Got Milk!

Gemini Guernseys
Palisade, Minnesota; (218) 845-2443

If you'd told me a year ago that there was a difference between various brands of milk, I'd have thought you were trying to put one over on a city girl--wasn't milk just like crystal sugar in bags, canola oil in bottles, Cheerios in boxes? In the Dark Ages, back in about 1998, I'd have told you that milk was just a uniform product with a standard taste.

But hallelujah, brother, the scales have fallen from my tongue, and now I can taste. One kind of milk can be as different from another as peonies are from daisies. Gemini Guernseys, a tiny, single-herd dairy up in Palisade, Minnesota, is responsible for my conversion. Their milk is so rich, so buttery, so fresh, sweet, velvety, and good it makes ordinary, anonymous milk taste like some kind of flat soft drink.

I first tried Gemini milk at the Minneapolis Farmers' Market, where Dick Bowne, who heads the little operation with his wife Pam, runs a stand every Saturday and Sunday. Dick's hard to miss--he's a giant, bearded guy who looks like a florid sheepdog, and he'll talk your ear off if you ask about his half-gallon and gallon containers with the cute little cow pictures on them. "This is the freshest milk you're ever going to taste, short of sticking your head under a cow," he'll offer, "and if you want to see how fresh it is, all you have to do is get on the road." The Gemini Guernseys farm is 145 miles north of Minneapolis. "Come up and you'll see your cows. It's not just a crock of bullshit. When you buy this milk, we are your farmers, these are your cows. You call this number." He points to the phone number on the package. "It rings in our house, it rings in the barn."

So I took the bait and drove up to the rich, flat, muddy lands around Palisade, Minnesota, a one-horse town on the Mississippi. There I learned that the phone in the barn doesn't necessarily ring--that phone is a mess. See, the Bownes are a little tight for cash, having recently invested all their money, and then some, in setting up their own dairying operation. Now when they milk their cows, they collect the milk, pasteurize it (the process heats milk to a high temperature to remove bacteria), cool it, and bottle it themselves.

This is a nearly unheard-of situation: For the past fifty years, mainstream milk production has involved collection and sales operations separate from the farm. But the Bownes are anything but mainstream. They're workaholic dreamers who passionately believe in an ethical system of intimate production. They spend their week caring for, protecting, pasturing, moving, talking to, and philosophically admiring their Guernseys. "We go along with Indian thinking," Pam Bowne told me as we stood in the barn. "Cows are the surrogate mother of mankind. The difference between cows and other mothers is that cows produce much more milk than they need for their own children--they adopt everyone around them. They're spiritually, physically generous." I fumbled with a camera while Dick Bowne tried to get cows to hold still and pose for me. "We'd never want to make an image of a cow on a surfboard or any of that Kemp's crap," he said. "The cow is a noble, friendly beast, you know? She's a mother--that's so slick!"

Worse than putting cows on surfboards, in my book, is shooting them full of hormones, trapping them in giant, noisy sheds, and treating them without respect. The Bownes decided to sell their own cows' milk directly to consumers in direct response to the debut of Bovine Growth Hormone (BGH) in 1994. BGH is that controversial injectable that industry flacks insist does nothing but boost milk production, while others suspect it may damage the health of both cows and people. "It's run down a lot of cows," maintains Dick Bowne. "Forcing her to give more than she's able. Why try to turn a cow into a factory?"

The Bownes started their brand in 1994 by having the milk bottled at the North Branch dairy. Dick Bowne would drive down to the Cities and do a traditional predawn urban milk delivery route Friday and Sunday mornings, delivering to homes, restaurants, daycare centers and grocery stores throughout Minneapolis and western pockets of St. Paul. (This system was not without peril: Dick remembers one night in North Minneapolis when police took him for a burglar and surrounded him, guns drawn, as he left a house porch. "I'm the milkman!" he says he screeched, no doubt to the amusement of the officers.) He'd spend weekend mornings at the Farmers' Market and do additional deliveries to churches on weekend afternoons. It took a couple of years of this grueling routine, but it finally looked like the little old-fashioned business was going to succeed--they had a loyal, and growing, customer base, and word of mouth was working its magic.

Then suddenly, last summer, the North Branch dairy announced it was going out of business. There was nowhere else to process the milk. Was this the end of Gemini Guernseys? Dick made his standard milk run, but was notably depressed at the Farmers' Market. A regular customer asked why he was so blue, and then casually offered: "I've got some money. How about I buy it and you run it?" Five thousand dollars from one very dedicated customer later, Dick and Pam packed up all the dairy machinery and carted it to their farm. "You'd like to think peace and love and all that," says Dick, who gets wet-eyed at the memory, "but sometimes you need money."

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