Milking R Dairy moved forward Thursday with plans to process and bottle milk in Okeechobee County. At their May 14 meeting, the Okeechobee County commissioners voiced approval for a plan to allow Miking R to lease a building at the Okeechobee Industrial Park for a milk processing plant. Products will include farm fresh pasteurized milk, flavored milks and ice cream. The milk will be sold in returnable glass bottles.
Airport Manager Adam Hied said the goals for the industrial park next to the county airport include growing the businesses already in the county as well as attracting new businesses. He said Miking R has asked to lease the old Advanced Stone building, 2455 N.W. 16th Blvd., for 10 years with two 10-year renewal options.
Sutton Rucks said his family has been in the dairy business in Florida since 1923. The family dairy business moved to Okeechobee in 1955. “The dairy we have now was originally Dry Lake Dairy No. 2,” he explained.
While the COVID-19 crisis illustrated the need for a local processing plant, Milking R’s plan for local bottling has been in the works since 2017. Mr. Rucks said that year Miking R decided to promote agri-tourism. Previously, tours had been provided for groups of schoolchildren. “Now we have tours by appointment,” he said. The tours have proven popular as people want to see where their food comes from.
“We didn’t have anything to sell those folks, so we decided to venture into the ice cream business,” he continued. Their small-batch ice cream business quickly took off with ice cream fans raving about the delicious flavors. (Commission Chairman Terry Burroughs said the banana pudding flavor was a hit at his house; on scale of one to 10, his wife rated it an 11.)
Mr. Rucks said 1,138-acre dairy farm has 1,600 mature cows and produces 14,000 gallons of milk per day. He said they plan to continue tours of the farm and add tours of the milk processing facility, as well as the sales of milk and ice cream. “Our family wants to educate the public and let them understand where their foods come from,” he said. Eventually, they hope to process all of their milk locally, but to start some milk will still go to another processor.
He said the goal is to sell all of the milk in returnable glass bottles, but to start they might have to use some plastic bottles.
Okeechobee County is the largest dairy county in Florida, he continued, but currently all of the milk is trucked elsewhere for processing. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the disruption in the steps between supply and demand resulted in stores rationing how many gallons of milk each consumer could buy while at the same time dairy farmers had to dump milk on the ground.
Mr. Rucks said local processing will bring retail dollars to the county. The milk processing plant will employ 30-35 employees including sales, marketing, tours, processing and distribution. He said they have already purchased some of milk processing equipment and have applied for a USDA grant.
“It is extremely exciting because we all know the dairy business is under the gun,” said Commissioner Bryant Culpepper. “I certainly appreciate what you are doing.”
“It’s a family business,” said Mr. Rucks. ‘It’s going to be about value added to survive the ups and downs of farming.”
The commissioners asked Mr. Hied to give Mr. Rucks as favorable a lease as possible. The lease requires approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
“I want to offer some concessions on the lease because that building needs a lot of work,” said Commissioner David Hazellief. Mr. Hied said they can defer lease payments to offset the expense the dairy will incur to renovate the building.
About Milking R
Milking R Dairy is run by a fourth generation dairy farming family that has received the State Award for Sustainability. As farms continue to disappear, the need for consumers to understand how their food is produced is more urgent. This inspired the Rucks family to create tours of their dairy farm. As a complement to the agri-tourism they decided to develop a new line of premium dairy products for South Floridians produced in South Florida. They will do this by processing and bottling milk from their local dairy farm in the facility at the Okeechobee Airport Industrial Park. The goal is to eventually process all the milk from Milking R Dairy at this processing plant. The business plans includes ice cream, flavored milks and dairy products such as heavy cream and sour cream. These products will be sold directly to local restaurants, grocery stores and farmers markets. The milk will be sold in returnable bottles that they will collect from the locations to reuse again. In addition they have a food truck that they open during their agri-tours as well as events throughout the region.
Source: Lake Okeechobee News