Kappers’ Big Red Barn

6 08 2009

By Meredith Hart

Kappers' Whole Milk - by Meredith HartThere’s nothing like a tall, cold glass of milk. Be it 2%, skim, or chocolate, it’s hard to resist, even more so when it comes straight from the hands that bottled it that very day. At 4:30 a.m., while the rest of the people in the central time zone sleep, dreaming of their next two hours of rest, Bob and Jeanette Kappers of Kappers’ Big Red Barn in Chatfield, Minnesota, are watching the sunrise from their milk bottling room where they begin by scrubbing down the facilities. The two, who had their first date 30 years ago at the county fair, have been running their sustainable milk business almost five years, and though they work hard at it for up to 10 hours a day, their warmth and calm nature feels like they have invited you over merely for a relaxing day on the farm.

After finding out that the creamy skim milk in our delicious Pedal Pushers’ lattes was from Kappers’, less than 20 minutes away, we knew we had to check it out. When we pulled into their weeping willow-shaded driveway, just as expected, there was a big red barn- really big. It must have been the equivalent of four stories high.

The dull, red paint that had been applied by local Amish was rustic and peeling in some spots. The top part of the barn was originally used for racehorses, but now stores the 5,000 bales of hay they produce each year for their cows. The lower level is where the milking occurs. It looks just the way the inside of an old barn should. The floors are scattered with hay, the wood walls are chipped and unpainted, and muddy kittens roam from row to row. Attached is a newer building where the Kappers’ bottle the milk and, as hoped, they were in the midst of bottling 1% milk when we arrived.

Jeanette Bottling Milk - by Meredith HartNot being afraid to look our best, we proudly donned hairnets and were asked to step our shoes into a tray of cleaning liquid before we could enter the bottling room. No bigger than a typical studio apartment, the tiny room was sweltering with heat from the machines and hot water. Like a ballet, each crystal-clear glass bottle moved swiftly through the machine’s simple steps, balancing on the metal plates, circling around as milk poured in from moving spigots, and finally being lifted, capped and stored in blue crates. In truth, it was less the bottles performing this smooth choreography but Bob and Jeanette and their years of practice and perfection.

“Pedal Pusher’s has been a good thing for us,” said Jeanette, smiling, without missing a beat. “Angie [of Pedal Pushers] sends lots of people our way.” With a third of their milk going to homes and restaurants, it must be a great benefit to have such a nearby drop-off site. As for the rest of their production, one third goes to their on-site store, and the last third goes to grocery stores in Rochester, Winona, and Spring Valley.

When they finished bottling, they turned their attention to cleaning a huge silver vat behind them, allowing the left over milk to spill onto the floor and swirl into the drain. Unlike a waged job with an employer, the Kappers’ know exactly where every bit of their product comes from and where it goes; and this is what they appreciate most.

“Being close to our job is the best part of our work,” explained Jeanette. They control every part of the process from tending to their 35 pastured cows, to bottling the milk, and to delivering the fresh bottles to customers and friends.

They also participate in community activities in hopes of being a good example of responsible farming. Every year 60 Chatfield kindergarteners visit the farm to milk the cows and learn about the work that goes into churning out a bottle of every family’s refrigerator staple. Bob and Jeanette feel this has more impact than just being a fun field trip. They hope when the kids grow up they will tell people, “Farmers are good stewards of the land.”

With the ever further separation of people from their food, the Kappers’ are hoping to show today’s youth that farmers are a big part of everyone’s lives, working hard to produce the food that keeps people alive and healthy. The milk from the Big Red Barn brings consumers even closer to the farm because throughout the entire process, as Jeanette explained, “We never touch the milk from cow to you.”

With all the talk of the cows, we had yet to actually see one. Bob jogged behind the building to look for them on their several acres of grazing land.  Most of them stood at the top of the hill, far from where we were so Bob brought over Lady, a 9-month-old cow that had been waiting in one of their smaller barns. He tied her up to the fence and without a doubt she began to eat the grass in front of her with fervor, occasionally posing for a picture or two. She was colored a deep black with a white underside and a small white patch on her head. From the look on their faces it was clear to see that Bob and Jeanette have a real connection to their cows and treat them like family. Except, of course, when they are milking.

Lady the Cow - by Meredith HartAs we toured the barn and the rest of their facilities, we learned that the family does make time for activities other than farm work. That day, one son was going to practice the drums with the community band that would soon be performing at the county fair. For free movies at the theater in neighboring Harmony, they swap bottles of chocolate milk. It is easy to see why their chocolate milk would merit a free movie. Made with 1% milk, it is a heavenly combination of creaminess and chocolate, a step far beyond the powder that many kids grew up on.

Although the Kappers’ are constantly on the move keeping track of their farm and business, their relationships within the community have been the greatest motivation for continuing their hard work. With each sale, farm tour, and delivery they are able to make a deeper connection with their customers, demonstrating that local purchasing builds a strong, viable community. Pedal Pushers’ valiant shift to buy only local produce has been a great part of this effort.

“Pretty much everything is available locally,” said Jeanette. “You just have to look for it.”

To see more photos of Kappers’, please see the Flickr slideshow.

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