The Cowichan Milk Company is going back to the future.
Owned and operated by two generations of the vanBoven family on their dairy farm south of Duncan, the Cowichan Milk Company has found inspiration in the past in a bid to bring locally produced milk to Cowichan Valley consumers.
Not only is the milk created by local cows munching on local grass, it is also delivered throughout the Valley in old-fashioned glass bottles by the farmers themselves.
Ben vanBoven’s parents purchased the farm on Koksilah Road in 1960. He and his wife, Margie, took it over in 1993. In 2016, as a way to get their son, Matt, involved, they went to work on the idea of bottling milk right there on the farm and selling it to a thirsty local market.
“Dad thought about it for a long time that he wanted to sell milk in the local area,” explains Matt, 28.
From start to finish, planning, researching and building the facilities took the vanBovens about two and a half years, and the first Cowichan Milk Company bottles — proudly labelled as “LOCAL” — went on sale this past Labour Day.
“It took a long time to put this thing together,” Matt admits, somewhat wearily.
Constructing the barn and the expected bureaucratic red tape in establishing a food-based business were challenges, but the vanBovens also had to track down equipment small enough for their operation, travelling as far as Missouri and southern California to find what they needed. Most dairies today are much larger than the Cowichan Milk Company, and therefore so is modern equipment, so they had to find vintage gear.
“A lot of our equipment is from the 1950s, and we’ve refurbished it to make it work,” Margie says.
The vanBovens’ 50-cow farm is one of the smallest dairy operations in B.C., and it wasn’t going to be enough to provide jobs for two generations. Since high school, Matt had worked away from home in the winter, coming home to help during crop season. A value-added family business proved to be the solution to that dilemma.
“Now that we have the next generation, we wanted to do something to keep Matt on the farm full-time,” Margie noted.
The vanBovens used to sell all their milk to Island Farms via the BC Milk Marketing Board — as all dairy farmers in the Valley have to do — and while the milk truck still comes for a portion of it, the family is now able to bottle and sell a good amount under their own label.
Here’s how it gets from the barn to the doorstep:
The cows are milked in their roomy barn by a robot, which has 24-hour access so they can be milked whenever they want. The rest of the time, they can eat, sleep and roam around as they like.
From there, it goes into a tank, where it is cooled, and then pumped from the barn to the bottling plant. The cream is separated to the desired percentage — the Cowichan Milk Company makes four styles: two per cent, 3.8 per cent homogenized, 3.8 per cent cream-top, and 10 per cent half-and-half — and then pasteurized. The milk is pasteurized using an old method known as “low and slow,” which uses lower temperatures and a longer heating time, which retains more of the natural enzymes in the milk.
After that, it gets bottled into fresh, clean bottles that are washed onsite that day. About 1,300 bottles are filled each bottling day. The milk comes in three sizes: half-gallon (1.89L), quart (946mL), pint (473mL). All the bottles are made in Ontario by the only glass milk bottle producer in North America, which also supplies the U.S. market. More than just a blast from the past, the bottles are believed to keep the milk colder than plastic jugs can, and a lot of customers prefer the taste as well.
After they are filled, the bottles go into the walk-in cooler, then to the delivery truck or to the farm stand.
All in all, it’s a pretty quick process.
“The milk is fresh,” Margie says. “Especially for home delivery, we bottle it and the next day we deliver it. They basically get it within 48 hours of the cows.”
The farm stand is open six days a week, and home delivery is available everywhere from Mill Bay to Chemainus. The company has about 100 home-delivery customers right now, a number that is increasing every week. Along with milk, the vanBovens deliver other local food products, including eggs from Farmer Ben’s and Lockwood Farms, Drumroaster Coffee, Tree Island yogurt, Haltwhistle cheese, and soup from Ed’s Soup Shack.
Several local businesses have jumped on board as well, including Maple Lane Café in Chemainus, where the milk has become a huge hit. The café uses the company’s milk exclusively in their soups and coffee drinks.
“I love the fact that they’re doing it the old-fashioned way, with milkman delivery,” says café owner Julie Stevens. “I love the glass bottles. The milk itself is a step above. We’ve had a great experience with them. They’re a great company to deal with. It has all been a positive experience with them.”
Because they are both small, family-run businesses, Stevens says the Cowichan Milk Company was a “perfect fit” for Maple Lane Café. The local connection was a big plus as well.
“It’s a necessity to use local as much as possible,” Stevens says. “At Maple Lane, we use as much local as we call, and we pride ourselves on it.”
The milk itself is creamier than what you can find on the grocery store shelf, Stevens adds, and based on blind taste tests, hot chocolate made with Cowichan Milk Company milk wins hands down.
The Cowichan Milk Company has to follow the same regulations for quality control as all Canadian dairy farms and dairies, which Matt says are the highest standards in the world. For the vanBovens, that means regular inspections at both the farm and production levels.
“People should be really reassured that Canadian milk is high-quality,” says Matt reminding consumers to look for the blue cow logo that indicates a dairy product includes 100 per cent Canadian milk.
The demand is increasing, the vanBovens say, not just for Canadian milk, but also for locally produced food of all kinds.
“I think support for local food is just really growing out there,” Margie says. More and more people want to know where their food comes from.”
Most of the work on the farm is done by Ben, Margie and Matt, although they do have a handful of part-time employees and students who help out. Ben and Margie’s daughters are also involved, as Amy takes care of social media for the company, and Amanda works when they need her on bottling day.
There are no plans to expand the farm beyond a family operation.
“Our goal is to only sell milk from our farm,” Margie says. “We’re not going to become the next Island Farms.”
The Cowichan Milk Company is the only operation of its kind on Vancouver Island at this point, bottling and delivering milk on the farm and delivering it to the community. Little Qualicum Cheeseworks has a milk dispenser on site, providing only cream-top milk, and on a smaller scale. There are seven or eight other on-farm processors in B.C., say the vanBovens, and they think that number will grow, although there are challenges.
“It’s not for everyone,” Margie says. “You have to retail your product. All of a sudden, you’re dealing in a whole different area.”
The hard work is worth it for the family as they deliver their milk to porches throughout the Cowichan Valley.
“We definitely take the product from the cow to the door at this point,” Margie says. “We go from grass to glass, we like to say.”