~ The delicious story of Ohio dairy, from farm to table … with a rock star tour bus and a real-life superhero thrown in for good measure! This adventure’s about so much more than just how milk makes its way to our cheese plates and ice cream bowls. ~
Ever been somewhere that you’ve been hundreds of times before … and suddenly you see it through fresh eyes, in all new ways? It’s invigorating, isn’t it? You see possibilities … understand connections that’ve been there all along, but maybe you just never noticed.
I’m a lifelong Ohio girl.
I grew up here, with the voice of Herb Score calling a Tribe game interwoven as the background sound of practically every summer evening. I watched the Cardiac Kids’ spellbinding ride, and I knew every word to “The Browns’ 12 Days of Christmas.” I was here when the Browns left, and LeBron, too. And I was here when they both came back. I remember gleeful, sunburned summer days at Geauga Lake and Sea World, and I joined an entire region in watching sadly as they both left us, too, never to return again.
And, I stayed here to raise my kids. We know the zoos like the backs of our hands. Together, we’ve skied the local slopes and hiked literally hundreds of miles of gorgeous, forested park trails. We’ve picked berries at local farms, giggled through hayrides and corn mazes, and hungrily prowled summer farm markets. We know the museums, the concert halls, the restaurants.
Still, when the American Dairy Association Mideast invited me along for their three-day Ohio Extraordin-dairy Adventure … I wanted in.
Sure, some bloggers were flying from across the country to attend, to check out a city they’d probably never explored before. All I had to do was hop in my Jeep and drive about half an hour to a city I used to commute to every single day of my professional life.
Would I learn anything … would a lifelong Ohio girl have anything to gain? My money was on “yes.”
And I wasn’t disappointed!
A Story Worth Telling
The trip basically managed to combine a whole bunch of the things I’m most passionate about, most interested in understanding … all jam-crammed into a three-day whirlwind. There was food … lots ands lots of great food. You know I loved that!
But there was also a storyline I loved … the story of local farms, Ohio businesses, and their passion for creating excellence – not just in their own businesses and products, but in their communities, as well. The story of a very Ohio product – milk – and how it travels from farm to table, how it helps inspire kids to eat more healthfully, and how it ultimately makes its way to restaurants and markets in everything from gourmet ice cream to boutique cheeses.
That’s all a story worth telling, and as a local girl, I’m thrilled for the opportunity to tell it.
Oh! And spoiler alert: there was a behind-the-scenes-trip to the hallowed halls of Cleveland sports, complete with a bigger-than-life hero of literally iconic stature here in NEOhio. You bet that was a story I wanted to write myself into!
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start this story at the beginning.
Rockin’ the Dairy Scene
ADA Mideast assembled 12 bloggers from all over the U.S., to tour Northeast Ohio in a “rock star” tour bus decked out with cushy sofas, a kitchenette, and more outlets and wifi connections than we could find electronics to utilize.
And if we had a “rock star” tour bus, we for sure couldn’t stay at any-old typical hotel. So how about a historic Cleveland landmark? I mean, why not?
ADA Mideast booked us into the Hyatt Regency in the Old Arcade, a structure which dates back to 1890, when it was constructed as a mercantile center and was known as Cleveland’s “Crystal Palace.”
Many eons ago, when I worked in downtown Cleveland, I’d sometimes traipse the several blocks from my office to the Old Arcade (in my take-me-seriously business suit and high heels), treating myself to lunch at a little Italian restaurant that used to be housed there.
I was charmed to see how beautifully the building’s still maintained, with shops and offices on the ground floor, and hotel rooms ringing the upper levels, all opening out to lovely views of the interior atrium.
With the Old Arcade as home base, we climbed aboard that rock star bus to fan out across Northeast Ohio and see firsthand the journey of milk, from farm to table.
Our first stop? Why … the first chapter in milk’s story, of course! A dairy farm. And seriously – I can’t imagine a better farm to showcase where it all begins.
Clardale Farms is tucked in the lovely North Canton community of Canal Fulton. We visited on a misty morning, the clouds hung low over the fields.
Our host was Frank Burkett, a fifth-generation dairy farmer, along with his grandfather, Dale.
Articulate and charismatic, Frank’s the perfect spokesperson. He explained Clardale’s vision for how a farm can be managed as a thriving business, while also making careful decisions to position itself as a steward of the environment, and a partner in the life of the local community.
