Going Green in the Golden State

I cruised up to the Central Valley of California after three days on the road traveling from the Heartland to the West Coast. Interstate 70 ushered me through the Flint Hills and Rocky Mountains, and Interstate 15 took me through Fishlake National Forest and right by the future site of Dairy Farmers of America’s (DFA) newest cheese retail store in Beaver, Utah. A few more U.S. highways and mountain roads guided me through Death Valley National Park and Sequoia National Forest. The end of my journey brought the hot, white sand and cold, blue water of the Pacific Ocean.


Along the way, I witnessed a turkey with feathers fanned,strutting his stuff for some nearby hens. A pheasant flew so close to the truck, I had visions of cracked windshields. Lights from a wind farm shone like stars scattered across a field, and solar panels glinted in the desert sun as far as I could see.

A couple hours from my final destination, the verdant acres of Philip Verwey Farms greeted me with a much-needed respite from the road and provided hope that the beauties I encountered during my cross-country trek would be here for many years to come.

That’s because Philip Verwey and his son, Brent, are committed to green practices on their dairy farms and to being industry leaders in sustainability. Green operations make good business sense, as well as environmental sense, and the Verweys believe they’re good for the dairy industry, too. Brent explains that implementing sustainable practices is important to the Verweys because it allows them to demonstrate the viability of these practices to their fellow dairy farmers.

Philip Verwey and Frank Cardoza

“Being environmentally friendly is good for everyone,” he says. “It’s good for the public and it’s good for the industry. By paving the way and helping show these practices work for the business, more dairymen may be open to making some of these sustainable changes.”

Staying at the forefront of environmental innovations has enabled the Verweys to partner with their local and national regulatory agencies, and they’ve invited other dairy farmers to see their work in action through open-house events and allowing writers like myself to visit the dairies.

The nitty-gritty
Philip Verwey Farms consists of about 4,600 acres, 10,000 milking cows and 7,000 young cows not yet in the milking herd. And, with that many animals, there is bound to be some major manure. Instead of letting all this waste simply go to waste, the Verwey family turns it into electricity. And bedding for their cows. And fertilizer for the fields. Oh, and at full capacity, their anaerobic digester can create enough energy to power the farm and allow the Verweys to sell two-thirds of the total energy back to their local utility cooperative. For the family, being good stewards of the land also means emissions reduction and water conservation are top priorities for themselves and their employees.

We take care of each of these individual areas and will ensure the longevity of animals and the dairy industry.
— Frank Cardoza

Frank Cardoza, controller at Philip Verwey Farms, manages the day-to-day operations of the three farms. “When they hired me, Philip and Shelley said there were three things important to them,” Frank told me. “Number one is that we create a safe working environment that will attract hard-working people who want a career in the ag industry. Two is to ensure there’s no animal abuse and use the best animal handling practices. And number three is the environment. Always find ways to conserve water and reduce air pollutions. Those are the three things Philip and Shelley wanted me to focus on, and they all work together in harmony. We take care of each of these individual areas and will ensure the longevity of animals and the dairy industry.”

Harmony feels like the perfect word to describe the Verwey operation. Between recycling and conserving water, producing bedding and fertilizer, and creating energy that fuels the farms, the whole system works in sync.

A self-sustaining cycle
While many components comprise the sustainable systems on Philip Verwey Farms, they can be broken down into three main parts: recycled water, the anaerobic digestion system and the electric feed mixers. These three parts work together to create a green, self-sustaining cycle. The water flushes manure into the anaerobic digestion system, which creates electricity to run the feed mixers, which provides a total mixed ration to feed the cattle. The cattle then produce the wholesome milk with which we nourish our families, as well as the byproduct the water then flushes to the digester.

Recycled water
The water starts its journey through the dairy as it’s pumped from electric wells that provide fresh drinking water for the animals. Recycled water is then used to flush the lanes in all the freestall barns. It passes over screens in separators where large solids are sifted out and sent on to live another life as bedding and fertilizer. The water is then recycled and used to flush the heifer corrals. Lastly, the same water flows underground to the anaerobic digestion system, where it produces natural gas to power generators that deliver energy.

The goal for the dairies is to recycle all the water they use. Frank estimates they’re currently close to the 90-percent mark.

