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Dairy goal: Nonprofit Columbia Community Creamery goes back to basics with local milk sold in returnable glass bottles

By James Hanlon, The Spokesman-Review
Published: January 28, 2024, 6:00am

CHEWELAH — A new creamery in Stevens County sells milk the old-fashioned way: locally and in a glass bottle.

Three small dairy farms organized the nonprofit Columbia Community Creamery in 2022 as a way to process and distribute their milk closer to home. They opened a storefront and bottling plant in Chewelah last year and have successfully placed their milk on shelves in grocery stores throughout Eastern Washington.

“The biggest thing is having a local market,” said Stacy Thomas, president of the nonprofit.

Thomas co-owns one of the dairies, Clover Mountain Dairy, with his wife, Virginia Thomas. She is also the treasurer of the board of directors.

“A lot of the idea for this came about during COVID when you would go to the store and there would be empty shelves where there should be milk,” Stacy Thomas said. “Food security for our local community was a huge driver for why we did what we did.”

The creamery sells whole milk, chocolate milk, cream and seasonal eggnog. It plans to make skim milk and ice cream in the near future.

Around Spokane, the milk can be found at Main Market Co-op, My Fresh Basket and Yoke’s in Airway Heights, Latah Valley and Mead.

The dairy industry in Stevens County used to be more robust. In the 1960s, there were more than 350 dairies, while there are only nine today. Because of the mountainous topography and less open space, dairies were not able to grow enough to keep up with larger farms elsewhere, Virginia Thomas explained.

There used to be common creameries that processed the milk in each community, but those were replaced by centralized industrial processors away from those communities.

“What if we brought back processing to this area so that we could maybe rebuild the local dairy industry?” she said was the thought behind the project.

Dairies wanting to sell their milk either have to sell it themselves or need a contract with a commercial processor, which usually requires the dairy to be a certain size. The nonprofit helps these small dairies access the local market by handling production and distribution.

The eight-member board, which includes farmers and other community members, considered different models such as forming an LLC or a co-op, before deciding on the nonprofit route.

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Most milk in the U.S. and Washington is already sold through large dairy co-operatives that, while voluntary, give individual dairies little control, Virginia Thomas said.

“The board decided to make it a nonprofit because we really wanted it to be community-focused,” she said.

The nonprofit’s mission is to provide market access and technical assistance to dairy farmers, and to provide food access and education to the public. The profit it makes is reinvested into that mission, after paying the farmers a fair price.

After apples, dairy is the top agricultural commodity in Washington and generates over $1.6 billion annually, according to the Washington State Department of Agriculture.

As of 2022, there were about 285 dairy farms and 254,000 dairy cows in Washington, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

To put that in perspective, Columbia Community Creamery takes milk from about 50 cows from the three farms. Currently, they bottle 500 half-gallons of whole milk every week and 300 half-gallons of chocolate milk every other week. The creamery hopes to add more dairies in the future and create an opportunity for new dairies to open.

Stacy Thomas said the community’s support has been overwhelming and has allowed them to expand quickly. What began as a volunteer operation last summer now employs six staff members.

Window doors in the storefront at 519 N Park St. in Chewelah allow customers to watch the processing and bottling in action.

The creamery’s milk is vat pasteurized, which is the lowest level of pasteurization. It is heated to 145 degrees for 30 minutes. This removes the most dangerous bacteria, while also preserving the cream and enough live cultures to be able to make cheese. The store also sells cheese-making kits.

Virginia Thomas said it is a nice middle ground between raw milk and commercial milk that is ultra-pasteurized to 280 degrees.

The creamery’s milk is about 4.5-5% butter fat, which is richer than most standardized whole milk. The cream rises to the top of the bottleneck and easily reincorporates into the milk by shaking it gently before drinking.

The milk comes in classic glass bottles that require a $2.50 deposit that is refunded when the bottles are rinsed and returned to the point of purchase so they can be reused.

Besides being eco-friendly, Virginia Thomas said the glass system comes with other advantages. Glass keeps the milk colder and better-tasting and has a nostalgic aesthetic.

The creamery’s motto is “More than just a bottle of milk.”

“When you are holding that bottle of milk, it’s like the whole community,” she said. “It’s our livelihood and the health of our cows, the health of our communities, food access and security.”