We learned about farming strategies, how milk is graded, and how strictly it’s safety-regulated and inspected. We watched cows amble through their morning routine in the milking parlor, and saw a darling baby calf cuddled next to its mama – just an hour old and not even standing yet!
We spent a ridiculous amount of time posing with the cows, and even more time oohing and aahing over the adorable babies in the calf barn.
So, Hey … Did You Know …
Fun Facts that totally intrigued me:
- 97% of all dairy farms nationwide are family-owned, like Frank’s. Ohio is home to about 2,400 dairy farms, averaging only about 100 cows per farm.
- Each dairy cow generally produces about 10-11 gallons of milk per day.
- The gold standard for cow bedding is sand. No, really! It perfectly conforms to the cows’ bodies, supporting them and allowing them to create a bed that’s shaped exactly how each cow wants it. And it’s recyclable! Clardale farms is able to reclaim the sand, completely cleanse it, and then reuse it, again and again! Although the babies do typically lounge in fluffy piles of straw, the adult cows hang out on sand … kind of like they’re on a perpetual girlfriends’ beach vacay, actually! Niiiiiice!
- Before it evens begins its journey through the processing plant, milk is tested for safety and contaminants in the farm tank, again once it’s in the tanker truck, and yet again when that truck arrives at the processing facility – all before ever being accepted for processing.
- Milk travels from the farm to the store in about 48 hours.
- Most milk moves no more than about 300 miles from its source, so even if you don’t realize it, when you purchase milk, you’re almost always “buying local.
There’s a great series of videos featuring Frank Burkett and food blogger Aimee Shugarman, delving into a full gamut of dairy farm topics, from bedding, feed, and poop processing (I’m so not kidding!), to simply being a good neighbor. Check them out HERE.
Or, if you happen to be in Ohio, schedule your own tour of Frank’s farm!
They’re very welcoming and even offer community days every year when they throw open their doors to invite neighbors and friends to tour the farm. I’d love to take my own kiddos on a tour next summer once school’s out!
How Milk Becomes Something More (Hint … Pizza Ahead!)
Having glimpsed behind-the-scenes how milk begins its journey to our tables, the next logical step was to visit a processing facility where all that milk is turned into other products.
One delicious option? Cheese!
We donned hair nets (a terrific look, let me tell ya) and lab coats, and toured the Miceli’s manufacturing plant in Cleveland, where they make all sorts of cheeses, from ricotta to mascarpone to fresh mozzarella.
You know the ooey-gooey, warm and cheesy smell that fills your house when you’re baking lasagna? THAT. That wrapped around us like a delicious hug, until we almost stopped caring that we were wearing hair nets. And until we could hardly focus on anything but how lunch really needed to happen soon. *Must … have … cheese … *
Miceli’s has been family-owned and operated right here in Cleveland since 1949, and today their products are distributed all across the nation. I buy their brand all the time myself, so it was really fascinating to peek into how those cheeses end up in my store’s dairy case. (Although I kinda just kept thinking *Must … have … cheese … *)
Sadly for you (lucky for us), we weren’t allowed to take photos in the processing plant itself – no photo evidence of me in that hair net!
But you can bet we took loads of photos of the lunch they laid out for us in their gorgeous new visitor’s center! (Yes … we finally had cheese!)
The kind folks at Miceli’s generously welcomed us to create our own pizzas, with an unbelievable spread of toppings (which of course included cheeses!). Once we’d each finished our edible masterpiece, they loaded our pizzas into their authentic Italian pizza oven … and the results were divine! Crunchy-chewy crust with fresh veggies and melty cheese. I’m getting hungry all over again, just remembering it!
Beyond Pizza Toppings … Pairing Wine and Cheese
So I’m good at eating cheese. Very, very good, in fact.
But I’m always a little mystified about how to properly pair it with wines for a tasting party. Always sounds so fun, but I don’t really know where to begin.
Problem solved! One evening we had the most spectacular cheese tasting class, hosted by Sheila Campbell. Sheila’s a Ph.D.-wielding registered dietician who runs food tours and plans foodie classes through A La Carte Food Tours in Columbus. (Yes … I think I wanna be her when I grow up!)
We stepped into the “tasting room” to see an enormous table positioned as the central focal point, decked out with a tantalizing array of local Ohio cheeses, paired with various wines and even locally brewed beers.
We nibbled and sipped and debated. And often, interestingly, we disagreed.