Anaerobic digestion system
Anaerobic digestion is the process where manure from the dairy herd is converted into energy by microorganisms in the absence of air. As Brent toured our group around Philip Verwey Farms, he summarized their system, which was commissioned in October 2016. The large, covered lagoon — double-lined to prevent groundwater seepage — where the conversion occurs is a half-mile long by 300-feet wide. It has a holding capacity close to 30 million gallons and energy potential of 20 million kilowatt hours’ worth of electricity — enough to power 5,000 homes or three large dairy facilities.

Brent walked our small group out on top of the black, rubber cover, which the biogas transforms into an enormous, curved balloon. As we reached the summit of the cover, we were treated to a bird’s-eye view of the surrounding fields, where the water table seeped through green fields and birds flapped and chirped.

As we descended, we walked straight toward the stack at the generator site, which gleams in the sunshine and gives off almost no emissions.

Electric feed mixers
One day while driving home, Philip had the idea to further reduce emissions by converting the farms’ traditional diesel-fueled mixing wagons to an electric-driven feeding system. He submitted a proposal to the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District through their Technology Advancement Program and was granted funding to help complete the project.

Philip subsequently eliminated the emission of more than 20 tons of nitrogen oxides each year through the use of two stationary mixers.

The total mixed ration Philip feeds his cows contains 12 different types of feed, including wheat and corn silage the family grows on the farms. The electric mixers prevent sorting of all these feeds and reduce diesel usage from running tractors. The farms’ diesel usage went from roughly 7,000 gallons of fuel every three to four weeks to 500 gallons of fuel for the same time frame.

Additionally, the blending of the mixed ration is more consistent and uniform, and the efficiencies provided by the mixers cut feeding time in half — from 20 hours per day to about nine hours per day.

Frank Cardoza, Brent Verwey and Paúl Alcarai

The future
As I left Philip Verwey Farms, with the date palm fronds swaying in the breeze, I couldn’t help but wonder what would be next for the Verweys. Would it be the natural gas filling stations they are planning? The fleet of natural-gas-powered tanker trucks? Or some other new technology to reduce their carbon footprint and increase efficiencies? Philip is always trying to do more. He’s an innovator and is constantly looking for ways to run his dairies more efficiently. With his penchant for installing environmentally friendly features on his farms, I’m sure the next green thing is right around the corner.

Learning from the Past

Marilyn Calvin | Thunder Ridge Dairy | Mount Vernon, Mo.

For Marilyn Calvin, a dairy farmer in Mount Vernon, Mo., one of the hardest things she’s had to face was coming home alone after her husband suddenly and unexpectedly passed away in 2010.

“I would always call him when I got to the airport,” Marilyn remembers of the many trips to Dairy Farmers of America’s (DFA) — her milk marketing cooperative — board and council meetings. “After he was gone, I would get to the airport and there was nobody to call. And then I got home and nobody’s here.”

After he was gone, I would get to the airport and there was nobody to call. And then I got home and nobody’s here.
— Marilyn Calvin

Walking through the front door and knowing her husband wouldn’t be there to greet her is still painful, but it has never stopped Marilyn from walking right out through the back door and getting to work. A dairy farm requires the kind of work that can’t wait for sorrow to fade, or for your legal affairs to be in order. The cows must be cared for every day, regardless of life’s other challenges.

Challenges are old hat for Marilyn. She and her husband, Kenneth, embarked on their careers as dairy farmers in 1972 with nothing but two cows (Marilyn bought these), a bird dog named Beaver, a shotgun and a car payment (Kenneth contributed the last three). Today, the operation consists of about 500 acres, with 200 dairy cows and 170 replacement heifers — cows that aren’t currently producing milk. Marilyn is in partnership with her son, Kenlee, and they run the farm together with the help of a long-time employee.

As a first-generation dairy farmer and wife who inherited the farm, Marilyn offers a unique perspective on succession planning. The tragedy of her husband’s unforeseen passing resulted in valuable lessons learned and a willingness to share her story.

Equal is not always equitable
As a farm family with three children, two of whom have careers outside the farm, the Calvins knew it was important to find an attorney who understood farm family dynamics and was familiar with their circumstances. Marilyn has a saying that “equal is not always equitable,” and she put a lot of thought and planning into finding an attorney who truly understood her philosophy. Marilyn’s goal is to keep the farm intact for future generations, including her three grandchildren, and to provide for all her children fairly.  

“When one of your children has put their life, their assets and their time into the farm, and then you have other children who have jobs outside the farm, it can’t all be equal,” Marilyn says.

