This Dairy Farm Has a Unique Way to Use Whey
Todd Koch didn’t follow the most traditional route into dairy farming. He didn’t grow up on a farm like most of the nation’s 37,000 dairy farmers have. Instead, he began with a single heifer as part of a 4-H school project when he was 12.
“I was supposed to sell the heifer but that didn’t happen,” he said.
Soon, his siblings caught interest and began buying cows. Before long, Todd, along with his wife, Tessa, and his sister Shauna and brother Marc, were producing milk at their Oregon farm that they built in the mid-1990s. The learning curve was gradual, Todd said.
“It wasn’t like all of a sudden you had a bunch of cows,” he said. “It was a slow process and we learned every day and always tried to get better. I’m very fortunate that my brother and sister are super motivated and have the same drive I have.”
The family shares an adventurous spirit that led to producing cheese and ice cream from their TMK Creamery farm about five years ago. Twenty-five cows – mostly the black-and-white Holsteins – produce enough milk to make about 700 pounds of cheese a week, including cheddar, gouda and queso fresco.
Cheesemaking produces a whey byproduct that they had been spreading on their fields as a soil enhancement. But ingenuity struck again and the Kochs found a rather unique use for their whey: They use it to produce a vodka-style spirit called “Cowcohol.”
The reaction they get is understandably one of surprise.
“Everybody is shocked when you tell them this spirit is made from whey,” Todd said. “They think it’ll be milky. But it’s brought some value to our farm and it’s another product in the process.”
To further show their commitment to being a sustainable operation, they also produce vanilla extract from the spirit production.
Left to right: Founding siblings Todd Koch, Shauna Garza (head cheesemaker), Marc Koch (CDO, or Chief of Dairy Operations) and nephew Tama Willis
“This is another way to show the consumer our cows aren’t just making milk,” Tessa said. “It continues the story and it’s something the consumer can relate to.”
For Tessa and Todd, it all starts with their cows.
“They are the real heroes of the story,” Todd says. “We’re so impressed by what they create and that they are not detrimental to the planet.”
The Kochs open their farm doors every Saturday to the public so people can see how they strive to produce milk and other products in a sustainable manner. They host about 1,000 visitors a month.
“Sustainability is a top priority for us,” Tessa says. “We show people how we manage our animals on an individual basis and how that leads to quality milk that we use for our ice cream and cheese. In order to get quality milk, you first have to be a very sustainable operation.”
Todd said it’s important that dairy farmers share the stories of what they do on their farms. The average consumer is generations removed from food production, yet Todd sees people having a “tremendous thirst” to learn more. He hopes visitors see that his family is very transparent in showing they are doing the right thing for their animals and the environment and that they are striving for continuous improvement.
“We want to continue to learn and grow our knowledge but that isn’t exclusive to us,” Todd said. “That’s a very popular concept throughout the dairy industry. It’s a narrative that needs to get shown more, how we’re working to do the right things, and make sure our consumers know we’re producing a product in a way that they want it.”