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Cash Cows on Organic Diets – Greenville News

Owner Makes Dairy Farm Profitable by Keeping Pastures Chemical Free


By Bob Montgomery ENVIRONMENTAL WRITER bmontgom@greenvillenews.com


Many years ago, dairy farmer Tom Trantham Jr. of Pelzer dreamed of having his own milk store like so many other dairy farms once had, selling fresh milk in bottles with their name on it.


For years, his cows won production awards and Trantham took pride in be­ing able to withstand every­thing from prolonged droughts to skyrocketing feed costs.

But about 15 years ago, things went sour. New machinery to stay competitive became too costly, and supermarket chains and convenience stores began to squeeze out the local farmer, he said. Simply put, it was costing more to run his business than the business was bringing in.


Saying he was “down and out,” Trantham applied for and received a grant from the U.S. Department of Ag­riculture to switch from conventional dairying to “sustainable” farming -letting his cows graze on land planted with grass, hay and alfalfa grown with no chemical fertilizers.


Soon, he was “up and running,” with 75 healthier cows, a profitable dairy farm and a much-improved outlook on life. With a loan from a local bank that be­lieved in his dream, Tran­tham opened his own creamery on McKelvey Road in southern Greenville County called Happy Cow Creamery.


At his store, behind his old white two-story farm­house along a dirt driveway, he sells his milk and other products such as cheese, eggs, Vermont maple syrup, Pickens County honey, and Greenville Coun­ty fruit and vegetables – all grown with no chemicals.


Trantham, 61, has a small, square “Happy Cow” sign posted at the end of McKelvey Road on U.S. 25. He pasteurizes the milk right there at the farm, and bottles it with stainless steel ma­chinery in a plant converted from a grain silo.


He hopes to double his produc­tion from nearly 500 gallons a week to 1,000 gallons once word spreads.


While once common, the local dairy store is practically nonex­istent now, Trantham said. He hopes to be competitive, win over lots of customers and eventually pass the business on to future generations.


“Today at 5 in the morning my wife (Linda) and I put 400 gallons: of the highest-quality milk on the market,” Trantham said last: week in his small second-floor office above the store.

“We’ve added wealth to South: Carolina to share with everyone: in our state,” he added matter-of-factly.


Happy Cows Productive


The secret, he said, is “udderly” simple. A happy cow is a pro­ductive cow. Thus, the name of his store, Happy Cow.


The seeds he sows today be­come the grazing grass of tomor­row for healthy cows to eat and produce the smooth milk for his playful 3-year-old granddaughter, Bryce, to drink.


“A cow can’t be stressed,” he said, adding that a distressed cow tenses up and gives less milk.


His other secret is organic farming, still a relatively novel idea in the dairy business, as con­sumers look to healthier prod­ucts amid reports of food-borne illnesses, recalls and allergic re­actions to chemically treated produce.


Pesticides and herbicides, he said, do control bugs and weeds, but they also can damage the soil and kill earthworms that natural­ly cleanse the soil. He said he’s found a way to produce as much food his new way as the old way.


Not only are organically grown foods popular these days, but they are apparently just as healthy – if not more so – than food grown or processed with ‘chemicals, some experts say.

“There is definitely something to it,” said Clemson University professor Jeff Zehnder, who runs the university’s sustainable agriculture program and speaks highly of Trantham as a pioneer in the practice.


“There’s very little scientific evidence that there is a differ­ence. But if you have a healthy pasture, you’ll have healthy cows;’ he said. Healthy soils, plants, which means they’re bet­ter able to withstand disease.”


Organic Doubters


Eugene Eisen, professor of ani­mal science and genetics at North Carolina State University, said he has seen little evidence that organic farming is better than conventional farming that uses inorganic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.


“Conventional farming uses ap­propriate safety precautions and they have to follow the law,” he said. “There is not any strong evidence that organic foods are beneficial.”


Still, Trantham said, if he had the choice of eating a strawberry grown with chemicals and pro­cessed 3,000 miles away or a local strawberry grown in good old Greenville dirt with natural rain and sunshine, he’d choose the latter.


Enthusiastic Dairy Farmer


The phrase “sustainable farming” may sound good, Trantham 1 said, but not many people know what it means. To him, it simply – means less work, equal payoff 1 and more time to spend with his family.


“Once Tom saw his cows go I into the grass and begin to graze – like crazy, he was smart enough to see the significance of that,” said Jill Auburn, director of the USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture. Research and Education program.


“Tom sees opportunities in something that another might despair at. He turns things around.”

Dennis Bauknight, Greenville district conservationist with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, said he’s never seen anyone as determined and enthusiastic as Trantham.


“He is always eager to show other farmers and landowners: practices that protect and sustain our resources,” Bauknight said.


It’s no accident that the USDA I named Trantham a finalist for a nationwide sustainable agricul­ture award.


The Madden Award, named for Patrick Madden, the program’s first director and a pioneer in environmentally sound farming practices, carries a $1,000 cash award.


Trantham said he is just honored to be considered among others from Oregon, Minnesota, New Jersey, North Carolina and come Hawaii.


Trantham’s prosperity – he nets more than $40,000 a year, which is considered a princely my sum for a dairy farmer – and the opportunities with the new milk processing plant encouraged his son Tom III to leave a career at a Fortune 500 company to return to the farm. 


“Across the country, kids can’t come back to the farm,” Trantham said. “It’s as if we are taking a nice hot bath and aren’t aware of the water is running out. For my son to come back to the farm is my crowning achievement.”


And Trantham says he wants to enjoy watching the smiles of his customers drinking fresh and tasty milk – and even chocolate milk.


“I’m going to finally have the experience of watching people stand on my property, drink a glass of milk, and say, ‘Tom, this is the best milk I’ve ever tasted,’ and pay me a fair price.”