Although Kenneth and Marilyn had a trust in place well before they needed it, Marilyn discovered all her planning did not prepare her for losing her spouse and business partner. From long nights alone when a cow needs help calving in the middle of a snowstorm, to missing her partner when she wants input on a big decision, Marilyn adapted as best she could while keeping the farm running. Additionally, she learned the importance of establishing her own credit. Kenneth was very mechanical — instead of buying new equipment when something broke down, he could fix it. With Kenneth gone, however, Marilyn has to purchase new equipment more often. Having a little credit in her own name helps make that possible.

Kenlee and Marilyn Calvin

Talking it through
Facing one’s own demise is unpleasant, and dividing a business or assets can be messy. Marilyn found, though, that talking it through and having a plan saved heartache at a time when her family couldn’t take any more.

“Any young person who stays on a farm deserves to know where they stand,” Marilyn says. “You’d be surprised how many dairy farmers I’ve met who are farming with their families, and they don’t know if they’ll inherit the farm.”

A simple, yet meaningful piece of advice Marilyn offers is to prepare while you can. “A loved one suddenly passing away can happen to anybody. They’re here and then gone all of a sudden,” Marilyn says. “He wasn’t only my husband — he was my business partner and my best friend. And now he’s gone.”

A Stay Worth Working For

Hugging and hand milking cows, bottle feeding calves and soaking up the sun in lush, green pastures are a few of the activities in which guests can partake at Spectacular Views & Moos, an Airbnb hosted by dairy farmers Daniel and Angela Schmid in Bloomville, N.Y.


The Schmids operate Mountain View Dairy, a 270-acre, 50-cow dairy atop a picturesque hill with breathtaking views. Daniel’s father, Walter, bought the farm in 1969 after he moved to the United States from Switzerland. Annemarie, Daniel’s mother, joined him about a year later, and they’ve been on the farm ever since. Currently, Daniel and Angela manage the dairy and are venturing into agritourism — combining their agricultural pursuits with tourism and the chance to connect people with their food.

While the dairy is the real bread and butter for the family, their agritourism business is burgeoning into a life of its own. In a world where consumers are more and more interested in where their food comes from, and social media can provide as much misinformation as truth, the Schmids decided to share their love of dairying with people through social media, their Airbnb rental and the opportunity to camp with the cows. 

Guests from around the world have booked, from places including Japan, Los Angeles and Houston. Some guests enjoy the views and their solitude; others want to learn about the dairy and participate in milking and other farm chores. Angela loves engaging with the guests and is willing to let them be as involved as they like.

“I have a deep passion for this farm and I love being able to share it with our guests,” she says. “They come as strangers and leave as friends.”

It seems the guests love it, too. As one Airbnb reviewer from New York City noted, “Be sure to take them up on a tour of the farm. If you’re anything like us, knowing where and how your food gets to you is such a meaningful experience. On top of that, the view is absolutely stunning.”

Glamping, anyone?
Lori Ciafardoni, Cheri Rossi and Desi Carter (from New York, Minnesota and Florida, respectively) took the Schmids up on their offer of an interactive Airbnb experience and booked Spectacular Views & Moos for an early-summer weekend. The three ladies work remotely for The State University of New York and attend commencement every year at the campus near Mountain View Dairy. They wanted to rent a place nearby with room for all of them. As Lori and Cheri searched together over the phone for a suitable rental, Spectacular Views & Moos jumped out at them.

“Views & Moos, what’s this?” Lori exclaimed, and then immediately called Desi and told her, “We’re staying with cows.”

They didn’t actually sleep in the barn during their stay, and they passed on the chance to camp in tents in the woods by the fire pit. Glamping is a little more their style, so the ladies stayed in the house on the property. They did, however, get a much more hands-on experience than they planned, including a little snuggle time for Lori and Snow, a 1,300-pound Holstein whom Lori hit it off with instantly.

The parlor
True to their word, Daniel and Angela let their guests be as involved with the farm as they liked. So, amongst the scattered moos of 50 impatient cows waiting just outside, Desi, Lori and Cheri strolled into the Schmid’s milking parlor at 6 a.m. on a crisp, bright Friday morning. Daniel and Angela gave them a tour and explained the process they go through twice a day, every day, to milk their herd. The ladies, with their boots on, were ready to start and dove right in.

The bovine ladies filed in, took their places and ate some grain. The Airbnb guests took their cues from Daniel and Angela and cleaned udders, connected milkers and even learned to milk by hand, which Cheri said was completely different than she expected and was her favorite part of the whole experience.