That was one of the biggest takeaways: basically, “you do you.” If it tastes good to you, go with it! Don’t be afraid to assemble a wine and cheese tasting; don’t be overwhelmed or afraid to break conventional rules. Even if everyone doesn’t agree with you that a pairing is perfect, the debate is fascinating and fun – and no one can really question what someone else finds delicious!
A couple of fun facts:
- Ohio is 1st in the nation in Swiss Cheese production, and 10th in total cheese production.
- It’s also 8th in ice cream production.
Wait … did we just jump from cheese to ice cream? Oh yeah, we did … dessert’s up next!
Ice cream! Yes!!
Cheese isn’t the only magical thing that can happen to milk. I mean, besides unicorns, what’s more magical than ice cream?
So of course, the ADA team made sure that ice cream happened, too!
And of course, it was ice cream with a local focus – a perfect part of the storyline, for sure.
We visited Mitchell’s Ice Cream, an intentionally very non-national ice cream store that focuses only on marketing and growing right here in Northeast Ohio.
Talk about stewards of the environment with a commitment to the local community!
As we toured the open and airy facility, the Mitchell’s staff regaled us with intricate details of how they harvest rainwater and melting snow from their rooftop, how all of their dairy products come from farms within 1 hour of their stores, and how they strive to implement a no-waste policy.
Mitchell’s typically makes over 1,000 gallons of ice cream a day, all in small batches.
Yet, in a refreshingly honest and laser-focused business model, they specifically, calculatedly, don’t ship their products, and they won’t open stores outside the region. Northeast Ohio born and bred, they’re committed to working with local farmers and serving up the very best ice cream to the local community.
We’re talking local milk that ends up in truly local ice cream. Farm to table? Supporting local economies? Mitchell’s is a quintessential showcase of those principles in action.
And the only way to try some is to make your own little pilgrimage to pay them a visit. #WorthIt!
Feeding the Geek in Me
In amongst all this touring and tasting ( … and MORE tasting!), I also had plenty of chances to totally geek out on the nutritional aspects of dairy – to feed my mind, as well as my belly. Besides plenty of little science-y tidbits all along the way, we also had an entire workshop just on nutrition.
Oh yeah – you know I was a happy geek-girl!
Karen Bakies, a registered dietician, got us thinking and talking and questioning: just how does milk fit into the bigger nutritional framework? It was fascinating, making me feel just a little (and not for the first time) like maybe I missed my calling to get a degree in nutrition. (*SIGH* That’s ok … I’ll just cheer for nutrition here from the sidelines.)
- When cooking with lactose-free milk, you may need to adjust for the milk’s slightly sweeter flavor if you’re making a savory recipe. Although lactose-free milks don’t contain any additional sugar compared to “regular” milk, they’re perceived as having a sweeter flavor.
- Milk is inherently non-GMO. Even if the cows ate feed that contained genetically engineered corn or soybeans, once that feed is digested, genetically engineered DNA has never been detected in the cows’ milk.
- 63% of Ohio high school kids don’t eat breakfast.
Wait … whaaaa?!?!
As a mom of two high-schoolers, that last fact hit home. I know how ravenously hungry they get without a constant food supply. (Parenting tip: just poke food near them and keep your hands at a safe distance.) Hungry kiddos can’t really concentrate and they can definitely get seriously, dangerously hangry. Scary hangry. So how do 63% of our teens skip breakfast and hope to succeed each day? The mom in me worries …
But you see, milk has a bit of a philanthropic side, too. (Psssst … and remember how I mentioned something about an iconic hero? The hallowed halls of sports??!? Don’t worry – I haven’t forgotten to tell you that part of the story! It’s up next …)
Milk Makes a Difference
Loaded with good things like calcium and protein, milk is an easy and obvious nutritional win for hungry kids. So it makes total sense that the American Dairy Association plays a key role in the national Fuel Up to Play 60 campaign that strives to educate kids about the importance of good nutrition and regular exercise. (Good nutrition and exercise?!?! My ears perked right up!)
The campaign takes many forms in schools and communities across the country – from funding athletic programs and fitness challenges, to helping school children choose healthier options for their school lunch trays, to creating initiatives that focus on providing nutritious school breakfasts for kids who might otherwise go hungry or simply make the unwise decision to skip breakfast (ahem … that’s you, 63% of teens).
These are issues, you know, that are near and dear to my own heart.
We witnessed the impact these programs can have firsthand, when we toured Artemus Ward Elementary School in Cleveland.
