Edible Columbus — Winter 2011
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Dairy Revolutionary
By Eric LeMay • Photography by Sarah Warda

Snowville Creamery has a modest goal: save the world

Pouring milk from Snowville Creamery feels blissful. When you pick up the carton, you're greeted by a lovely dairymaid who seems to embody the countryside, with its green pastures and rustic fences. She wears a white fluffy bonnet and wholesome dress. At her bosom, she cradles a pitcher, as though she were Mother Earth pouring out the milk of human kindness. Behind her, the sun rises, encircling her with its hopeful glow.

This is milk made mythic, and it's one of the reasons I wanted to meet Warren Taylor, owner of Snowville Creamery. The other is the milk itself, which is thick and frothy and delicious. The first time I tried it, I drank a quarter of a gallon, glass after glass. I thought it was a milkshake.

How, I wondered, did a small diary nooked in the hills of Southeast Ohio produce milk this good? Who was this man behind the maid?

Now, having spent some time with Warren, I see that maid differently: She's wearing a red bandana around her forehead and raising a revolutionary fist in the air. She's marching down Independence Avenue, passing out leaflets on the dangers of genetically modified foods and hydraulic fracturing. And she's smiling, because she's looking forward to a fight. She's going to take on huge corporations who want to strip our food of its nutrients and flavor. She supports our local businesses serving our local communities. She wants our kids drinking healthy milk from healthy cows raised on a healthy soil.

"Love your food," she cries. "Love each other."

She wants us to join a revolution.

"This isn't about this," says Warren.

We're outside, standing on the slope of a hill, looking up at what's essentially a pole barn. It's the milk plant that Warren designed from the ground up, and he's telling me how it takes advantage of gravity: Every time Snowville processes and packages milk, they have to flush the plant's metal pipes with hot water and cleaner. This happens multiple times and generates waste. Thanks to the hill, however, this waste funnels down into a huge tank on the plant's lower level. But then what? You've still got to deal with hundreds of gallons of cleaner-filled wastewater. Turns out that Warren uses cleaners that are different from those used in most dairies. His contain nitrogen and potassium hydroxide.

"And you know what those are, don't you?" he asks.

I don't. I don't know 1% of what Warren knows about dairy. Luckily, Warren gets a kick out of teaching it. He has a catchy "Isn't this so cool?" vibe about him, even when he's describing chemical cleaners.

"Fertilizer!" he booms, nodding toward a nearby field where cows graze. In the distance, an unassuming sprinkler spritzes the grass.

Gradually, I get it: That's the wastewater. "Instead of contaminating the water supply," says Warren, already moving on, "we're nourishing the soil."

I'm hustling after him, trying to keep up, as I fit this latest information into my growing picture of the plant. So far I've learned about

› The genetic makeup of the 260 cows that provide Snowville with their milk. They're Jersey, Guernsey, Brown Swiss, Milking Shorthorn, Friesian and Holstein, all intermixed by years of cross-breeding. They're heartier and give healthier milk than the huge Holsteins that are confined on most dairy farms.

› The grazing practices used to feed the herd, which rotates through many different pastures rather than remaining confined to one, so that the cows can rebuild the topsoil instead of depleting it.

› The minimal amount of processing Snowville does to its milk, which leaves the milk's nutrients and flavor intact rather than pasteurizing and homogenizing them out of existence.

› The eco-friendly and taste-preserving cartons in which Snowville packages its milk. And the delivery schedule–from cow to store in less than 48 hours–that keeps its milk so fresh.

And that's just what I've managed to scribble down, because Warren is now detailing the spatial layout of the plant. Its core, where the raw milk goes from storage tanks to finished cartons, takes up only 600 square feet, which saves space, energy and money.

"So what is this about?" I finally get to ask. I can't imagine putting so much care into creating a milk plant that isn't about milk.

"This," says Warren, "is about building a canoe. This is about where you go with it and what you do with it."

A canoe seems a bizarre metaphor for a milk plant, but I press on. "What do you want to do with it?"

Warren doesn't hesitate: "Save the world."

Save the world? With milk? The idea sounds absurd, the sort of thing proclaimed by a zealot or a madman. That absurdity isn't lost on Warren.

"I'm hoping to be the Che Guevara of dairy," he says.

And sure enough, on the flipside of his business card, hiding behind that milkmaid, is a smiling Che. There's also a quote: "The true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love." Che isn't Warren's only guiding spirit; you can add John the Baptist and Neal Cassady.

"And what about that milkmaid?" I ask.

"That's not me," says Warren, throwing a friendly, quit-messing-withme elbow into my chest. "I'm the Hunter S. Thompson of dairy."

Warren grins when he says stuff like this–it's not every dairyman who compares himself to a Marxist revolutionary, a religious prophet, a psychedelic muse and an antiauthoritarian wild man–but his eyes have an edgy gleam. He's not joking. He's got the messianic, near manic glow of a visionary, because he has a vision: This small milk plant in Pomeroy, Ohio, is going to spark an international movement of social justice.