The milkhouse
Once the cows were milked and back to grazing in their pasture, Daniel cleaned the parlor and Angela took Desi, Lori and Cheri to the milkhouse. Here, she explained the mechanics of getting milk from 50 cows to their 1,500-gallon, stainless steel milk tank, into a tanker truck and to a plant.

While Angela explained the process of cooling the milk and taking test samples for quality, her guests peppered her with questions about pasteurization, expiration dates and cow care. Being a nurse, Lori was especially inquisitive about the health of the Schmid’s herd. She asked about treatments when cows get sick, which led to a discussion about antibiotics.

I have a deep passion for this farm and I love being able to share it with our guests. They come as strangers and leave as friends.
— Angela Schmid

“We won’t take a risk that any antibiotics would ever get into the milk tank,” Angela explained. “We don’t have the piping system connected to the tank when we milk a cow that’s getting antibiotics. The cow still gets milked, but the milk goes into a separate pail, as it can never go into milk processed for human consumption.” Angela then went into detail about the testing protocols in place on every farm to prevent antibiotics — which, just like humans, cows receive when they are sick — from making it into dairy products: “Before our milk hauler will take our milk, the driver agitates the milk tank for 10 minutes and takes a sample, which he sends to the processing plant. The processing plant won’t accept milk that tests positive for antibiotics. Should any milk on that truck test positive, it would all be dumped.”

Providing answers to questions about milk, cow care and anything else related to dairy farming is part of the reason Angela loves agritourism. It allows her to engage with the public and promote the industry she loves. In this way, she can dispel some of the confusion people face when making food choices and bring them a little closer to agriculture.

She says, “With social media, it’s easy to share our day-to-day with people who wouldn’t normally get a chance to even see the inside of a dairy barn, let alone touch or hug a cow. It’s important to let them know we are here and we welcome them to come, see, ask questions and maybe even find a little passion.”

Reflections on the hill
After a visit to the pasture where the three ladies hugged cows and made friends with Sprinkles, the only Jersey on the farm, they had a picnic-style lunch and enjoyed the views from on top of the hill.

Reflecting on their morning of learning, milking and hugging cows, Desi, Cheri and Lori said they had really just been looking for a place to stay, but ended up with an unforgettable experience.

“Knowing it’s a working farm, we didn’t think we would be that involved because we would be in the way,” Cheri said. “But, they totally let us get in the way!”

Desi admitted they’ve already booked the Airbnb for next year’s commencement trip and she will be bringing her husband along to share the experience.

Whether it’s hosting foodies from New York City, glampers on a commencement trip, campers enjoying the fresh mountain air or just folks looking for a place to stay, the Schmids have found a meaningful way to connect people to dairy and the families who produce it.

Masters of Metal

Rick Avery | Paul Mueller Company | Springfield, Mo.

The sound of clunky, steel-toe boot covers shuffling on the cement floor and some rather routine clearing of my fogged-up safety glasses do nothing to mask the instant aroma of a shop — the largest and cleanest I’ve ever experienced — as I begin what is sure to be a stimulating tour.

A sheet of metal clambers onto a long, steel table, and a bead from the welder is carefully uniting the enormous pieces of silver material when we arrive at our first stop in the expansive 1-million-square-foot building. Welcome to Paul Mueller Company, or as I’ve seen it referenced in shiny, metal letters: Mueller.

Although intrigued by Mueller’s wine and beer equipment (only a couple of their many product categories), this company piques my interest for its prominence and reputation in storing and handling another delectable product — milk.


This Springfield, Mo.,-based company’s rich history, tradition and reputation go back to the 1940s. The now global metal manufacturing company began humbly when two young entrepreneurs, Paul Mueller and Gordon Mann, shook hands on their sheet metal endeavor. The partnership was short-lived, as Paul took over the company only a few years later when Gordon fell ill.

In the years and decades following, Paul ventured into a slew of industries, one of which was dairy manufacturing processing equipment in 1946. The entire Paul Mueller Company story could no doubt fill a novel, and I’d surely be in line to pick up my own copy, because Paul’s reputation, like that of the company he left behind, is filled with passion, craftsmanship, hard work and immense pride. I had the opportunity to talk with Rick McClenning, Mueller’s national sales manager, who not only knows the business backward, forward and inside out, but is clearly touched by Paul’s legacy and the sense of pride he instilled in his employees. 