That particular school district is serving 6,000 more breakfasts this year, largely because Fuel Up to Play 60 has enabled them to attractively display a broader range of appealing food options that kids actually want to eat. The district is also able to provide more fresh veggies in their lunchtime meal choices.
We ate breakfast with some of the school’s Fuel Up to Play 60 student ambassadors, in a cafeteria full of wide-eyed kiddos who were happily munching apples and slurping milk from tiny cartons, before heading off to start their school day, fueled by a breakfast they might otherwise not have had.
Kids learning that food matters … that fitness matters … that their choices matter. That’s truly impactful. Seriously good stuff.
Oh! And speaking of good stuff!!!
The Hero-Filled Part of the Story You’ve Been Waiting for …
Voted to 10 consecutive Pro Bowls, he’s without question one of the top offensive linemen in the NFL. Ever. He also received the 2010 Walter Payton Man of the Year Award for off-the-field contributions to the community. I don’t think anyone has any doubt: he’s Hall of Fame material all the way.
That’s like good stuff x 100. Maybe 1,000.
Joe is the Cleveland Browns’ Fuel Up to Play 60 spokesman, so we got to MEET him! To have dinner with him … on the FIELD … at FirstEnergy Stadium! (Yes … from here on, I may be typing almost exclusively in caps with exclamation points. Buckle up.)
We walked through the tunnel and onto the field to see our names scrolling on the scoreboard. WOW!
We stepped on the grass. The hallowed grass!!! What else can I say? Just WOW!
And we threw our arms around Joe as he patiently signed autographed footballs and posed for photo after photo.
He was as funny, as personable, as humble and genuine and charismatic as you always hope your heroes will be. His two beautiful little daughters were with him, and we watched him play the sweet role of daddy, while scrolling his phone to share pics of his vacation home (just like any ordinary person would!) and enthusiastically joining in every topic that whirled ’round the table. He was so real! At moments, you could almost forget that he was THE Joe Thomas … but oh wait … only for a moment!
And ya know what?!?! As the native NEOhioan at the party, I got to sit next to him! RIGHT NEXT TO HIM! For the WHOLE dinner! * Pinch Me! *
I know that the evening was truly about celebrating Fuel Up to Play 60 … and I absolutely enjoyed meeting two very special kiddos – Fuel Up to Play student ambassadors Avery Diedrick and Charlie Roberts.
But if I’m being tooooootally honest, I kinda just kept thinking: Joe Thomas! OMG Joe Thomas! (And yes, that was before he tore his triceps, and before Cleveland collectively wept over yet another sports blow that didn’t quite seem fair.) For that night it was just … I can’t believe it … those are my toes on the turf … and that’s JOE THOMAS!
Even writing this now, it’s hard to refocus on anything but … you know … JOE THOMAS!
But let’s regroup …
Milk’s journey. Northeast Ohio. A glimpse behind the scenes at the local farms and companies that are the backbone of an industry. That’s what this was all about. (Ok … and maybe kinda about JOE THOMAS!)
I genuinely came away from the experience with a new appreciation, and a renewed sense of respect, for the dedication of the men and women right here in my own community who work tirelessly to do what they do, and to always do it a little bit better than the day or the year before. To care for cows humanely, to deliver foods that offer both quality and nutrition, and to make their community a better place to live.
How the Story Ends
We wound up our trip at probably the pinnacle location to embrace all of those values: West Side Market.
A true Cleveland tradition.
Humor me a little NEOhio brag moment: In 2008, West Side Market was named one of “10 Great Public Places in America.” Pretty special.
Housed in a breathtaking historic building, the market is home to more than 100 vendors, some of which have been in operation for generations. Local products and proud culinary artisans.
Fish and meats, fresh-baked breads, pastries and cookies, and of course … cheese!
There’s even an entire second building dedicated specifically to vendors showcasing fruits and vegetables, flowers, syrups and honey! Vibrantly fresh and so beautiful. I wandered aimlessly, snapping photos and trying not to drool on my camera, narrowing down the options to choose just a few things to take home with me to share.
Sure, I’ve been to the West Side Market plenty of times – it’s a favorite little summer jaunt for the kids and me – but this time I saw it a bit differently, with a new appreciation, as I understood so much more clearly the path that products traveled to be sold there, and the passion and conviction of so many people along the way.
I felt proud of Northeast Ohio, and happy to call it home.
I couldn’t wait to host a cheese tasting of my own, and to show my kids all my pictures of fuzzy baby cows.
And, oh yeah – to give my son the football signed by JOE THOMAS!