And then there was one

Celebrating a legacy

Cook’s Farm Dairy stands alone in its county

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ORTONVILLE, Mich. — This year, Cook’s Farm Dairy in Ortonville is celebrating 90 years in business by offering a new ice cream flavor — Bessie’s Birthday Cake. Bessie is the name of one of the farm’s cows.

Quinton Cook, who now runs the farm and creamery with his parents, Clark and Lori, said the ice cream’s name is typical of their products.

“We try to make it fun by relating a lot of our ice cream flavors’ names to the farm,” Cook said. “We have a Holy Cow flavor and Cow Pie, which doesn’t sound appetizing, but it is delicious. We try to bring a lot of our product names back to the cows because that is where it all starts — and the public loves those cows.”

The Cooks milk about 55 Holsteins and raise their calves and heifers. Besides making ice cream, they bottle and sell their milk and operate an on-farm retail store. Their milk and ice cream are also distributed to family-run grocery stores, gas stations and specialty shops around Michigan. Cook’s Farm Dairy employees 30 people, 20 of whom are high school students working part time selling ice cream in the farm’s store.

Through four generations, the family’s operation has thrived and is now the last remaining dairy farm in Oakland County. Started by Clark Miller on 100 acres in 1933, the farm was passed on to his son-in-law, John Cook, who gave the farm its name. From there, it went to Clark and then Quinton. Through the decades, the business diversified.

“The farm progressed from generation to generation,” Cook said. “My grandpa added on a few buildings — he was a builder himself — and then my dad came home from college in the 1980s and added the dairy processing plant. He started bottling the milk fresh right on the farm and started making the ice cream, which is really what we are known for today.”

When Cook joined his father in the business, the farm evolved again.

“When I got home from college about five years ago, we added on a (robotic milking system) and a whole freestall barn to go with that,” Cook said. “It’s been going really well for us. … It’s been really good for the cows to be able to go in there whenever they like. It’s been really good for their milk quality, milk production and pregnancy rates.”

Before the upgrades, the Cooks milked in a tiestall barn with a vacuum pump.

“It would take about two and a half hours every morning and two and a half hours every night for milking, so the robot is saving us about five hours a day and is really a benefit to the whole farm,” Cook said.

The freestall barn has waterbeds, and cattle are rotated out when weather permits to a 10-acre pasture adjacent to the barn. The farm is on 200 acres, and the Cooks rent another 150 acres. Most of the total acreage is used to raise hay and corn for feed. Ten acres is reserved for autumn festivities on the farm, where the Cooks operate a corn maze, pumpkin patch and hayrides, attracting many visitors each year.

All milk from the farm goes directly to its creamery. The Cooks bottle milk on Mondays and Fridays, including whole, 2%, skim, chocolate and sometimes eggnog. On Tuesdays, they make ice cream. During busy summer months, they often make 1,600 gallons a week.

“It’s a big draw for the community to come out and maybe pet a calf and have a fresh ice cream cone,” Cook said. “One of the things that makes our dairy farm unique is not only do we produce and handle all of our own dairy products … but people from the public can also come around and visit with the cows, see the few pigs we have here on the farm, maybe bottle feed a baby calf — so it becomes more of a destination for our local community.”

Having a community connection is important to the Cooks.

“Not a lot of people in this area are growing up in (the dairy farming) lifestyle, so families of all ages come in to enjoy the experience of the farm,” Cook said. “We are trying to represent the dairy industry well with our small herd and our delicious ice cream.”

The Cooks also sell meat at their store — hamburger from their cattle and pork from their group of 10 to 12 pigs.

“They basically act as our garbage disposal,” Cook said. “Instead of having a broken ice cream cone on the ground go into the trash, we send it over to the pigs, or if we are making vanilla ice cream but then need to switch over to chocolate, we’ll rinse out that last little bit of vanilla and give that rinse-out to the pigs. None of our waste goes down the drain. That way we can feed more families sustainably.”

Cook’s Farm Dairy is situated in an area that is becoming crowded, which brings both challenges and benefits for the business. The farm is located about 45 minutes northwest of Detroit.

“The area is being developed more and more every year,” Cook said. “When I came home from college in 2017, there were 2,000 dairy farms left in the state of Michigan. Now there are 1,000.”

That equates to about 200 dairy farms closing completely or being sold to larger dairies every year, Cook said. Also, land in the area is being developed for housing.

“We used to rent about 200 acres, but every year it seems a 10-acre plot over here or a 5-acre plot over there are sold off for houses and sub-divisions,” Cook said. “Now, I am only able to rent about 130 to 150 acres in my local area, and I imagine that is going to continue (to decrease) as time goes on. In five to 10 years, there might be the challenge of having to buy more of our feed.”

However, the Cooks are choosing to see the increase in number of residents as an opportunity.

“One of the things about farming where we are is that many people aren’t accustomed to the lifestyle of farming, so when they come, they are very shell-shocked by the experience in a good way, and we have the opportunity to educate them,” Cook said.

With community outreach and dairy promotion in mind, the Cooks are in the process of building a 5,000-square-foot retail store that they hope to complete by next spring or early summer.

“We believe it will drive us to be more of a destination for the people in Oakland County,” Cook said.

The future of the farm is especially important to Cook as he and his wife, Grace, are expecting their first child.

 “Our goal is to keep the business going for the next generation,” Cook said. “We’re a family of faith, and we try to do everything to the glory of God. … Whatever we’re doing, we’re trying to be honorable and do it with integrity. We’re well known for producing quality products, and to do this dairy thing with excellence is something that I’m very proud of.”

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