John and Celia Harrison have partnered in both marriage and business to manage thriving dairy, cheese and event center operations.
This Tennessee dairy does it all
The white Baptist church van slowly climbs the curved blacktop driveway leading up to Sweetwater Valley Farm. When it parks, eight elderly women emerge and walk with purpose through the double doors of this unique-to-Tennessee farmstead cheese store.
They head directly to the sampling table, using toothpicks to stab cubes of some two dozen varieties. Comparing notes, the women move to the cheese case.
They don’t select a lot: a brick or two of yellow aged Cheddar or Italian Pesto, or a shrink-wrapped package of Gouda. At $5 per 10-oz. brick, the cash register starts ringing up the sales.
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Brick by brick, package by package, it adds up to more than 100,000 lb. of cheese sold annually through this little retail operation to the local church ladies; moms and teachers herding schoolkids on tours; agri-tourists from the nearby cities of Knoxville, Cleveland and Chattanooga; snowbirds heading south for the winter on nearby I-75 and again when they drive back north in the spring.
As the billboards, website and brochures for Sweet-water Valley Farms scream out: "Cheese. Cows. Wows!"
Sweetwater Valley Farm is owned and operated by John and Celia Harrison, the 2012 Innovative Dairy Farmers of the Year. The award is sponsored annually by the International Dairy Foods Association and Dairy Today magazine. The Harrisons were nominated by Jennifer Walker, director of dairy stewardship, and James Drake, Dairy Direct farm relationship manager, both of Dean Foods.
The Harrisons’ operation is located in Philadelphia, Tenn., just a few miles off I-75, 45 minutes southeast of Knoxville and an hour northeast of Chattanooga. The operation includes a 1,000-cow dairy (soon to be 1,350), a small cheese factory, the retail store, a 5,000-sq.-ft. event center called "The Udder Story" and farm tours that last year hosted 12,000 to 13,000 agri-tourists.
The Harrisons are being recognized for their incredible level of innovation: at the farm level and then taking their own milk to make cheese. They sell that cheese both retail and wholesale, and leverage the Sweetwater Valley Farm brand to tell their farm’s story.
"Our strategy has been to diversify and at the same time add [to our] land base," John says. "But we’ve always tried to remain flexible. I wake up every morning thinking: ‘What can I change today to make this a better operation?’ "
Being within commuting distance of Knoxville has made additional land acquisition difficult. Eastern Tennessee, with its mild year-round climate and attractive cost of living, is also a mecca for retirees. That dual demand for real estate, until the recent economic downturn, had pushed land prices nearly out of reach for forage production.
Dairy farms in the area had few options: innovate, stagnate or exit. The Harrisons chose to innovate. And boy, have they.
After graduating from the University of Tennessee in 1981, John farmed for three years with his father and brother on a fourth-generation family farm established by his great-grandfather in the early 1900s.
Wanting to expand, he leased a farm on his own to operate a 150-cow dairy. A few years later, when Celia was in medical school in Alabama (she is now a trauma physician at a nearby hospital’s emergency center), she let it be known that she eventually wanted to return to Tennessee.
Her mentor, a neurosurgeon, owned land in eastern Tennessee and was willing to partner with John and Celia. He provided the land; John and Celia provided the capital to operate a 500-cow dairy. They kept their leased 150-cow operation.
They ran the two operations for several years before shutting them down and buying their current farm. "We now own about 1,200 acres and we farm a little more than that," John says. "We’re able to grow about 80% of the forage for our 1,000 mature cows and 1,200 heifers."
The Harrisons are building a 350-cow satellite dairy that should be operational this spring. All the cows at that dairy will be calved at the main farm and moved to the new barn once pregnant.
The goal is to have the new dairy as a milking operation that can be run with one employee per eight-hour shift. "We’re trying to do something we can replicate at multiple sites, because we can’t get enough land pulled together at any one site for 2,000 cows," John says.
This kind of innovative thinking has permeated the Harrisons’ approach from day one. Their dairy was the fourth in the nation to install the AfiMilk system, which uses pedometers to track cow activity and detect when cows are in estrus. "We installed AfiMilk in 1994, and we’ve been breeding cows off of activity monitoring ever since," John says.
"That allows us to operate with fewer people. We use sort gates to pen only those cows in heat rather than managing cows through lock-ups," he says. "We start breeding at 50 days after calving, and we’ll have almost every cow bred by the time we used to start inseminating with a conventional synchronization program. We will use synchronization on cows at 70 days after calving when we have seen no activity. But that’s a small number of animals."
The Harrisons were also early adopters of the DairyCOMP and Feed Tracker software to keep records and manage rations.
Their two freestall barns are tunnel-ventilated, providing cooling power in summer, and sand-bedded, providing cow comfort. That combination helps feed intakes, milk production and breeding remain on track through Tennessee’s less than ideal summers.
Waste management is one more area of innovation. The operation is one of the first in Tennessee to use Natural Resources Conservation Service–approved engineers to design a new waste management system.
The three-lagoon system and improved sand land should be completed this year, allowing the Harrisons to more fully recover sand for re-use. The system will ensure that no effluent reaches nearby streams and allow the Harrisons to segregate solids and land-apply them. "After our new dairy opens, our farm will be almost perfectly nutrient-balanced, and we’ll be able to virtually eliminate fertilizer purchases," John says.
