Smoky Hills buys, updates Hastings Creamery
Farmers process organic, conventional milk at site
Dairy farmers Justin Malone (left) and Peter Mursu of Smoky Hills Farmers Cooperative stand in their new store June 24 in Hastings, Minnesota. The coop processes both organic and conventional milk. PHOTO BY KATE RECHTZIGEL
HASTINGS, Minn. − More than a year ago, Smoky Hills Farmers Cooperative purchased Hastings Creamery from Plainview Milk Products. In the time since, the new farmer owners have built a new store and added organic processing.
The creamery’s store opened June 17 in Hastings of Dakota County.
“The focus of our group was to go from the farm to the customer’s table,” Justin Malone said. “In order to do that, we needed to be able to process our own milk and put it in a bottle.”
Malone is the general manager of the creamery and a member of the Smoky Hills Farmers Cooperative. He and his family milk 220 cows near Ottertail, about 3.5 hours northwest of the creamery.
Malone is a part of the group of 11 organic dairy farmers from northern Minnesota who purchased the creamery May 1, 2021.
“We wanted to start our own line of organic milk from the Smoky Hills Farmers Cooperative and the closest and highest quality plant we could find was in Hastings,” Malone said. “It also had (high temperature short time) pasteurization, which is what we wanted because we wanted the milk to taste fresh.”
The creamery bottles skim, 1%, 2% and whole white and chocolate milk in both organic and conventional lines under Hastings Creamery and Valley View Farms, respectively, as well as half and half, buttermilk and heavy whipping cream.
“We really wanted to have a place to bring our milk where we would have the say of when we could bring milk in,” Malone said. “Hastings was also already an existing business and in grocery stores, so we didn’t have to start from scratch.”
After purchasing the plant, the group brought in an organic consultant to certify the plant that same spring. The consultant inspected the plant, helped with paperwork and new labels, and made sure they were using the correct chemicals and cleaners. They also helped with the renewal of the certification this year.
“They have been very helpful, even though as a food grade processor we were meeting most of the standards already,” Malone said.
The plant uses one 30,000-gallon silo for organic milk and one for conventional milk. A third 30,000-gallon silo is under construction.
Each silo is washed after use and the milk is segregated while it is being processed and bottled, said Malone.
Before opening, farmer-owners also designed and built a new store complete with local products such as eggs, jams, salsa and other items. And, they have increased customer awareness to the organic line by handing out samples at stores that have signed on with their product.
“The reactions have been great,” Malone said. “People drink the milk and they’re like, ‘Man, this is great. This is the best milk I’ve ever tasted. This tastes like when I was a kid down on the farm.’ That’s been a big boost of encouragement for all of us.”
They sell conventional milk in 30 stores and organic milk in eight stores and at their dairy store in Hastings.
“Everybody knows about the store here,” Malone said. “When we purchased this, I didn’t realize how much reputation and community support there was. Everybody loves the milk that comes out of the creamery and the shakes that come out of the store which is important because we really need Hastings and the surrounding communities to support us.”
The creamery is run by a cooperative board of five dairy farmers – Brice Blickenstaff of New York Mills, Michael Dalquist of Randall, Tim Anderson of Evansville, Peter Mursu of New York Mills, Malone and fieldman and manager Michael Hendrickx of Sebeka.
Dairy farming and serving as the creamery’s interim general manager is an undertaking for Malone.
“The only way I’m able to do this is because of my children who help on the farm, especially my three oldest boys, and our great employees who are responsible and help out at home,” Malone said. “If I didn’t have all those people working as a team at home, I wouldn’t be able to be here.”
Malone is at the creamery two to three days a week answering phone calls and participating in virtual meetings, often leaving his farm by 4:30 a.m. and not getting home until late in the evening.
“It’s a full-time job and then some,” Malone said.
Malone’s team for daily plant operations include his foreman, Jesse Parsons, more than 25 plant employees, a route supervisor, Chuck Anderson, seven route drivers and three office staff.
“It takes a lot of people working together to make this happen every day,” Malone said. “They do a great job.”
The greatest challenges the creamery has faced since its new startup have been selling the organic milk before its shelf life expires and finding a way to distribute the milk throughout Minnesota, including the northern part of the state where the farmer-members reside.
“We have our own route that delivers to about 30 stores, but we are still working on finding out how to get our organic milk to other places and what it’s going to cost,” Malone said. “We also have to make sure customers are aware of when our products hit stores so they can purchase them before their sell by dates.”
To celebrate this new venture and the future of Hastings Creamery, 1,800 people attended the grand opening June 24-25 where they could buy dairy products, including cheese curds from farmer-owner Peter Mursu, and meet other farmer-owners.
“We bought the cheese curd wagon earlier this year and eventually plan to make our own cheese curds to sell out of here in the future,” Mursu said. “It was a big hit.”
Malone is thankful for the people who work at the creamery, the farmer-owners for the work they put into their farms every day and the town of Hastings for their support.
“I don’t know if I can say enough thanks for them,” he said.
The cooperative has plans to take on more patrons from both Minnesota and Wisconsin come later this year.
“We’re planning on growing more on the retail and processing side so we can take on more milk,” Malone said. “Whether your organic or conventional, we don’t have a preference. We just want local milk from farmers who care about their farms and animals, and there’s a lot of those in the dairy industry. Everyone does a good job to produce food for all the people in the country.”