 per hundredweight. Creole cream cheese is a good money maker, bringing the equivalent of $15 for a gallon of milk.
However, there's lots of extra labor. "Lightly" pasteurizing the milk to just the state's legal boundaries takes six hours. Then there's feeding and milking the cows, bottling milk, washing bottles, making the various products and attending four farmers' markets a week, along with delivering to stores and restaurants.
One reason for the popularity of the Mauthes' milk and other products is the freshness of the main ingredient. Getting the milk from the cows to bottles and to customers can take as little as 24 to 48 hours.
Another popular aspect of the milk is its lack of homogenization.
"We wanted to bring back a natural product," Jamie said. "We found that so many people were lactose intolerant and this, that and the other. We have customers who weren't able to drink milk in 50 years that buy milk from us weekly."
With an eye toward the taste and texture of their milk, Progress Milk Barn purposely composed its herd. Most of the cows are Jerseys, but there are also two Holsteins and a pair of Jersey crosses. All the cows get much of their feed from pasture.
"Since we bottle our milk, we didn't want all that cream of the Jerseys, but we did want the richness and the solids that the Jerseys carry," Jamie said. "And then we needed the amount of milk of the Holsteins."
Besides Kenny and Jamie, Sarah and Katie are owners of the business, which pleases their mom. She said, "I can just see them in it. It's where they're supposed to be."
Mississippi had about 600 dairy farms 10 years ago, but now is down closer to 120, according to Kenny. The average herd has about 100 cows, Jamie estimated.
That makes the Mauthes among the survivors - in more ways than one. They not only survived one of the worst hurricanes in U.S. history, but have brought their dairy business back to life.
On a February morning, Jamie described conditions at a farmers' market in New Orleans as "70 degrees and gorgeous." About dairying, she optimistically added, "We're starting to get our foot back in the door - where we were before."