Rick Anglin doesn’t remember a time when he was not in love with cows. He met his first love at the age of 9—a Holstein named Inka, bought for him by his father, a lifelong dairyman. In 1987, when Rick was 16, he spent $1,500 of his own money on a Brown Swiss calf from Canada. “I won every show I entered with her,” Anglin says.
Today Anglin and his family run a raw milk dairy on a 30-acre patch of scrubby desert in Casa Grande. The day I visit, the cows are all lined up in the holding area for their 3 o’clock milking. I’m introduced to each one—Fergie, the 10-year-old matriarch, Minnie, Fondu, Juju, Sue—their tongues reaching out sideways to lick our hands. The building is immaculate—the cement floors, the milk lines, and the railings separating the cows kept spotlessly clean. In the cement pit below the milk parlor, an employee is taking his time, carefully checking the underside of each cow, and spraying down legs and hooves, the water disappearing through floor grates.
The milking process takes an hour and a half, twice a day. “It’s real slow, and that’s intentional. It’s not a race,” says Anglin. The cows stand, docile and quiet. Aside from the sound of the hose and the rhythmic pulsing of the milk machines, there is just the echo of our own voices beneath the rafters.
For Anglin, the road to Fond du Lac has been unexpected. In 1995, Anglin, following a long family tradition, started his own dairy in Chandler with 30 Holstein heifers. But in 2008, with the onset of the economic recession, Anglin says, “Everything tanked. So many dairies around the country were going under. Dairymen were committing suicide from the stress of having millions due and the bank suddenly not renewing their notes. It was dire straits.” Feeling that pressure, Anglin felt stuck under the thumb of the marketplace.
By 2012, he had grown his operation to 650 cows, but in order to make a living, he was spending less time with his cows and more time monitoring market activity. Each day, he checked Chicago Board of Trade milk futures. He tried to buy feed at a lower price before it changed and tried to lock in milk prices before they dropped again. When the government increased subsidies for the production of corn for ethanol, Anglin says, “It doubled feed costs … we were competing with oil companies for corn.” He pauses. “And I just thought, if this is what dairying looks like, I’m not interested. This is miserable. It’s taken all the fun out of it.”
Against the advice of nearly every dairyman he knew, he sold the entire operation and began researching raw milk production. In 2013, Rick and his wife, Kristin, and their three daughters, Quincy, Chloe, and Macy, bought the property in Casa Grande. They spent the first year hunkered down, studying numbers, regulations, and infrastructure design. They drilled a well, ran electricity, and built corrals and a state-of-the-art barn, milking parlor, testing and processing rooms inspired by dairies in the Midwest. In July 2014, Fond du Lac Farms was up and running with 11 Brown Swiss heifers.
Though Arizona is a raw milk state, meaning that it’s legal to produce and sell raw milk with proper certification, the standards are higher, the insurance more expensive, and the hoops a bit harder to jump through. “If you’re gonna’ do this, you better be all in,” says Anglin, adding, “I have a great working relationship with the state. I’m very transparent, and they see my results.” Results, he says, which are excellent.
“To make a standard and say it’s gotta be less than a certain number—well, if you cook it, you can get that done. But the crazy part is we’re getting that done, and we’re not cooking it. It’s baffling to a lot of people.” By “cooking,” Anglin means pasteurizing. Developed to aid food safety efforts, pasteurization is a flash heating process that essentially nukes bacteria. The problem, say raw milk proponents, is that pasteurization kills off the good bacteria as well. “My milk is alive,” says Anglin, when I ask him what’s different about his product. “It’s a probiotic. There’s a battle raging in that bottle.”
As a raw milk dairy, Fond du Lac Farms is held to the same quality and health standards as pasteurized milk producers, but without the crutch of pasteurization. The product must be ready to be bottled, with appropriate cell counts and bacteria levels, as soon as the machine is hooked up to the cow. So, in addition to being a dairyman, Anglin must also be a diligent laboratory scientist. Legally, he must test each load of milk for antibiotic residue, even though he doesn’t use antibiotics in his herd. He monitors coliform levels, somatic cell counts, as well as other food safety measurements standard for a dairy and milk processing facility. During his dairy certification process, he was trained to test and sample milk. Twice a year, the state sends him several random milk samples to ensure that he can analyze milk properly. And all of his records for every load of milk are audited every two years.
