Homeschool Co-op Trip: Ocheesee Dairy

a group of young children pet a baby calf

The farmer’s trade is one of worth;
He’s partner with the sky and earth,
He’s partner with the sun and rain,
And no man loses for his gain;
And men may rise, or men may fall,
But the farmer he must feed them all.

God bless the man who sows the wheat,
Who finds us milk and fruit and meat;
May his purse be heavy, his heart be light,
His cattle and corn and all go right;
God bless the seeds his hands let fall,
For the farmer he must feed us all.

– Except from The Farmer
  By Amelia Barr

Why plan a co-op field trip to the Ocheesee Creamery?

multiple children reach down to pet a long haired white and orange barn cat

Ocheesee Creamery is worth the trip for the beauty of the land alone. Acres of sky above rolling green hills. Peaceful, contented cows and sweet calves. The distant song of birds and a gentle breeze to float the clouds along. And I can only imagine what the stars must look like.

But add to a gorgeous landscape a small, three-generation dairy farm, with scads of barn cats and friendly guides, and you have an instant field trip. And quite the educational one as well. Years ago my family purchased raw milk from a country dairy, sight unseen. It seemed too good to be true- sumptuous taste with no tummy aches in sensitive bellies. But delivery circles changed, my spouse had questions about the safety of raw milk that I had no time to research and I let that item fall from my to-do list.

How did Ocheesee become our next co-op field trip?

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Fast forward to my current search for excellent ice cream and the field trips that justify such extravagances: Ocheesee Creamery came up.  So glad that it did. With superb ice cream and more-than-fair prices, this was a field trip that needed to happen.  Even better, it was the same dairy we bought raw milk from years ago. I was curious as to whether the milk would still be as tummy-friendly as I remembered. The date was set.

Just a few miles off the interstate, we found the small Ocheesee Creamery store in the middle of a lush lawn. From the flowers surrounding the porch to the rockers that covered it and the smiles of the owner & staff that ushered us in, it couldn’t have been more welcoming. The little store was well dressed with pictures of the family covering the walls and fresh décor. The modern freezers and shelves were laden with everything from milk and ice cream to cheeses and strawberry jalepeno jelly and herbal tonics. A large picture window in the side wall framed the processing room next door. Here we began the tour learning about the different products made at dairy.

What is particularly interesting abut the Ocheesee area?

For granola-crunchy moms, curious kids and wannabe homesteaders, there was plenty to take in. “Mr. Mike”, one of three family owners, introduced himself. Married into the family, Mike came from a multi-generation dairy farming family in Ohio. He was the epitome of a modern farmer, full of deep knowledge and easy-going patience.  A good mix for answering all of our questions.

It turns out that the name “Ocheesee” isn’t a belabored dad joke, but the name of a historically significant area that was once settled by the Lower Creek Indians. Not only did this area play a part in the Civil War, but the War of 1812 and the First Seminole War as well. The only surviving relic of this area (at least per my research) is the house that was moved just off the Apalachicola into nearby Torreya State Park. In the 1900’s many people began to refer to the area as “Shady Nook”. This made the history buffs in my tribe happy

How did Ocheesee Creamery begin?

Established in 1956, the dairy was later purchased by Mr. Mike’s in-laws in 1989. Besides milk, it produced butter, cottage cheese, and yogurt. Later it became well known for its epic chocolate milk (trust me).  In October 2018, the 160 mph winds of Hurricane Michael mowed down most of the shade and flattened the iron barn where the milk processing is done. (Mike  had been wrestling with equipment that day as the storm approached and ended up sheltering under the concrete steps until the eye of the storm arrived.) The cows took little notice of this and kept delivering plenty of milk. Generator energy needed to be conserved as much as possible, so the milk was flash-cooled and sold as raw milk for pet consumption while waiting for the main power grid to be reconstructed. 

How has Covid affected production?

In our Not-Favorite Year of 2020, as the world began searching for anything that would aid in the fight against Covid, interest in natural food surged. Orders began pouring in for raw milk, which is naturally higher in Vitamin D. The switch was made to raw milk production. Today Ocheesee Creamery meets a very high demand for non-homogonized milk with full cream content. But this means there is not milkfat for butter production, so for the time being, it does not produce butter. And while the ice-cream is  pasturized in the production process, all dairy products are made from non-homogonized milk. Today the dairy produces yogurt, ice cream, raw milk, raw cottage cheese and occasionally amazing beef from the few steers they raise every year.

a metal pipe flows up to a 3 foot metal plate and then the milk flows through in hundreds of little tubes

Can your co-op tour the production room?

