Lo­cal dairy farmer switches from pro­duc­ing milk to cheese

Lo­cal dairy farm to make Ital­ian cheeses

The Covington News - - Front page - GABRIEL KHOULI gkhouli@cov­news.com

Rus­sell John­ston is tired. He’s tired of putting in 90 to 100 hours a week pro­duc­ing milk, bot­tling it, mar­ket­ing and sell­ing the pop­u­lar bev­er­age and driv­ing it around the re­gion. He’s tired of miss­ing out on his life and that of his two sons.

John­ston Fam­ily Farm, which has been around since 1940, re­cently sold off its pro­cess­ing fa­cil­ity to chef An­to­nio Lorusso, who will now use John­ston’s cows’ milk to make a va­ri­ety of Ital­ian cheeses, pri­mar­ily Moz­zarella.

John­ston, 41, will continue to run the dairy farm, and, in fact, pur­chased a par­tial stake in Lorusso’s com­pany, Izzy’s Cheeses.

Lorusso hopes to pro­duce bur­rata (a kind of Moz­zarella filled with cream), Mas­car­pone and queso blanco, in ad­di­tion to Moz­zarella and other cheeses. John­ston said he hopes the cheeses will be sold at Nor­ing Farms on Floyd, at area Whole Foods Mar­ket stores and at restau­rants.

John­ston said Lorusso is New York chef with strong Ital­ian roots who is pas­sion­ate about food and cheese. The two have been work­ing to­gether for the past one and a half years to per­fect the recipes and cheese mak­ing process and are now ready to start com­mer­cial pro­duc­tion.

“He makes won­der­ful cheeses. It will knock your socks off,” John­ston said.

One of the new com­pany’s big­gest cus­tomers will be Fogo de Chao, the up­scale Brazil­ian steak­house with a lo­ca­tion in At­lanta, that is expected to pur­chase 5,000 to 6,000 pounds of cheese a month.

Lorusso will own all of the pro­cess­ing equip­ment and will rent the plant from John­ston. The two men hope to pro­duce 12,000 to 13,000 pounds of cheese ini­tially and grow as de­mand does.

Shift­ing mar­kets

The farm, which has a New­born ad­dress but is just across the Mor­gan County line, was the one of only three dairy farms in Ge­or­gia that pro­cessed its own milk, ac­cord­ing to John­ston, and the ef­fort it took to make a liv­ing wasn’t worth sac­ri­fic­ing much of his life.

Though he had many peo­ple tell him his milk was the best they’d ever tasted, John­ston was never able to de­velop a big lo­cal mar­ket. His 110-plus cows pro­duced about 15,000 gal­lons of milk a month, but he sold less than 1 per­cent of that within the 25 to 30-mile ra­dius sur­round­ing his farm.

He sold about 30 to 40 gal­lons a month in Cov­ing­ton, and spent much of his time driv­ing to Athens and At­lanta to mar­ket and sell his milk to farmer’s mar­kets and shops there.

“I en­joyed in­ter­act­ing with the pub­lic, and, of course, I took some pride in hav­ing peo­ple tell me it was the best milk they’d ever had in their life and that they’d never had any­thing like it,” John­ston said Fri­day. “Real milk tastes noth­ing like the gro­cery store milk. That stuff tastes pretty nasty ac­tu­ally. Peo­ple go crazy over real milk.

“I’ve got­ten calls from peo­ple, but they un­der­stand when I say it’s af­fect­ing my fam­ily and that I’m putting my fam­ily first. It’s dis­ap­point­ing that I’m not go­ing to be able to get my prod­uct out to peo­ple…but that’s not nearly as up­set­ting of my de­priv­ing my chil­dren of their fa­ther.”

Un­like New­ton County, which has only one ac­tive dairy farm and one more planned to start up, Mor­gan County around 20 dairy farms; how­ever, John­ston said a num­ber of them are on the verge of fold­ing.

“Farm­ers don’t want to fight com­mod­ity prices that are go­ing through the roof. With the drought, corn prices are al­most dou­bling, soy­bean prices are up 50 to 75 per­cent. Milk prices are go­ing up a lit­tle bit, but not as much as ev­ery­thing else,” John­ston said.

John­ston will still sell some raw milk, which is used in the grow­ing pet milk in­dus­try. The own­ers of the Marks fam­ily farm in New­ton County are con­sid­er­ing get­ting into that same bur­geon­ing busi­ness them­selves.

John­ston’s grand­fa­ther bought the farm in 1940, and John­ston bought out his own fa­ther in 1992 and then started bot­tling and di­rectly sell­ing his milk in 2008.

“Any­one who pro­duces a com­mod­ity or a prod­uct wants to take the mid­dle man out and deal di­rect- ly with the con­sumer, be­cause it gives you bet­ter con­trol over what the price is what the profit is,” John­ston said. “The rea­son (I’m sell­ing the pro­cess­ing part), just to be bla­tantly frank, is that I’m tried. I’m tired of work­ing seven days a week for 12 to 14 hours a day.

“You can def­i­nitely work all the life out of life… My 12 year old is about to go through a lot of changes in life, and he needs some­body there he can talk to and spend time with and who can guide him in the right di­rec­tion. Be­tween the two of (my sons) that was just the de­ter­min­ing fac­tor.”

photo sub­mit­ted by Rus­sell John­ston

Milk from the cows at the lo­cal John­ston Fam­ily Farm will now be used to make Ital­ian-style cheeses (pri­mar­ily Mozarella) in­stead of be­ing pro­cessed for tra­di­tional milk.

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