“There are several employees who had a personal relationship with Mr. Mueller and are still working here today,” explains Rick. “The number of employees that have been here 30-plus years is just amazing in today’s society. There’s really a sense of loyalty, a sense of family, a sense of continuation — there are multiple people here who have members of their family who also work here. That’s unusual in today’s world, but it’s a very big, small business and a family-driven operation.”


“Your name, your heritage is on the building.”


— Rick McClenning

Even after Paul ended his tenure and turned over his day-to-day control, he remained a familiar face at Mueller until his death at the age of 99 in 2015. Not only was he on the board of directors, but he continued to come in almost every day into his early 90s.

And who better to leave his family business to than his grandson, David Moore.

“There’s a sense of responsibility that comes with that, and there’s a sense of responsiveness that comes with that as well,” Rick says. “Your name, your heritage is on the building.”

Beyond its headquarters in Springfield, which has about 600 employees, Mueller does a lot of its dairy product manufacturing in Osceola, Iowa, and has another facility in the Netherlands.

This particular tour continues through the Springfield facility as we follow Regional Sales Manager Jordan Blunt along the multitude of steps it takes to craft a milk tank. Although dairy is just one of the industries Mueller has a hand in, it’s one of their larger business units, accounting for 60 to 70 percent of the milk cooler market share in North America.

With that large of a presence in the milk tank market, the shiny Mueller logo can be spotted on a good majority of Dairy Farmers of America’s (DFA) more than 14,500 member farms. 

Before these cylindrical, smooth and somewhat flashy milk coolers — spanning from 300 to 8,000 gallons in capacity — can arrive at a dairy farm, they go through the multi-step process I watched on a walk-through of the colossal facility.


Follow me on the journey of the making of a milk tank (the condensed edition).

Step 1
It all starts with a pallet of raw sheets of metal, which are brought into the Mueller facility and await their turn through the assembly line. This assembly line isn’t filled with robotic movement and a handful of employees supervising the process. No, this process breaks that stigma. The man-made touch is evident in each step these milk coolers take before they’re loaded on the dock.

Step 2
From the slatted, wood pallets, each sheet of metal is lifted onto a solid, expansive table to be welded together using a food-grade finish. This machine requires a skilled employee’s hands, ensuring precision is achieved. The raised bead from the weld is then flattened and smoothed, leaving behind a seamless finish. The sheet is then wrapped into a single, open-ended cylinder.

Step 3
As you can imagine, a manufacturing facility requires a fair share of welding, leading to an assortment of unique welding helmets hanging in stations to be donned by an eager employee. Once the milk tank makes its way to this step, several employees use lifts to move each end of the cylinder into place before securing them with another set of precise welds.

Step 4
Each tank features two cylindrical layers, allowing space to run piping and wiring into the tank without being exposed to the creamy, white goodness that will eventually fill the inside layer to the brim. Foam insulation is then sprayed into the gap to provide optimal efficiency for cooling the milk. The tank also receives its legs in this step before any rough edges are ground down by a crew sporting matching safety glasses, gloves and neon orange earplugs.   

Step 5
From my conversations with Rick and Jordan, I know calibration of each tank is essential at Mueller — it’s part of their brand promise for a quality product. Once each tank has been assembled, it is carefully calibrated by pulling gram and cubic centimeter draws of water repeatedly from the tank. This part of the process ensures each tank is calibrated as accurately as possible, so dairy farmers can know exactly how much milk their tank encases at any given moment.

Step 6
No matter the capacity of a tank, their shiny, silver, stainless steel aesthetic is a signature feature on the dairy farm. So, before the finished milk cooler leaves Mueller, it is thoroughly shined and sanitized. Then, it receives the final seal of approval as a plate featuring block-style Mueller letters is affixed to the front by a pair of steady, callused hands.


Each of these steps culminate into a reputation of quality and customer service, the reason Mueller is a household name on dairy farms.

We really appreciate the fact that we’re on the dairy farm side of this business.
— Rick McClenning

The pride Mueller employees take in their products, especially their milk coolers, is like that of a farmer’s cow reaching 100 pounds of milk produced in a day — neither of these accomplishments occurs overnight. They take time, dedication, continuous improvement and a family working together toward a shared goal.

“We really appreciate the fact that we’re on the dairy farm side of this business. While there are certainly tough times in the dairy economy cycle and there are negatives that go along with it, it’s a real blessing to do business with the dairy farmer end user,” Rick says. “There’s just something a little different about the people who dairy farm. And that’s special and neat, and helps us enjoy coming to work every day to be able to serve that group of people.