PELZER — Sometimes you find the best stories by accident and Happy Cow Creamery is just one of those stories you don’t expect to find right in your own backyard.
With nothing more in mind than a fresh milkshake or ice cream, a stop in at the creamery turned into quite a lesson in history and the significance of one small dairy in upstate South Carolina on family owned dairies across the nation.
Tom “Farmer Tom” Trantham is almost the stereotypical farmer in appearance and personality, willing to share a yarn and passionate about what he does, but he is much more than that.
He is an expert in his profession and but for one unfortunate season might never have discovered some of the techniques that have been lauded by educational professionals and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He has also been recognized by the Extension Service as the state’s farmer of the year.
“I had begun to wonder if there were any farmers left or if I was the only one still standing,” Trantham said. “But, apparently there are at 46 left (one from each county as farmer of the year for that county). Winning for the county and then the state is like getting a gold medal for living your life.”
Trantham bought the dairy on McKelvey Road in Pelzer in 1978, moving from Haw Creek, just outside of Asheville to set up business. Until 1986, the business rolled along on its own, but that’s when two extremely serious droughts struck and his business was all but finished.
Trantham related how he couldn’t even get a loan for feed, seed or silage for his cows and knew he was going to go into bankruptcy, as 35 percent of the family owned operations would during the time period.
It would take a 17-year-old cow named Tarzan to change the flow of events and the history of Farmer Tom and his dairy.
Tarzan to the rescue
One afternoon while depressed about the impending bankruptcy just over the horizon, he admits to having given up, even going to watch TV in the middle of the day, with nothing but the “soaps” to watch.
According to Farmer Tom, that’s when Tarzan called a team meeting of sorts, to get to the root of the problem. As Farmer Tom tells it:
“Tarzan got them all together and asked Nosey, what month is it? Nosey didn’t know, but she knew April was the best months because that’s when all the grass begins to come in and is the sweetest. Tarzan then told them all how depressed Farmer Tom was, he couldn’t make ends meet, and didn’t know what to do, that they should help old Farmer Tom,” Trantham said, smiling at the recounting of that day.
“That’s when Tarzan decided to break down the fence, telling the others there was grass growing there and they could eat it. I came out, mad, and ran them all back in, but they got out again. When we did the next milking they produced 200 pounds more than they had been,” he recalled. “I let them wander and eat how they wanted again and production was up 500 pounds.”
This all occurred during one of the worst droughts in southern history. Trantham participated in the Haylift, a network of farmers and government organizations distributing hay to farmers across the country to keep more farms from failing.
He would eventually help ship $1.5 million in hay across the country without taking a penny in exchange. But it was the lesson Tarzan taught him that saved the business and the family farm.
What Trantham discovered was that free roaming, unconfined dairy cows produce higher volume and a milk that is healthier. By reducing the stress on the herd, the dairy saw the CLA’s (Conjugated Linoelic Acids) content soar, along with higher levels beta-carotene and natural Vitamin D.
Coupled with “old-timey” low temperature pasteurization, which protects more the natural enzymes in milk compared to UHT (Ultra High Temp) processes and no homogenization, which breaks the fat cells down causing health problems, Trantham had found the perfect solution not only to the farm’s financial woes, but to producing high quality dairy products that are healthier for everyone who uses them.
“When those cows broke down that fence, it was like the cavalry coming,” Trantham said. “There was no way we could produce more just because the cows had walked the field on their own. But after having said count me out while I was watching TV, I went to do the milking that evening even after I decided I couldn’t stand anymore, and it was almost a miracle. I had been a Christian since I was baptized at 13, but that was the day God entered my life.”
Happy cows = more milk
Since the fateful day Tarzan led the great escape from Trantham’s holding pens into the surrounding fields, everything he has learned has been either proven by experts or rewarded with accolades.
Not only has Trantham been recognized by the state’s Extension Service, he was awarded The Patrick Madden Award for Sustainable Farmer of the Year for the United States in 2002 and was the basis for a USDA grant received by Clemson University called the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) grant.
The University of Utah looked at some samples and declared the milk Trantham produced was many times better than the dairy the university had recognized as the best in the country, Organic Pastures of California, with twice as many CLA’s.
Time and again Trantham’s methods, though found accidentally, proved to be the best in the business. But for Trantham, it’s not about the money.
“What we produce makes people healthier and is better for you. The cream in the milk helps burn body fat for one, something people misunderstand when they buy skim or 2 percent milk,” Trantham said. “I hear from folks all the time what our buttermilk does for their acid reflux or digestion problems. And our whole milk is good for helping the body in so many ways. Milk and honey are the most perfect foods on Earth and give us so many benefits.”
Farmer Tom assures his cows will always be free to roam and graze unconfined — on alfalfa and sorghum, not grass, natural shade and water, no growth hormones or antibiotics allowed, ensuring the best that can be placed on shelves or coolers.
For his part, the dairy and its store will always provide three things that not only serve as a business practice but a way of life: Quality of product, fair price and good service.
When asked what the award for the state’s best farmer meant to him by the judges recently, Farmer Tom was very succinct.
“I said it was recognition for someone who had made a difference. I feel like I’ve been able to do that.”
Happy Cow Creamery will be celebrating its 13th anniversary from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Oct. 3. Activities including free horse rides, pumpkin painting, broom making, trolley rides around the farm, and pottery demonstrations will be part of the day.
Reach D.C. Moody and Kasie Strickland at 864-855-0355.