As milk prices plummet, small dairy farms look for different ways to survive. The owners of Sasnak Farms in Inman are trying their hand at selling raw milk.
Merle Thiessen grew up on a dairy farm. So did his father, his grandfather and his great-grandfather. Thiessen, along with his family, own Sasnak Farms. According to Merle, it’s “the last small dairy farm in Rice County.”
Times were tough in the past, Merle said, but in March, they just got tougher.
Due to ramifications from coronavirus, milk prices plummeted, and the supply chain readjusted from changing consumer patterns.
“The government is the biggest school milk consumer,” Merle said. “When it all shut down, it was terrible.”
The price of milk was down for months, but by February it had crept up to $19 per one hundred pounds. By spring, it went from $19 to $11.
“It’s basically 99 cents a gallon,” said Merle’s son, Seth.
It costs the Thiessens about $4 a day to feed each of their 40 or so cows.
“Eleven does not even come close to covering these cows,” Merle said. “That’s what I got paid in the ‘90s when we started.”
Merle’s wife Karen, son Seth, 26, and daughter Jessica, 22, are a part of the family business. Although Merle, Karen and Jessica also work off the farm, they spend hours helping with the family business.
In mid-April, the Thiessens received a letter from their dairy co-op. They were told to decrease production.
“It was so abrupt. They put us on a base amount. If they take anything over our base, they would deduct from our milk check,” Merle said. “At first, I was mad. But if they go under, we go under. We need them to stay in business.”
Milk production in Kansas during April 2020 totaled 334 million pounds, up 4% from April 2019, according to the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service. There were more than 170,000 head in Kansas.
Raw milk production
As the Thiessens saw their milk prices drop to unsustainable rates, they decided they needed to do something.
“We decided to try selling raw milk,” Merle said. “Our stimulus went to hay; it’s not cheap feeding these girls.”
Instead of $1 a gallon, the Thiessens get $4 a gallon for raw milk. The hitch is, according to Kansas law, buyers must come to their farm. This means customers must go out to the country and down a dirt lane, but they get to see some of the cows up close.
“I would love to deliver,” Seth said. “We would be able to sell so much more.”
The Thiessens quickly found there is a demand for fresh-from-the-farm, raw milk. Consumers have driven from Americus, Salina, St. John and Wichita to purchase milk from Sasnak Farms.
“I knew there was a market out there. We’ve been praying,” Karen said. “It’s kind of fun, but it’s been kind of stressful.”
Merle wants to try his hand at making cheese and butter. He said many people are asking for cream.
But he is concerned the state might discontinue allowing farmers to sell raw milk.
Mark McAfee, founder and chairman of the Raw Milk Institute in California, wants to train both farmers and consumers about the benefits of raw milk and the need to produce raw milk the correct way.
The Raw Milk Institute focuses on gathering research, training and mentoring farmers. Their board is comprised of academics and farmers from across the nation.
McAfee, who owns a large organic dairy farm in California, is passionate about teaching dairy farmers to practice low-risk protocol. His organization trains farmers, free of charge, in proper raw milk standards.
“There are two types of milk,” McAfee said. “There’s raw milk intended for pasteurization and raw milk intended for humans.”
Pasteurization heats the milk to high temperatures to eliminate pathogens. Raw milk intended to go directly to the consumer must come from cows who are hormone and antibiotic free.
McAfee said these farms must have cows that have super-clean udders and graze on grass. The animals must have low coliform numbers and must have their water tested.
“There are standards that are required to produce raw milk,” McAfee said. “When raw milk is done well, it’s very, very low risk. When it’s intended for pasteurization, that is a total gamble.”
According to McAfee, raw milk can be sold on grocery store shelves in about one dozen states, including Maine, Utah and California. The product can only be sold directly from the farm in Kansas and another dozen or so states. In the other half of the states, selling raw milk is illegal. Raw milk cannot be sold across state lines.
“Raw milk is an extremely powerful immune system-building food,” McAfee said. “It has all the elements of protein that are changed by pasteurization.”
According to McAfee, in many ways, raw milk can be likened to breast milk: they both contain a wide array of beneficial nutrients.
But, McAfee warned, if the milk is not produced properly, it could produce serious illnesses.
Both Jessica and Seth are passionate about their cows and want to continue running the farm.
“All I’ve ever wanted to do was milk cows since I was little,” Seth said.
Seth cares for the cows. He feeds them, takes them out to pasture and cleans each udder before milking.
The family treats their cows like family. Jessica shows some of them at fairs. Several of their 40 Brown Swiss and milking shorthorns have a name. The cows graze in the pasture and lie in the sun.
Merle’s great-great-grandfather moved to the U.S. from Germany. According to Merle, he fought as a Union soldier during the Civil War. After the war, the country gave him citizenship and 80 acres of land in Illinois. His son, William (WAB) Knackstedt, thought Illinois was getting too crowded, so he traveled west.
“He said, ‘I’m going to go west until I find good land and a Lutheran Church,” Merle said. “There was a Lutheran Church in Inman, so he stopped.”
The Thiessens want to keep their dairy alive and help feed the community.
“I figured if I’m going to go down,” Merle said, “I’m going to go down fighting.”