But how? That's a fair question. And when you ask it, you see that Warren also possess the keen intelligence of an engineer. He can make his case coolly and methodically, even when it comes to saving the world:

First, take a food as essential to human existence as milk. Then build a dairy plant that provides this food for people in a safe, natural and healthy state. Run that plant in an environmentally sustainable manner. Then integrate that food and that plant into the local community and economy, so that it provides both good jobs and good nourishment for the people it serves. Then make that plant a model, make its design freely available to anyone who wants it, and mentor those who want to emulate it, so that milk plants like Snowville pop up around the country and around the world.

And don't stop with dairy. Let the principles that guide Snowville–sustainability, community, harmony and love–catch on and spread. Let them inform how we grow all of our food, how we run all of our businesses. And show people that this is really possible, right now, by starting with one small milk plant in Pomeroy, Ohio. Save the world.

If that sounds like unattainable vision, so be it. Warren pursues it tirelessly. He regularly works 100-hour weeks at the plant, and when he's not dealing with broken delivery trucks or carton fillers, he's speaking at universities, community centers and city council meetings about the need for sustainability and the dangers of hydraulic fracturing. He's traveled to Italy to represent Ohio as part of the worldwide Slow Food Movement. He's testified at USDA hearings on behalf of small dairies against regulations that unfairly favor mass producers. He's started initiatives for feeding livestock with grain that isn't genetically modified and worked for more honest and clear labeling of dairy products. He's helping to create a food distribution center in Columbus, so he and other producers can pool their resources. In essence, he's working to develop an infrastructure for delivering local food to local people.

And yet, amidst all this, he can't resist riffing on the best way to eat an ice cream sandwich, or the mindset of a martial artist ("You've got to expect to get hit"), or how to domesticate a wolf.

"I wouldn't want to control Warren," says Victoria Taylor, Warren's wife and partner. Victoria is the plant's co-owner and general manager and she's equally savvy about Snowville's larger vision. She'll quietly turn from giving a group of employees shipping instructions to telling you about the omega acids in milk or the effect of herd grazing on the North American landscape. She struck me as the still point of Snowville's spinning world. After 25 years of marriage, she's come to a conclusion: "You adapt to Warren."

Sure enough, once you hear about Warren's family history, you understand that he couldn't be anyone or anyway else. Warren's brother is the president of Daisy Brand, the largest sour cream producer in the world, and his father, a renowned dairy taster, worked in the dairy industry for 35 years. Warren got his dairy tech degree from Ohio State University in 1974 and three years later he was working for Safeway, the largest milk processor in the country. He spent three decades as a dairy engineer and consultant for plants that processed up to 300,000 gallons of milk a day. (Snowville, by contrast, processes 60,000 gallons a month.) He knows every facet of the industry.

"Cut me and I bleed white," he'll say, and you get the sense that dairy and destiny fuse in Warren, that his family made him into who he is.

That's true, but not how you'd think. For me, what most revealed the man behind the milk wasn't when I heard about Warren's father the dairyman, but Warren's father the Navy pilot. During the Second World War, he led the Medical Evacuation Squadron in the Pacific. Warren told me about one of his father's rescue missions to evacuate sailors who had survived the sinking of the USS Indianapolis. The ship was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine after delivering the atomic bombs to an air base on Tinian island. Of the ship's 1,196 crewmen, only 316 survived. On the way to pick them up, Warren's father and the pilots of the six other planes who were flying alongside him learned they were heading into a typhoon. Four of the six turned back, but not his father. And he made it.

"I realize now, my father didn't expect to live," says Warren, his voice going quiet, "but he didn't turn back." He pauses and takes a deep breath. Then, like a bull readying for the charge, he digs at the ground with his foot. "That's what I told the USDA the last time I was in Washington: I'm not turning back."

Eric LeMay lives in Athens, where he teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Ohio University, his alma mater. Visit his website for more of his writing on foodie and non-foodie things alike: www.ericlemay.org.

The Friends of Snowville Creamery Recipe Book

Snowville's new recipe book features recipes from their loyal friends throughout Ohio. A wonderful community compendium of recipes and cooking tips, it makes the perfect gift for Snowville fans. To get your copy, Snowville is offering the recipe book as a gift to those who help crowd finance the costs of a project to bring Snowville Creamery yogurt to market. Visit Snowville Creamery's website to see how you can help support this initiative and receive the new Friends of Snowville Creamery Recipe Book as their thanks.

Immortal Milk

Eric LeMay's book Immortal Milk "does for cheese all that ought to be done for cheese," in the words of author Adam Gopnik. With engaging, charming stories and a rich knowledge of the history of cheese and its many lives, LeMay's book is a love letter to one of our favorite foods. A chapter from Immortal Milk was also featured in the Best Food Writing 2011, edited by Holly Hughes.