In Search of the Right Stuff (Part 3): Moo-ville Creamery

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The ingredient-grabbing road trip series comes full circle with my pursuit for milk and butter. Moo-ville Creamery, in Nashville, Michigan, is less than twenty minutes from my hometown of Battle Creek. I met up with owner Doug Westendorp to find out why his farm is the best in state and the prime candidate for my project, A Simple Cereal.[flickr id=”7023895673″ thumbnail=”medium” overlay=”true” size=”original” group=”” align=”none”]

Now, a few things about Doug. Of my three ingredient proprietors, Mr. Westendorp is the most direct and reticent. It is an odd combination to some…but being from Michigan myself, it is a vernacular and cadence that I was raised and take part in. Doug knows what he knows, and he described the pasteurizing, bottling, and ice cream machinery throughout the Moo-ville facility with no wasted words. He is a man who is succinct in a friendly way, and I had the impression that he felt he was taking up too much of my time if he spoke at length about his impressive business.

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In reality, he would have plenty to talk about. Moo-ville Creamery is nationally recognized for their dairy products, which come from the 90 cows they keep on in their Westvale-Vu Dairy facility just behind the Moo-ville store. I mentioned to Doug that I had seen a bulldozer clearing land on the ridge between the storefront and Westvale-Vu. He told me that they were expanding the facility to house up to 200 cows in the coming years. The reason? They were getting too popular supplying dairy within their hour-drive-radius of coffeehouses, local markets, and restaurants.

A good problem to have, I said.

He smiled, but there was a little hesitation. I could tell that yes, he wanted to expand the business, but not expand it too much. Moo-ville and Westvale-Vu are family-run ventures–the Westendorps having six children that are all excited to continue the business. The goal is be popular, successful, and stay true to your original reputation. A tough balance, but one that Doug seemed to be maintaining pretty darn well.

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There is a short hallway of awards and newspaper clippings that serve as a public history of Moo-ville. I read a few of these articles, focusing on one in particular titled Why Moo-ville Milk? There, I learned of Somatic Cell Count (SCC), which is the number of white blood cells in milk. The math of it is this: the higher the SCC, the higher number of pathogens in the cows at the time of milking. This little write-up informed me that the national SCC dairy limit is 750,000.

Westvale-Vu was tested at 75,000, a tenth of that extreme limit. In 2009, they had the lowest SCC herd in Michigan. Healthy cows equal healthy milk.

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So, I had some in the guilty form of homemade ice cream–three scoops of Doug’s favorite, Sea Salt Caramel. I sat in one of the Adirondack chairs bordering the Petting Farm a stone’s throw away from the Moo-ville store. It was late afternoon, and the wind swept the grass across the ground and the clouds across the sky. A teenager, maybe of the Westendorp brood, carried pails of feed to the goats in one fenced-in area, and then to one filled with waddling white geese.

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I watched him while licking my ice cream in the sunshine, thinking about how fitting it was for this place to be the final site of my cereal network. A place so close to the source of all my inspiration, my life, my history. As I waxed poetic, the teenager reached an igloo-like structure several yards in front of my chair. As he leaned over the gate with the feed bucket, a black-and-white shape galumphed out of the igloo, heading straight for him. It took me a second for me to recognize it as a dairy calf, with its young gangling limbs and bobbing head. One day, this animal would grow up and join the other cows on the farm, helping produce the thousands of gallons of Moo-ville milk each week.

Milk to make cheese.

Milk to pour on cereal.

Milk to make Sea Salt Caramel Ice Cream.

I looked at my cone and looked back at the calf with its mouth buried in the feed bucket. I realized that I will depend on this little heifer-to-be as much as Doug or Gilbert from Lonesome Stone or Michael Thompson and his Co-op Honey Bees. It was all connected–the threads many, the pattern intricate. And yet, when I met these people and shared these experiences, it was so simple and easy, and I would wonder, Why hadn’t I done this before? Why is the first step the hardest one to make?

Each first step in A Simple Cereal has become easier. I had to remind myself that the project was on its way to completion. I licked my ice cream cone while the calf cavorted with her teenage handler. He soon left her, and she soon left me, going back to her igloo. I sat alone at the Petting Farm, a curious scene in and of itself. I finished the cone and stood up.

It was time to go. It was time to finish the work.

The wind was at my back, and my feet seemed to float above the grass. I followed the path I set for myself–to the car, to home, to Chicago, and to the exhibition opening.

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