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This Greene County dairy almost closed. But community rallied to support it

Three golden cows with green ear tags stick their heads between red metal fence rails as a hand reaches out to touch one of the animal's noses.
Renee Wilde
Jersey cows like these at Swallow Hill Dairy in Greene County have the A2A2 gene, which makes the milk more compatible to human digestion.

Thirty five years ago a young high school student and a Jersey heifer named Shalom started out on a journey, one that would eventually lead to the creation of an independent, family-run dairy near Bowersville in Greene County.

Todd Fleihman reflected fondly back on that first dairy cow.

“I liked that name, cause it was in the bible — peace. Jersey’s always seemed peaceful,” he said

It's definitely peaceful at Swallow Hill Jersey Dairy, where the only sound on a snowy day is the occasional moo from one of the young dairy cows in a nearby shed.

Fliehman doesn’t advertise his roadside milk stand, but a steady stream of customers make their way down the country road to find this hidden gem.

A small red, wooden shed with a grey metal door, window and neon open sign stands in a field of snow-covered grass near a country road.
Renee Wilde
The Swallow Hill Jersey Dairy self-serve milk shed is open 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.

In 2018 Swallow Hill was almost one of the 59 dairies in Ohio that went out of business, due to the low cost of milk versus the high cost of operating expenses. Something that dairies continue to struggle with today.

But the community rallied around the dairy.

“Of course word got out that I was quitting it, and the milk shed took off,” Fliehman said. “I never realized how much a part of the community this dairy was until then.”

Taylor Byer’s been coming to the self-serve milk shed for nine months. She used to drink almond milk for a while.

“And then I tried this. It’s just so pure and it tastes different from any milk you can buy in a store, and I just absolutely love that,” Byer said, as she picked out milk from the self-serve cooler. “And just supporting a local, small farm is just fantastic. That’s what I always try to go toward.”

Byer writes down her milk purchases on a notepad in the self-serve store — a gallon of white milk and a small pint of chocolate milk.

“I always get this little chug for myself for on the way home,” she said, smiling.

In the milking parlor, 42 Jersey cows with ear tags bearing names like Lemonade, Snickers and Harvest patiently waited for their turn during the evening milking.

In the foreground, two large glass jugs connected to tubing are filling up with milk. In the background a man wears a blue coat, black hat, black pants and black boots and stands on a concrete floor surrounded by more of the glass jugs filling up with milk. Another man dressed all in black can be seen on the right as he stands next to the side of a golden cow.
Renee Wilde
Todd Fliehman's herd of 42 heifers produce 200 gallons of milk a day at the Swallow Hill Jersey Dairy in Greene County.

Todd Fliehman is joined by his dad, Larry Fliehman, and a student from Wilmington College.

The trio worked in tandem, opening the hydraulic gates that enclose the individual heifers and lock them into position. Then they cleaned and sanitized the teats before they hooked up the automated milker — which looks like a metal octopus — and pumped the milk into large glass containers.

Todd Fliehman has tried out a couple other breeds, but he loves the Jersey cows.

“They have higher butter fat and higher protein. Smaller, so they eat less, take up less space,” he said as he moved from cow to cow.

From down the aisle his dad Larry Fliehman shouted over the rhythmic pumping sounds, “Tell her about the A2A2 gene.”

The A2A2 gene is a naturally occurring beta casein found in the milk of most heritage breeds. It’s also what human breast milk is made of, and therefore easily compatible with human digestion.

A1 is a mutation of that gene that became widely spread among dairy breeds. It’s been linked to a number of issues from lactose intolerance to diabetes.

Most commercially sold milk is a combination of the A1-A2 genes.

Todd Fliehman doesn’t label his milk A2A2, but said he’s been breeding his Jersey heifers for it for the past 15 years by using A2A2 bulls and “making sure I kept that A2A2” gene.

One of the other reasons that Todd Fliehman’s milk tastes different is the way he processes it.

“We low-heat, slow time pasteurize so it don’t kill everything off in it, and then we don’t homogenize it, which lets the cream come to the top,” he said.

Todd Fliehman explained that homogenization breaks the fat down so it doesn’t separate.

“Well the body can’t digest that fat once it’s been broken down," he said. "So that affects people being able to digest the milk also.”

Add in the fact that his cows are hormone free, and fed a non-GMO diet, and it’s easy to see why the little roadside milk shed is such a hit in this rural community, drawing people from up to an hour away.

“People never really got to taste what milk really tasted like,” he said about his milk's popularity.

A man wearing a grey jacket over an orange hoodie sweatshirt and a beige hat stands in front of golden dairy cow hooked up to a milking machine.
Renee Wilde
Todd Fliehman celebrated his 35th year as a dairy farmer on January 31st.

Tim Crossman stopped in the Milk Shed to pick up three gallons of milk.

“The flavor is wonderful. I almost feel like I’m drinking raw milk,” he said.

Todd Fliehman said the weekends are popular, and he or his dad will restock the roadside milk shed two or three times during the day. The 42 heifers produce 200 gallons of milk a day, some of which he turns into chocolate milk, and other seasonal flavors like orange in the summer and eggnog for the holidays.

He also makes small batches of Greek yogurt, which doesn’t last long on the shelves. Todd Fliehman explains that as a small operation, he doesn’t always have time to make yogurt because it’s a three day process, but he tries to stock some when he has time.

Shauna Cunningham stopped by the shed after work to pick up three gallons of milk — chocolate for each of her daughters and white for herself.

“It’s very nice to support the local farmers. I grew up on a farm here, so of course I want to keep my money in my town,” Cunningham said while she loaded her purchases into her car.

Renee Wilde was part of the 2013 Community Voices class, allowing her to combine a passion for storytelling and love of public radio. She started out as a volunteer at the radio station, creating the weekly WYSO Community Calendar and co-producing Women’s Voices from the Dayton Correctional Institution - winner of the 2017 PRINDI award for best long-form documentary. She also had the top two highest ranked stories on the WYSO website in one year with Why So Curious features. Renee produced WYSO’s series County Lines which takes listeners down back roads and into small towns throughout southwestern Ohio, and created Agraria’s Grounded Hope podcast exploring the past, present and future of agriculture in Ohio through a regenerative lens. Her stories have been featured on NPR, Harvest Public Media and Indiana Public Radio.