Blue Marble Dairy is making quite a splash in our local market. Owner Nick Kirch has built his business around the importance of personal interactions—particularly between him and his customers. In just three short years, he has given life to his vision of reconnecting his dairy farm with his customers while providing a delicious, local and minimally processed product. Their products’ ever-growing popularity has prompted many requests from our owners, and Willy Street Co-op is pleased to now offer them in our dairy cooler.
“It wasn’t where my heart was at,” Nick said recently about his decision to walk away from the business model handed down to him from his father. “I wanted to get back in touch with who was buying my milk and for them to know me.” Until establishing the company in 2005, Nick sent his dairy’s milk through a broker to another bottler and had virtually no connection to his customers.
“We also believe that the farmer and the consumer should try to create a bond based on trust, integrity and truth so that the positive co-dependency of the relationship can be sustained for the long term. In short, farmers need consumers and consumers need farmers. The better the relationship between us, the better the food and milk that goes into our bodies can be, and the more likely we are to create better, longer lives for each other.
“Finally, we believe that if you take care of Mother Nature, she’ll take care of you.” -from Blue Marble’s website
But, Nick said, “I didn’t want to be 80 years old and saying, ‘I wish I would have tried this 40 years ago,’ so I decided, ‘I’m gonna try it.’” With the support of his wife and a small (but greatly appreciated) grant from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture Trade and Consumer Protection, Nick invested everything he had and more into building a Grade A Dairy less than a hundred feet from his milking barn. “Even though everyone was telling me, ‘You can’t do it; it ain’t gonna work,’ I had to go ahead and try it,” he said.
After purchasing the family farm in 1995, as a new father, Nick started on his unconventional farming path by responding with passionate distaste to the introduction of bovine growth hormones (rBGH) as a means to artificially push cows into producing more milk. Adamantly rejecting the urging from brokers and manufacturers of the hormones, Nick understood the risk and effects on the animal’s longevity and well-being and refused to use them. Though evidence on the human health effects from drinking milk produced while using rBGH remains divided, Nick was unwilling to risk his own children’s health by giving them rBGH milk. Nick vends his dairy’s milk at seven area farmers’ markets each week from spring to fall and said, “I can look people in the eye. I gotta look at you, look at your kids and say, ‘I don’t use it.’ I don’t want it myself, so I can’t expect the consumer to drink something that I wouldn’t.”
The farm’s 450 acres provide most of the grain and hay for Blue Marble Dairy’s 75 cows over winter, but they are otherwise grazed on fresh paddocks of grass twice per day from early spring up until the first snows of winter. Nick has been converting his once all-Holstein herd by cross-breeding them with more Brown Swiss and Jersey breeds to promote advantageous traits for milking, size and the long-term health of the animals. While Blue Marble Dairy is not operated as a certified organic farm, Nick has been using a low-input approach to growing their animals’ feed and handling their care. “I’m moving more and more toward that [organic]. I really like the idea of rotational and intensive grazing.” Nick continued, “Local and sustainable—as it’s stated in our mission statement—is what we’re trying to create—a relationship between the consumer and the farmer for the sustainability of the earth.”
“Localvores” (individuals who prioritize eating seasonal foods grown in their immediate region) have been especially interested in the opportunity to purchase Blue Marble Dairy products as they originate in nearby Barneveld, Wisconsin—roughly 35 miles from the Co-op—and are one of few dairy products available that are derived from a single source and not pooled with milk from many farms.
One other value-added feature for Blue Marble Dairy products is their decision to not homogenize their milk products. Homogenization—the intentional breaking apart of the milk’s fat globules—helps to keep the fat evenly dispersed and suspended throughout the milk and prevent the cream from rising to the top. Most manufacturers choose to homogenize to discourage separation and promote a longer shelf life. Area chefs and milk connoisseurs, however, have embraced the un-homogenized options provided by Blue Marble Dairy.
On the farm, the 4,000 sq. ft. dairy includes two pasteurizers, a separator, a bottling machine, a walk-in cooler, a gas-fired boiler, one milk cooling machine and holding tanks for raw and pasteurized milk in addition to a large bottle-washing room. Blue Marble Dairy milk products are sold only in glass bottles and Nick makes no apologies about it, stating, “It just tastes better.” Nick built enough capacity into the dairy that he expects it will be some time before he outgrows his operation. Currently, only 20 percent of his milk is being bottled under the Blue Marble Dairy name, but a large percentage of his cow’s milk is sold to another Willy Street Co-op vendor—Sugar River Dairy nearby Albany, Wisconsin—who use it to prepare their local yogurt.
Assisting Nick, the dairy’s three full-time and four part-time employees aid in tending the herd and providing administrative support. Nick, however, never gets too far from the center of it all as he is equal parts farmer, financier, personnel manager, marketer and delivery driver for this growing business.
Also the father of five, Nick had been learning dairy farming from the time he was a boy and was prepared to run the business like his father before him, but he expects things to be much different when he hands over the reigns to his children one day. “I’m learning as I go,” Nick stated about his self-education, “They say you pay for all your educations, and I’m paying for this one, but I am getting educated. I need to grow more, and I am enjoying it. The part I enjoy the most is seeing the consumer enjoy the product.”