WILLOW STREET, Pa. — Family needs got Dan and Shari Ripley interested in A2 milk, but their experience quickly showed them they had a marketable product.
The Ripleys, who are dairy farmers and processors in Moravia, New York, described their A2 marketing journey on June 11 at the World Guernsey Conference.
A2 milk, which has gained momentum in the U.S. over the past two years, lacks a protein found in most cow’s milk. Proponents say A2 milk is easier to digest, but scientific evidence remains thin.
More than 90% of Guernseys have the gene to produce A2 milk, while only about half of Holsteins do, according to the California Dairy Research Foundation.
Dan’s parents got clued into A2 milk back in 2007 when they attended the World Guernsey Conference in Australia. They encouraged their son to get the cows tested, but he didn’t so right away.
Meanwhile, he and Shari raised their oldest son on goat’s milk because cow’s milk didn’t agree with him.
“Milk 500 cows at the barn, come home and milk two goats,” Shari said.
“Not much fun,” Dan said.
When their sixth child (they have eight) also had digestive trouble, Dan alternated for a few days between A2 milk and standard cow’s milk.
The regular milk made his daughter sick, but the A2 milk didn’t.
“It was real and I was surprised. I don’t know why,” he said.
In 2015, Dan’s niece, who also had problems with milk, used A2 milk in ice cream, cheese and cereal, and had virtually no side effects. She said the family had to start bottling the stuff.
So the Ripleys asked the owner of a local dairy plant if he would be interested in bottling their Guernsey milk. He said no, but a few months later he offered to sell them the plant.
When the Ripleys took over Hillcrest Dairy in April 2016, the company’s brand was already well established — and with a Holstein on the logo, not a Guernsey.
The couple kept the well-known name for the products of their Holstein and non-A2 Guernseys, but they created a Ripley Family Farm logo with fawn-colored cows for their A2 goodies.
It’s taken some time to get customers interested in the Ripley brand, but they’re coming around, Shari said.
Customers often ask if the milk is 100% A2. Some Guernsey farmers apparently say their milk is mostly A2, but if they are as sensitive as the young Ripleys, mostly is not good enough, Shari said.
The Ripleys have tested all of their Guernseys, and only those with the right gene go into the A2 herd, complete with pink ear tags.
“That was not voted on by me. I did not want to go with pink,” Dan said.
“They’re all ladies. They can wear pink,” Shari said.
The A2 milk is stored in a separate tank at the barn and goes through the processing plant first so there is no chance of mixing the A2 milk with the milk from the Holstein-Guernsey herd.
Some customers call up asking for A2 heavy cream, which the Ripleys sometimes make, but the majority of the Ripleys’ A2 whole milk goes to coffee shops.
One shop owner in Buffalo taught them a lot about milk’s flavors, consistency and foaming qualities — a whole new lingo for that market niche.
Coffee shops have also given the farm a market for Guernsey half-and-half.
But customer demand can be a funny thing. The farm’s pepper jack cheese won gold and silver medals at The Great New York State Fair, but it’s the farm’s worst-selling cheese.
In general, the farm’s Guernsey cheeses are yellower than its Holstein cheeses. The Guernsey product is smoother and creamier, and Guernsey milk provides a better cheese yield per pound, Shari said.
The Ripleys also got better by packing their milk in farm-branded crates instead of cardboard boxes. “It makes you appear more professional, that you’re serious about your business,” Dan said.
The Ripleys maintain social media pages for their business, but it can be hard to decide what to post.
“What we want to show the general public about our product, about our farm, about our business isn’t necessarily what the general public wants to see,” Shari said.
She and Dan went out of their comfort zone when they allowed a Syracuse University photojournalism student to shadow their children while they worked on the farm.
The student turned out some cute posed photos of the Ripleys’ daughters working with the cows, but the photo that ended up in an exhibition at the university showed one of the girls driving a wet calf in a utility vehicle through gloomy winter weather.
Shari was shocked and dismayed. “I wish you had not taken that picture,” she thought.
Actually, the professor and others loved the photo. It was real, they said. It showed that the daughters had hustled to take care of the calf, that farming entails hard work in less-than-gorgeous conditions.
Shari still doesn’t post photos quite that raw to Instagram, but she’s learned to be wary of presenting the farm with a fake degree of prettiness.
And while work at the processing plant can be exhausting, she tries to remember to post — and cherish — the meaningful family moments as well.
Shari showed a photo of the robot costume her 11-year-old had made out of cardboard boxes at the plant.
Family memories and history also keep the family showing cattle despite the time commitment and lack of financial reward.
“As busy as you get, you’ve got to take a step back and say, ‘Nope, some things have to stay,’” she said.