Depends on the day. On a production day, Mr. Mike will explain what’s going while the group watches through the window. It can be a bit hard for the littlest tykes to peek, but it is usually the older people that find this most interesting. Other days, tour groups are ushered into the immaculate room. One of the most interesting pieces of equipment was the immense cooling plate – used to flash chill the milk to 36 degrees within 30 minutes of the cow’s milking. Provided the milk is sourced from a clean cow using sterile equipment, this is the piece of equipment that renders  the safest milk possible. 

What's interesting about raw milk?

In my own family, my people who can not drink milk from the grocery are quite easily able to drink milk from Ocheesee Dairy. There are many theories as to why this may be so. Some theories focus more on the beneficial flora of raw milk and the somewhat higher nutritional value, while others focus on the change in protein structure for homogenized milk. Even the venerable PubMed has research on raw milk. Please note that Ocheesee Dairy does not claim any particular benefits for their milk. My own interest stems from the long-term care of a chronically ill child when doctors had no help to offer. (That is a story for another website altogether.) So, a friendly reminder here, although I have inserted links for curious readers, everyone is liable for their own research and decisions. I am not advising anyone about their decisions, only providing information to consider.

a long trench between milking stalls holds scrubbing solutions and mechanized milking controls

Can your co-op tour the barn?

Happily, yes! But, be advised, it doesn’t look like any barn from picture books. This is a modern dairy barn where cows come into a bay with hydraulic gates and mechanized, sterilized milking equipment. While this was easy to spot, the cow’s undercarriage wash and the floor washing system were not.But there was yet another step to ensuring safe milk. Much like prepping a site on an arm for a blood draw, iodine dips are used to provide a clean site for the sterilized milking equipment to be attached. Who knew that modern technology could make it possible for a single farmer to safely milk a herd of 100+ cows in two hours?

a young child looks at a cow

Can your co-op pet the cows and calves?

If you would like, but warn kiddos about the electric fence. (Mr. Mike turned this off for my second visit with little people). Even better is the chance to pet the week-old calves. This was a surprise – I had expected calves to be nursing with a babysitter cow. Mr. Mike explained that after tremendous effort to put newborn calves with a nursing cow and losing many to illness, something needed to change. As anyone who has cared for any newborn mammals knows, by the time you see a problem, it is too late. Despite a veterinarians best efforts, struggling newborns usually die. So now the newborns receive all of their mom’s milk via bottle until they are ready to be put in the pasture with the other cows. Since this practice was instituted, calves born alive stay alive. Regardless, we were all happy to have a chance to pet these sweet calves.

a light brown calf nuzzles a bystander's hand

Does the Creamery ever sell its calves?

With a yearly average of 240 births, the Ocheesee Creamery has a long waiting list for their calves. While Jersey cows are a milk producing breed, they are not a profitable beef-production breed. Still, Ocheesee holds a few steer for small-scale meat production, mostly for family members. While grass-fed beef is the preference for many, the cattle does get a grain supplement in order to maintain energy (cows) and body weight (bulls). Ask anyone who has raised (or tried to raise) grass-fed beef, and they will tell you that it is very difficult to maintain body weight on grass alone in the summers.

a group of children and a parent eat in the shade of a tree on the pastsure

Is there a place for your co-op to eat at the Ocheesee Creamery?

There is a front porch area with benches and a few small tables. This is where my first co-op tour with older students landed. Our second tour, with over 30 little people, landed on blankets under the shade of a large tree on the store’s front lawn. Some mom’s brought their own hand sanitizer or wipes, others sent kiddos in to the single person bathrooms to wash. (Not that anyone felt anything was dirty, but traditions must be observed, right?) As our group at lunch, moms trickled into the store to purchase milk, eggs, meat, etc, get ice for their coolers, and purchase dessert. No one – out of our crowd of almost fifty people- had anything but praise for the ice cream. It was outstanding. Out of all of the places we have eaten ice cream so far, this was by far our favorite. Chalk up another successful mission in the Great Ice Cream Tour!

a white plastic spoon scoops ice cream out of a small paper cup
  • Call to set a date for your tour. Tours are free. Tuesdays are the best days. This is a family-operated dairy and if you come on a super busy day, tours will be difficult.
  • A student head count is helpful. Goodie bags with books, cups and other items are provided (also for free).
  • The Ocheesee Creamery is in the CENTRAL time zone. (For all of the Eastern Time Zone people, just subtract an hour).
  • They accept cash and cards.
  • Bring a cooler or cooler bag. They will supply ice. IF you are purchasing ice cream, plastic bags work best to insulate the ice cream until you get home – the ice cream is actually colder than the ice, so it gets a bit soft right up against the ice.
  • They will supply spoons for the ice cream.
  • Wearing close-toed shoes is a good idea.
  • Bathrooms are available.
  • The tour takes anywhere from 1-2 hours depending on the number of questions. 
  • This makes a great stop after a water day on the Chipola River!

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