By Eric Peterson | Jun 29, 2021
Cleveland, Ohio | Kersey / Eaton, Colorado
Milk, cream, butter, and other dairy products
"We were the first crazies to come out there and separate cows and bottle cow's milk based on breed," says Bota, the Cleveland-based founder of Origin Milk Company.
Bota says the company works with dairy farmers who exclusively milk A2 Guernsey cows.
It's kind of like finding needles in the proverbial haystack: A full 98 percent of dairy cattle are Holsteins. Conversely, there are only about 12,000 registered Guernseys in the U.S. dairy industry. "We set out to change that," says Bota. "They're the highest-quality milk-producing breed."
From Origin's standpoint, it's all about better milk. Bota says he found it impossible in the U.S. to find the quality of milk he enjoyed in his native Romania. "Heritage breeds are a thing in Eastern Europe. We didn't have Holstein cows," says Bota. "When I was doing research, I found one farm in Ohio that had A2 Guernsey cows and I tasted it -- Guernsey milk is just completely next-level."
Beyond the flavor, it's rich in A2 protein, Omega-3 fatty acids, and beta carotene, which gives it a golden hue. "It's this beautiful story," muses Bota. "The breed comes from the Isle of Guernsey between France and England, this magical, famed place where these monks in 962 A.D. got there and kept these breeds away from everybody until the late 1800s. Noone else in the world had them. . . . Everyone knew that was the best milk."
The Rockefellers and the Vanderbilts naturally "wanted vanity herds for their kids," bringing A2 Guernseys to the U.S. in the early 1900s.
"It was a huge thing," says Bota. But rationing during World War I and World War II favored quantity over quality, he adds, leading to Holstein dominance.
"All the heritage breeds died out, and only a few people kept them here and there," says Bota. "This is milk as milk was in its original form -- that's why we called the company the Origin Milk Company, because this was milk when cows were first domesticated."
In his previous career in pharmaceuticals, he says, "We were always interested in nutrition and how to use food as medicine." He says the status quo in the dairy industry doesn't allow for nutrition and quality to be a differentiator, which is something Origin seeks to change. "Dairy has been doing very poorly over the past eight to 12 years or so," says Bota. "If you do it right, we can get people back to dairy."
The first 18 months involved jumping through a number of regulatory hoops, and the company went to market in the Midwest in 2016. The plan is to blanket the country with a network of local farmers and small-scale dairies.
"We want to create the first true always-local, always-regional co-op," says Bota. "That milk gets sent to centralized processing and gets shipped all over the country. We focus on small family farms and small, micro-batch processing facilities in the local and regional area where we are. We want to have seven to 10 regional hubs, so the milk stays within the region -- 350 miles max -- of where it was produced. "
"We're also in the process to get certified as 100 percent grass-fed and regenerative organic-certified," says Bota. "We're creating sustainability not just for the environment and for the planet, but sustainability for breeds of cows by bringing biodiversity back to dairy breeds, and also financial stability for farmers."
"We asked the question, 'How can we pay farmers more?'" says Bota.
After launching in Ohio and Pennsylvania, Colorado was the third state on Origin's list, partnering with third-generation dairy farmer Terry deGroot of Colorado Cow in Kersey.
Colorado Cow superseded deGroot's father's previous operation, Wilhelmina Dairy, which milked nearly 1,000 Holstein cows. Colorado Cow started with about a dozen cows and now has about 100.
"We saw an opportunity to change things up," says deGroot. "There's really nowhere to go with your milk unless you work with DFA [Dairy Farmers of America] in Colorado. Origin said if we were to get a hold of at least 12 to 14 Guernseys, they would market it. As soon as my dad was done, we started bottling Origin Milk right away."
The milk is selling out quickly, and he's moving the dairy to Eaton from Kersey to right-size its capacity at a new facility. "I don't know what the growth potential is," says deGroot. "My job is to keep my nose down and focus on the high quality standards that we have."
Products -- milk as well as cheese made in partnership with Haystack Mountain Creamery in Longmont -- are available at Whole Foods and Natural Grocers in Colorado.
"Coloradoans love dairy and they love different dairy, so they've jumped all over it," says Bota. "There's not that much local milk."
Challenges: "I yell at Terry all the time: 'Get more cows!' We just don't have enough cows," sasy Bota. "We've been shorting stores for three or four months."
It's not easy to find Guernseys, he adds. "We're just breeding them on our own."
On the supply side, deGroot says sourcing non-GMO feed can be difficult. "That's been a really big problem," he says. "I've grown by 10 times since I've started, and there's no non-GMO mill."
Adds deGroot: "When you're growing, you never know when to ask for help, either. . . . I work every day of the week. I don't have the luxury of paying myself yet, but I'm a veteran and the VA will pay for me to go to school full-time, so I go to class in between work to support myself."
Opportunities: More states: Bota says he's looking for partners in North Carolina, Texas, Idaho, and Arizona to scale the company region by region instead of centralizing it with a singular national hub.
New product categories -- including ice cream, cheese, infant formula, and protein powder -- could offer other catalysts. "We can always expand and scale and continue to be small by offering a diversity of products," says Bota.
Needs: "We could use two things," says Bota. "More cows and more capital."
As for the production side, deGroot thinks the operation will max out at about 200 cows, and outside capital might be necessary to get there. "It's kind of one of those scary business stories," he says. "You don't have money to grow, but you can't stop growing, either."