Dream come true
Newborn dairy farmer begins bottling own milk

COVINGTON - For more than 50 years, Johnston Family Farm in Newborn has been supplying fresh milk to grocers and the public. But in today's market, making a living off dairy farming can be a challenge.

So owner Russell Johnston decided to expand his services in hopes of continuing to keep the farm thriving and viable.

Johnston built a bottling plant on his farm and is now pasteurizing and bottling his own milk.

"It's every dairy farmer's dream or any businessman's dream to cut out the middle man and keep a little more of his hard work for himself," Johnston said. "We're not trying to get rich, but we're just trying to make a reasonable profit on all our work and investments."

Though he's only been in business about three weeks, the demand for his product is exceeding expectations. The first week, he gave away 120 gallons in hopes of gaining customers; by the second week, he had sold 150 gallons; the third week he was up to 200 gallons.

It's a good sign, though Johnston admits he's taking a risk.

"We did a lot of research. We worked closely with the University of Georgia on a feasibility study. On paper, the numbers are there. Whether or not I can change from a dairy farmer to a marketer is another story," he said.

But it's a challenge he's willing to face if it means keeping the family farm going for his wife, Holly, and sons Ransom, 8, and Rush, 4, who talk about growing up and taking over some day.

"Margins are getting tighter and tighter on farming, especially dairy farming. I'm paying double for feed what I was a year and a half ago, and my milk is not bringing as much money. It's definitely one of the ways I hope to remain viable," he said.

Johnston spent three years traveling the country, from upstate New York to San Francisco, researching small processing plants before breaking ground on his own plant in October 2007.

He received his bottling license from the Georgia Department of Agriculture about a month ago and has been hard at work ever since.

He maintains a herd of between 80 and 100 cows that must be milked twice a day, first in the morning and then again in late afternoon.

The cows are attached to a milking machine and the milk is pumped into a holding tank. Each cow gives an average of 8 gallons of milk per day, though Johnston's top-producing cow is currently giving about 16 gallons per day.

Once the holding tank is full, the milk is transferred to a refrigerated tank. From there, it is usually picked up and taken to a Publix processing plant in Duluth, where it is bottled and shipped to stores and marketed under the Publix brand.

The Johnstons still sell milk to other marketers, but what they keep for themselves goes into a pasteurizer. There it is heated to 145 degrees for 30 minutes.

"That kills any pathogens or germs that make you sick, but the temperature is low enough to preserve the beneficial amino acids and enzymes in the milk," Johnston said.

Typically at larger plants, milk is heated to 181 degrees for 15 seconds, which, though a more efficient process, destroys a lot of the enzymes and amino acids, Johnston said.

"We do not add anything or take anything away from whole milk," he said.

Standardized milk sold in most grocery stores is at 3.25 percent fat, but the milk produced at Johnston's is 3.8 to 4 percent fat, which makes it thicker and sweeter, he said.

After the milk is cooled it is bottled and labeled by machine.

The whole process takes about three hours to complete.

At full capacity, the plant can produce 500 gallons of milk per day. Right now, it is only producing whole milk, but Johnston plans to add 2 percent, skim, buttermilk and chocolate milk soon.

He's selling to individuals, restaurants and grocery stores. Blackwell Grocery in Mansfield and other small fresh markets in Madison and Greensboro are stocking the milk, and 10 to 15 high-end restaurants in Atlanta have also made purchases.

Johnston is also selling the milk for $5 a gallon at a small store on his farm, where he eventually hopes to sell local produce, eggs and meat.

Johnston Family Farm is located at 2471 Broughton Road in Newborn. For more information, go to www.johnstonfamilyfarm.com.

Crystal Tatum can be reached at crystal.tatum@newtoncitizen.com.