Rosa Brothers Milk Company in Tulare Steps Back in Time
Udderly FabulousMarch 2015
By Jordan Venema
Photos: Jacki Potorke
You may not know it, but you shouldn’t be surprised: Tulare County is the largest dairy county in the nation. But have you ever stopped mid-pour over a bowl of cereal, while thanking your lucky lactose-tolerant stars, and wonder, “Just where does this milk come from, anyway?” Well, good chance your morning ambrosia didn’t come from a local dairy, or any other udder nearby, for that matter. And unless you’re already drinking Rosa Brothers’ Milk, you’re likely drinking milk that’s been processed in Turlock, maybe even Los Angeles County.
Even third-generation dairy farmer Noel Rosa admits he doesn’t know where the milk ultimately ends up – just as likely on the East Coast as butter, he says. “All this time we were milking cows and selling the milk by the tankard load and the truck would come and pick up the milk and we’d never see it again.”
In 2009, milk prices plummeted and dairies across the nation struggled to survive the rising costs of fuel (dairy farms are responsible for shipping the raw milk to processing plants). Brothers Noel and Rolland Rosa began to explore creative ways to weather the economic storm. “Should we start making cheese, should we start making butter, should we start making yogurt?” Noel asked. After a little research, the brothers discovered something udderly shocking. “Locally, there was no milk,” says Noel. “Even though we’re the largest dairy-producing county in the nation, there was no milk being locally bottled.”
Why nobody had thought to bottle milk locally, Noel couldn’t say. But one thing he did know was how to milk a cow. His grandfather bought the family farm in 1949 and began milking 50 cows in 1953. When brothers Rolland and Noel took over the farm from their father in 1998, they were milking more than 500 cows. With a lifetime of experience milking cows, Noel and Rolland only needed the creamery.
The brothers found and purchased an old warehouse, which they gutted and refurbished with 50-year-old equipment. “It’s an old-fashioned setup,” admits Noel, “and I even bought a washing machine that they haven’t made for over 40 years.” The equipment may be antique, but ‘old’ is the new ‘new,’ so to say, and necessary to producing milk the way Noel believes it should be done.
The brothers are part of a small business “movement,” a movement in which really only small businesses can survive. Integrity to a product sometimes requires staying small and staying local, because as companies grow, quality sometimes gives way to cost, and craftsmanship sometimes gives way to mass production. That’s why glass gave way to plastic and cardboard, explains Noel, because it was cheaper for larger companies to “bottle” milk using those materials.
As a small business, the Rosa brothers have this advantage: they can bottle their milk in glass. “That’s what’s so exciting about it,” says Noel. “We’re going back to the way milk used to be. It tastes better in glass, it stays colder, it last longer. It’s just a better package, and there’s a real nostalgia feel to it.”
You could say the Rosa brothers are throwing back to another time, but they’re still pushing the dairy envelope. “There’s a lot of new things we’re doing,” says Noel, before he goes down the list of their flavored milks: chocolate, root beer float, strawberry, vanilla, and orange cream – “it tastes like a Creamsicle.” Of course they also bottle nonfat, whole, 2%, and, during the holidays, eggnog. They also make high-end ice creams, like pistachio and honey-almond, both nods to locally grown nuts.
Through the addition of the creamery to their farm, “that’s how we came full circle,” says Noel. First they brought their milk to the community, and now they’re bringing the community to their farm. “We believe in the local food movement, and people want to know where their food is from, so we actually have a farm tour open from April through November,” says Noel. There’s a visitors’ center, a calf petting zoo and a bus tour around the farm. The creamery also has a retail store that sells, in addition to Rosa Brothers Milk, other locally produced goods. Their milk is also available at local grocers throughout the valley, including Save Marts.
The coolest thing in the store, though, might not even be something you can buy. “In the back of our store is a viewing window where you can watch the process, watch us bottle the milk and make the ice cream,” says Noel. From the window, anybody can catch a glimpse of the old-fashioned creamery, where they’ll see not just how milk used to be bottled, but also how it should be.
Rosa Brothers Milk Company • Creamery: 2400 South K St., Tulare
Tour Information Line: (559) 582-2209
www.rosabrothers.com • Find them on Facebook