September 5, 2017 at 3:32 p.m.

Bottling plant adds value to milk

Dorn family farm's roots run deep, all the way to 1764
The Dorns built this milk processing center five years ago to add value to their milk. They elected to try processing rather than adding cows.<br /><!-- 1upcrlf -->PHOTO SUBMITTED
The Dorns built this milk processing center five years ago to add value to their milk. They elected to try processing rather than adding cows.<br /><!-- 1upcrlf -->PHOTO SUBMITTED

By By Ron Johnson- | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

EDGEFIELD, S.C. - Watson Dorn's farming roots run deep. In fact, they go all the way back to before there was a United States.
The dairyman's ancestors came to South Carolina in 1760. Four years later, in 1764, George and Ann Dorn were granted 250 acres by the English crown.
But it was 192 years later, in 1956, that the Dorn family established its dairy operation. James Marvin Dorn and his wife, Maysie, added dairy cows to the row crop farm that had been growing mainly corn and cotton.
Jim and Marie, Watson's parents, continued farming and built the herd of Holsteins. Today, with Watson and his wife, Lisa, in charge, Hickory Hill Dairy milks 250 cows twice a day, near Edgefield, South Carolina.
Five years ago, the Dorns decided to take the farm in a different direction. They trimmed the herd from 300 cows to its present number. They also invested in a milk processing facility on the farm.
"The way I saw it," Watson said, "we really had very few options. We could get larger and spread our costs over more units. We could build a bottling plant and probably cut out the middleman and just go straight to the consumer. Or we could get out (of dairying)."
If the Dorns had decided to sell the cows and exit dairying, they would have joined the ranks of many other farmers throughout South Carolina and the U.S. In the Palmetto State, approximately 80 percent of the dairy farms are gone, compared to 29 years ago. Watson said that in 1984, South Carolina was home to some 370 dairy operations. Now there are perhaps 63.
The slide hasn't stopped. Said Dorn, "If commodity (corn and soybean) prices stay where they are now, and milk prices don't escalate pretty rapidly, I imagine we will have less than 50 by the end of the year."
To keep from becoming a part of those statistics, Hickory Hill Dairy began bottling and selling part of its milk four years ago. The milk is found in retail stores within a 150-mile radius of the farm, and customers can buy it right at the farm, too. Milk that's not bottled is sold to Dairy Farmers of America (DFA).
When the Dorns were building their bottling plant, they asked local grocery chains to carry Hickory Hill milk. They discovered something, according to Watson, "Just because it's local and good, it doesn't sell itself. Nothing could be further from the truth. You've got to spend at least a third of your time marketing."
Since then, the Dorns have begun working with distributors instead of trying to market and deliver all the milk themselves. "That is the key to growing your business," Watson said.
Edgefield County, the home of Hickory Hill Dairy, is sparsely populated. When the dairy distributed all its milk itself, it wasn't uncommon to log 800 miles a week on the delivery trucks. "Now we've cut that in half and we have three times the sales," Dorn said.
Hickory Hill Dairy promotes its gallons, half-gallons and pints as "good, old-fashioned, whole milk" that's not homogenized. Besides whole, white milk, the dairy offers chocolate and buttermilk.
Dorn believes in the value of not homogenizing milk. He said the process "breaks down the fat molecules and sugars so your body just gobbles them up. Health professionals will tell you, you're healthier drinking non-homogenized milk."
People who are lactose intolerant can drink Hickory Hill milk without incurring stomach distress, according to Dorn. He said, "It doesn't bother them at all."
By the way, it is legal to sell unpasteurized, or raw, milk in South Carolina. But the dairyman said, "I'm opposed to doing it."
He said he understands why some farmers sell raw milk - to support their families and farms. Still, he said, "I wish they would not do it, because, sooner or later somebody's going to get serious health problems from drinking raw, unpasteurized milk. And when it hits the news media, the word 'raw' is never going to appear."
If that happens, he warned, "All milk will get blamed."
Everything considered, Dorn is happy with the decision to trim cow numbers and get into the processing business. But he offered some cautionary words.
"The first two years, as with any new business, you're not going to make a dime at it," Dorn said. "After the first two years, you get established, and if you work hard enough to build your market and create sales, then you can start making a little bit of money. After five years, Good Lord willing, you can make some pretty serious money. We're right on the borderline of making the serious money."
Dorn said he doesn't want to discourage farmers from processing their milk. But he has encouraged only two people to try it.
"This isn't for everybody," he said. "I'm fortunate to have a wife who is a CPA (certified public accountant) and is good with numbers. We've got really good employees on the farm, so the farm doesn't go lacking when I spend time marketing milk and running the milk plant."
The farm and dairy plant employ nine. Four work on the farm and four work at the plant, with one person rotating back and forth.
Some of the farm work gets Daniel and Courtney, the Dorns' children, involved. For example, Watson, Lisa and the children sometimes spend several hours on a Saturday, applying 5,000 labels - by hand - to pint bottles of milk.
Besides instilling that good, old-fashioned, rural work ethic, such tasks promote a sense of pride in the farm's milk. "They can go into grocery stores all over South Carolina and see a label on a jug of Hickory Hill milk and know there's a pretty good chance they put it on there," Dorn said.
Watson's parents, Jim and Marie, take active roles in the farm, too. Marie, according to Hickory Hill Dairy's website, "is the glue which holds the family together. With her gentle hand, she maintains the peace when silage season grows long and when the men are tired."
Silage is an important component of the Dorns' feeding program. They own 600 acres and rent 400. Of that, 500 acres are devoted to corn, with 300 acres in pasture. If there's extra corn after the silos are filled, it's sold on the cash market.
The grade Holsteins are doing well grazing all 12 months of the year. They're on alfalfa in the summer, and ryegrass and clover in the fall and going until early spring.
While the herd is carrying a rolling average of approximately 21,000 pounds of milk and being profitable, Dorn doesn't put a lot of stock in herd averages. He pays more attention to feed cost per hundredweight of milk produced. Dorn said feed is costing him $5.90 per cow per day.
Since the bottling business got rolling, milk production has risen.
"That's no credit to me," Dorn said. "That's a credit to our really good employees and our nutritionist."
A challenge of dairying in his part of South Carolina is the climate. Summers can bring 95 degrees and 95 percent-plus humidity. Fans and misters in the freestall barns help, but his cows, nevertheless, prefer to be out on pasture, Dorn said.
It looks like the Dorns have another farmer in the family, one who will carry on the long tradition. Nineteen-year-old Daniel is a freshman at Clemson University, the alma mater of his mom and dad.
Daniel's goal was to become a doctor, and his grades certainly have been good enough to achieve that, according to his father. But Daniel recently told his father, "'Daddy, I miss the farm. I'm starting to change my mind about being a doctor,'" Watson said.
A son or daughter who wants to continue on the farm would be considered a blessing.
"God has blessed us a lot in this business. I do not take that for granted, because I'm definitely not smarter than anybody else and I can't see into the future. But we have really been blessed in this business and I appreciate the blessings," Dorn said.
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