The path to the future looks a lot like the past at one of the region’s biggest dairy farms.
The owners of the 115-year-old Kings Ransom Farm — which bottled its own milk as recently as the 1960s — have constructed a new bottling plant and are now making home deliveries of their milk in traditional glass bottles (as well as plastic jugs).
Their customer list is growing, benefiting from the popularity of locally produced food and from a production technique that preserves flavor.
Co-owner Jan King said as of Wednesday, they’re delivering milk to 70 food service businesses (mainly in and around Saratoga Springs, Ballston Spa and Schuylerville) and to more than 500 residential customers ranging from Queensbury to Halfmoon.
“We’ve had tremendous response, and our customers are telling us how much they like the product,” King said. “We’ve been delivering milk for the last six years. Now we are bottling our own milk, just hours after it is produced.”
King Brothers Dairy, as the name suggests, is run by Jeff and Jan King, who also own Kings Ransom Farm.
King Brothers Dairy began delivering the farm’s milk to area customers in 2010, which worked out well while they had a local bottler. But their bottler went out of business in 2015, so they had to switch to a central New York bottler, and because of the distance, King Brothers Dairy wound up delivering other farms’ milk instead of its own. The idea that Jeff and Jan started talking about in the early 2000s — do their own bottling, like their grandfather did with King Brothers Colebrook Dairy — already had a nostalgic appeal to them, and now offered a practical advantage.
When the King Brothers Dairy bottling plant went online in April, the customers — who’d been told they weren’t getting Kings Ransom milk for the last year — noticed the difference immediately.
“Our milk, to start with, tastes batter,” Jan King said.
That’s not just pride — he offers a technical explanation for the taste difference:
“We process a little bit the old-fashioned way,” he said. Large commercial processors separate out the milkfat while the milk is still hot from pasteurization, which is quicker and more efficient than letting it cool first.
“We separate our milk cold,” King said. “That’s very noticeable in the taste.
“When we switched, everyone was very happy.”
Kings Ransom has always been a family operation, and remains so.
“Jeff and I work together and play together,” Jan King said.
Their wives also take active roles in the operation — Becky King, an accountant, does a lot of paperwork, and Pandora Davis, a veterinarian, provides medical care for the herd.
Jeff and Jan’s parents, Edgar and Carolyn, are semi-retired now, but Edgar King still maintains a nearly daily presence.
The next generation of Kings helps out here and there but they’re all still underage.
It’s hard to say at this point whether they’ll continue to run the family farm, but part of the reason for starting a milk bottling operation is to add a revenue stream to keep the farm viable, so that the kids will have the option of running it when they are done with school and ready to choose a career.
“We want to make this a viable business, a sustainable business … if they want to come back to the farm,” Jan King said.
Kings Ransom is a major dairy operation, with 25 full-time employees including the delivery drivers. For the bottling plant, King said, “We’ve added three full-time positions and a part-time.”
The farm milks 800 cattle three times a day; most of the milk still goes to the Dairy Farmers of America Cooperative in East Syracuse; the remainder is now bottled in-house, in a variety of sizes and styles: whole, reduced-fat, fat-free and chocolate milk in 64-ounce glass bottles and 14-, 32-, 64- and 128-ounce plastic containers. King Brothers Dairy also sells cheese, butter and yogurt from other producers, offers a range of other fresh food products, and has a dairy shop on-site.
King said the dairy operation is trying to expand through word of mouth and a presence at farmers markets, as well as through its web site, but the delivery operation has to grow in stages: There needs to be enough residential customers in a new area to make the extra drive time economical. Through sign-up sheets at a Colonie farmers market, King Brothers Dairy has gained just about enough interest to start a route there, possibly as soon as this week.
As all this marketing goes on, the basic job of keeping all those cows fed and healthy through good weather and bad never ends.
Kings Ransom grows hay, corn, alfalfa and soybeans on the 2,500 acres it owns or leases, providing a vertical food chain from soil to kitchen table for the dairy operation.
“A good share of what we feed the cows is grown right here on the farm,” Jan King said.
Reach business editor John Cropley at 395-3104, [email protected] or @cropjohn on Twitter.
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