“Cleanliness has got to be one of the biggest things you do in a raw milk dairy,” he says. “Everything’s gotta be perfect every time. There is no room for mistakes.” He compares it to prepping for surgery—he washes his hands repeatedly throughout the day, opens the doors to the processing room with his elbows, even shaves his arms to prevent dirt from catching in the hairs and getting into the milk. He points through the glass door to the processing room. “No boots in there,” he says, “It’s sacred.”
Since high school, Anglin has been in love with the temperament and timelessness of the Brown Swiss breed. “We could wind the clock back 80 years and it’s this cow,” he says, “These are the same cows my grandfather would have had. They still possess the original characteristics of the breed.”
Thought to be the oldest dairy breed, Brown Swiss originated in the mountains of Switzerland. In the 1800s, 25 Brown Swiss bulls and 140 heifers were brought from Switzerland to the United States, becoming the seedstock for nearly all of the purebred Brown Swiss in North America today. Rugged and adaptable, the breed can handle varying terrains and temperature extremes. They’re also heavy milk producers, with high annual yields and high protein and fat contents—perfect for cheese production, which Anglin says may be in Fond du Lac’s future.
As a child, Anglin spent time undergoing tests at the Mayo Clinic. “They thought I had Crohn’s disease,” he says. “I’m a dairyman who couldn’t consume dairy. I couldn’t drink milk, nothing.” But now he says he drinks half a gallon of Fond du Lac milk every day. He hears similar stories from customers. “I have those emails that say, ‘I haven’t had milk in 30 years and I’m drinking your milk.’ That’s cool to hear.”
In part, Anglin credits the raw milk. “The benefit of raw milk is gut health. Your gut is what determines how the rest of your body functions. When you drink raw milk, you’re adding beneficial bacteria to your gut,” says Anglin. But he also believes it’s due to his breed of dairy cattle and the beta-casein protein found in their milk.
With the overbreeding of popular European dairy breeds such as Holsteins and Jerseys, the very make-up of our milk has changed. Over time, the beta-casein protein mutated from its original A2 to A1, a distinction that is surprisingly miniscule: A1 beta-casein has evolved to have a different amino acid in position 67 in its chain of 209 amino acids. As beta-casein in milk has been studied, some scientists believe they’ve linked A1 beta-casein to inflammation in the digestive system and a wide range of health issues, including what is often termed “lactose intolerance.”
But the Brown Swiss breed produces milk with only A2 beta-casein (as do goats and humans), which many scientists and producers believe is easier to digest.
As a family, the Anglins and Kristin’s parents, Dale and Marilyn Tuck, have rallied together around the dairy, working on everything from caring for the cows, to keeping the books, to making deliveries. Anglin says it has been all-encompassing, a family endeavor, a labor of dedication and love. “It was 16 months before I took my first day off. I was about 40 pounds lighter than I am now. I was just walking skin and bones,” he says.
But there is balance on the horizon. Within the business, routines are being carved out, employees trained, and stress is letting up. Anglin says he has time to think about the future: kefir, butter, and cream sales, more time to write, the potential of buying extra acreage to farm his own feed, perhaps even a vacation. “I’m not trying to be the biggest guy in the world,” says Anglin. “I want to produce an excellent product, whatever I produce. We’re going to grow slowly, and we’re going to hone our craft. It’s not a typical business model.”
In the end, Anglin says he’s happy to be exactly where he is, working with his family by his side. “My giftedness is working with the cows. I know how to care for cattle and this is where I’m best suited right here,” he says. “What an opportunity to get up and go to work. I’ve gotten a lot of perspective, and I’ve been humbled here. I’m thankful every day that I’m doing what I love.” ✜
Find Fond du Lac milk in Tucson at Aqua Vita, New Life Health Centers, the Food Conspiracy Co-op, and Sprouts Farmers Market.
Debbie Weingarten is the cofounder of the Farm Education and Resource Network and a writing partner with the Female Farmer Project. She loves coffee, nectarines, and monsoon season.