10 cows to no cows: when doing it all becomes too much

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cheese in an aging room
The aging room at Old Forge Dairy, in Rootstown, Ohio, is nearly full. Business has grown steadily for the small farmstead cheese maker. The Oravetses made the decision this year to sell their milk cows and begin buying milk to grow their cheese business. (Meghan Winkler/Meghan Winkler Photography)

What Rebecca and JP Oravets were doing on their farm, in Rootstown, Ohio, was beautiful and romantic.

They grazed their small herd of Ayrshire cows through the summer months and used the cow’s milk to make aged cheeses at their on farm cheese house. They did almost everything by hand, with their two young children growing up and running around alongside them.

It was their dream to show that a small scale dairy farm could work, and they made that dream come to life through Old Forge Dairy. But living the dream was burning them out. They finally hit a wall this past summer.

“The chores for the cows, it was probably six hours of our day was barn stuff, let alone cheese stuff,” Rebecca said. “A batch of cheese is a good 12+ hours of our day. It wasn’t adding up to enough sleep with two little kids.”

After three years of doing it all, they sold their cows and began buying milk this year.

Running down a dream

The Oravets family’s story, “Portage County dairy makes it work with just 10 cows,” struck a chord with many readers in Farm and Dairy, when it ran in late February.

They built their farm and the cheese business slowly, doing work themselves as they could afford it, to avoid taking on extra debt. They milked between 6-10 Ayrshire cows at any given time using a bucket milker and made cheese every few days, as they got enough milk to do a batch.

They did all their own crop work and made their own hay, all the while raising their two children, Junior and Myla.

family standing together
The Oravets family: JP, Rebecca, Myla and Junior. (Meghan Winkler Photography)

“It’s too much, doing it all,” Rebecca said. “Instead of barely scraping by, we wanted more. We realized this was not living the life that you want to have when you’re just absolutely burnt out all the time.”

They started making cheese in 2017. They sold wholesale to grocery stores, to local wineries, restaurants and to a butcher shop in Cleveland, as well as selling directly at farmers markets.

The pandemic didn’t impact them like it did other businesses. They weren’t tied to the commodity milk market. They lost some wholesale customers but picked up a lot of retail business through a farmers market, in Kent, Ohio. Things were growing steadily.

When you make a product that has to age for at least six months, you’re always looking ahead. Rebecca said by the spring, she knew they weren’t going to have enough milk to get them through the fall and winter.

“This summer I didn’t have enough cheese,” she said.

They considered buying more cows. They thought about hiring someone to milk, but their barn and cheese house is in their backyard. It would have had to have been the right person to be working that closely with their family.

Portage County dairy makes it work with just 10 cows

Here comes the sun

Then a matchmaker stepped in in the form of their state milk inspector. The inspector mentioned to the Oravetses at their annual inspection that he knew of a family who might be willing to sell milk to them — the Sampsons.

The inspector mentioned the same thing to the Sampsons at their inspection later on. Around that time, Adriann Sampson said a friend that lived near the Oravets family saw the article in Farm and Dairy and also mentioned the family to them.

The Sampsons milk about 20 cows, in Deerfield, Ohio. They predominantly graze their mixed herd, rotating them through about 40 acres of pasture during the grazing season. They use a bucket milker and dump the milk into a bulk tank.

“We like to do things the old fashioned way,” Adriann said.

It took a little bit of time for the two families to connect, but when they did, things clicked. Rebecca said they immediately had a good feeling about the type of people they were, how they farmed. It lined up with how they did things. Adriann felt the connection too.

family standing in pasture
The Sampson family began selling milk to Old Forge dairy this summer, giving them two revenue streams for their milk. (Meghan Winkler Photography)

“It’s like they’re us 10 years ago,” Adriann said, comparing Rebecca and JP to her and her husband, Don.

Rebecca said she waffled for a bit on what to do next. On one hand, if they were going to buy milk from anyone, the Sampsons would be perfect.

On the other hand, milking cows was part of their identity and their brand. They started this whole venture to make money from dairy farming. The cows were there first, but the cheese is what made them money and kept the whole farm going.

All down the line

The Oravetses started by incorporating some of the Sampsons milk in with theirs during the summer.

The Sampsons were open to doing extra testing on their herd and breeding for different milk components in their herd. That sort of cooperation and willingness to work with each other sold Rebecca on the deal.

The Oravetses sold their cows in July and jumped on board fully with the Sampsons.

It’s helped the Sampsons to have a second market for their milk. They also sell to Minerva Dairy, where the milk price follows the federal milk marketing order.

“It adds stability to our whole scenario,” Adriann said. “With JP and Rebecca, we agreed on a set price, and that’s what it is.”

For the Oravetses, things haven’t slowed down any, but they feel like they’re getting their feet back under them. They still have horses and are raising more pigs than before. They’re catching up on sleep, just a little bit, and on projects that got put off.

They still have to drive half an hour to the Sampsons to fill up milk cans every day. But it’s still less time than it would be spent milking, cleaning equipment, managing manure and doing the other care dairy cows require.

They picked up a used cheese vat in Arkansas that’s three times larger than their current vat. They’re working on building new cheese presses and cheese hoops.

“We wouldn’t have been able to grow the cheese side of things if we were still milking,” Rebecca said. “We want to conquer some more cheeses. We’re working just as much. We’re more focused now on what we should be focused on.”

(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or rachel@farmanddairy.com.)

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Rachel is a reporter with Farm and Dairy and a graduate of Clarion University of Pennsylvania. She married a fourth-generation beef and sheep farmer and settled down in her hometown in Beaver County. Before coming to Farm and Dairy, she worked at several daily and weekly newspapers throughout Western Pennsylvania covering everything from education and community news to police and courts.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Nice story. It’s win-win (Adam Smith) with both parties now more productive. I’m hungry for the alpine, gouda xo, and cheddar xo, please – just have to find where in Medina County they might be on offer. Maybe some goat gouda, if ever.

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