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Clark Cook wakes before the dawn every day and heads to the barn at his north Oakland County farm to milk more than four dozen cows. By 9 a.m., he collects more than 400 gallons for processing. It's a long, labor-intensive process, and one that he and his family has done for three generations.
"Twice a day, every day. There are no days off. If you're sick, someone has to be here to milk the cows," Cook said about the inherent challenges of dairy farming. "It's a pretty old-fashioned system. We have machines, but we still have to kneel down underneath the cow. It's about as close to using a bucket as you can get. It's a hard occupation to be involved in, unless you enjoy it."
Started in 1933 by Cook's grandfather, the Ortonville farm was once among more than 30 dairy farms in Oakland County. Today, Cook's Farm Dairy, 2950 E. Seymour Lake Rad, is the last remaining dairy in the county. Like most of the large farms remaining in the county, Cook has had to adapt to urbanization and other influences over the years to keep the operation going. For dairy farmers like Cook, the cost of sending their milk out for processing became too much.
"We got to the point that we had to get more cows," Cook said. "If you do that, you need more land, and all the land was going into subdivisions, so we decided to put in the processing plant."
While Cook was attending Michigan State University in the 1980s, a class project required him create a business plan, which he subsequently adopted at the family's farm. In 1982, the dairy installed its own milk processing plant and started selling milk directly to retailers and customers. At the time, many dairy farmers may have questioned the decision to process their own milk. As it turned out, the plant was the thing that saved the farm and allows it to be successful today.
"We would milk the cows, and the semi would come and take it to a processing plant. They would process it and send it out to stores, so we pretty much cut out the middle man," Cook said. "Now we are moo-to-you."
Cook sold his first gallon of milk processed at the plant in 1982. Two years later, the farm added ice cream to its offerings. Today the dairy produces about 35,000 gallons of ice cream each year, available in nearly 30 different flavors available at Spartan retailers in the area, as well as at the farm directly. The farm also produces a variety of cheeses during the winter.
In addition to dairy products, the farm owns about 200 acres of crop land, and rents another 200 acres which allows the farm to be self-sustaining by producing all of its own feed. In the fall, the farm offers pumpkins and hay rides, with tours available throughout the year....continued on page 2