The cheesemaking operation is the result of a process that started in the 1990s. Back then, it looked like the Federal Milk Marketing Orders might be eliminated.
"My grandfather had a bottling operation," John says. "But we’re located some distance from Knoxville, so that wasn’t an option. Celia thought we should do ice cream, but even in Tennessee, that’s a seasonal business."
Cheese looked like a better possibility, particularly if the Federal Orders disappeared. "We could make cheese in April and May when milk is long in the Southeast, and sell our fluid production back into the Order in August, September and October when milk is short," John explains.
In the late ’90s, dairy farms were paying a transportation charge of $6 per cwt. to move milk out of the Southeast in spring and plants were paying a give-up charge of $6 per cwt. to attract milk in the fall. John thought an on-farm cheese plant could take advantage of both.
He took a cheesemaking course in Pullman, Wash., and then teamed up with Tommy Burch, who runs the University of Tennessee’s dairy processing plant. Burch, John says, is a master at standardizing sanitation and plant procedures, both of which are critical in cheesemaking.
John scoured the Southeast for used cheesemaking equipment and found a perfectly sized vat. It can handle 55,000 lb. to 60,000 lb. of milk—one day’s production. He now makes one or two vats per week. Over the course of a year, he produces 200,000 lb. of cheese in some 27 different varieties, ranging from Colby and aged Cheddars to flavored cheeses such as Fiery Fiesta (loaded with jalapenos) and Roasted Garlic Pepper.
The Harrisons also sell cheese curds, something virtually unheard of in the Southeast. But by slightly toasting the curds and offering them for free tasting, they can’t keep enough on hand.
About half of the farm’s cheese production is sold through its store. The other half is sold either wholesale under the Sweetwater Valley Farm label or corporately. The Harrisons also package several thousand cheese boxes each year for companies to use as Christmas gifts.
The bulk of the Harrisons’ milk, some 80%, is still sold for fluid milk through Dean Foods. In fact, all of their milk is sold to Dean and pooled on the Appalachian Federal Order. The Harrisons then buy back the 2 million pounds of milk they need for cheesemaking.
The "Udder Story" event center evolved out of the need to answer questions. The Sweetwater Valley Farm store attracts thousands of visitors annually, and many want to know how cows are raised and milk is made.
Construction was completed in 2010. Half of the facility is for meetings, banquets and even weddings. The other half is dedicated to describing how dairy farms operate. The displays cost roughly $50,000 to produce and are funded by dairy and ag promotion groups and suppliers.
One display shows how feed is grown and how farmers act as stewards of the land. Another explains how farms once milked cows by hand. A third display shows a modern milking parlor and a video, supplied by DeLaval, of a robotic milker in operation.
"We have standing room only to watch the robot milk cows. People are fascinated by it," John says.
Celia maintains an e-mail list of 1,000 customers and sends out messages about coming events on the farm and specials at the cheese store. Billboards along I-75 drive customers and tourists to the farm. "I think the billboards really help, especially during the summer when people are driving by on vacation," Celia says.
About 15% of those who visit "The Udder Story" choose to take the farm tour. The Harrisons charge $6 per person for the tour, with kids under three admitted free.
"Our goal is to host 100,000 visitors annually. Since we opened The Udder Story, we estimate we’ve had between 80,000 and 85,000 people visit us," John says. "Every employee at Sweetwater is trained to give tours. When we have large school tours, say, 400 kids, we set up stations."
The tour stops at the feed center, the freestall barns, the parlor and the maternity and calf care center. "We calve three times a day, and if there is a cow calving during a tour, people are amazed at the process," Celia says.
"We’re very honest about what we do here," John says. "We are a working dairy farm, and we talk about why we separate calves at birth and that cows go for beef at the end of their productive lives."
When those messages are delivered by the Harrisons and farm employees, people accept them. "We don’t get a lot of pushback," John says.
Back at the cheese store, the church ladies have finished making their purchases. Now they have time to visit—with each other, with the cashiers.
When John and Celia come in, they converge on them as well. John, of course, is the star. He’s the dairy farmer, the cheesemaker, their connection to how food is grown.
But Celia is no less respected: the business manager of the operation, an emergency room physician and saver of lives, and a mother of five teenagers and young adults.
Together, they form an amazing partnership. The church ladies couldn’t agree more.
Sweetwater Valley Farm is 14th Recipient
The Innovative Dairy Farmer of the Year Award is co-sponsored annually by the International Dairy Foods Association and Dairy Today magazine. John and Celia Harrison will be honored at the Dairy Forum, Jan. 15 to 18, at the La Quinta Resort & Club in La Quinta, Calif.
This is the 14th annual competition for the award. The 2011 winner was Brubaker Farms of Mount Joy, Pa. Previous winners were Haubenschild Dairy Farm of Princeton, Minn.; Mason Dixon Farms of Gettysburg, Pa.; Clauss Dairy Farms of Hilmar, Calif.; Baldwin Dairy/Emerald Dairy of Emerald, Wis.; Si-Ellen Farms of Jerome, Idaho; Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy of Kewaunee, Wis.; C Bar M Dairy of Jerome, Idaho; North Florida Holsteins of Bell, Fla.; KF Dairy of El Centro, Calif.; Joseph Gallo Farms of Atwater, Calif.; KBC Farms of Purdy, Mo.; and High Plains Dairy of Friona, Texas.
- January 2012