story by Beverly Moseley
Dust kicks up behind the vehicle as it slowly makes its way down the gravel road to Stryk Jersey Farm. The visitor parks as another backs his car out - two Texas strangers on the same mission.
They have both traveled to Stryk Jersey Farm outside Schulenburg to purchase the raw milk and cheeses, their family and friends enjoy directly from the farm.
"We always say our average customer is the person driving a minivan. It's people feeding their families. That's our main customer," says Bob Stryk, who with his wife Darlene, own and operate the farm, along with Strykly Texas Cheese.
The dairy has been a licensed Grade A facility since 1955. It now has a "Grade A milk permit for retail raw" dairy license, which allows them to sell directly off the farm to the consumer.
A silver lining
The Stryks were each raised on their family's dairy farms. Farming is a passion for them. But, with farming comes hardships. It's the struggles brought on by numerous droughts that proved to be their proverbial silver lining.
It was the drought of 1996 when they were forced to cull their 170 head milking herd down to 20 cows. They both had to take jobs in town to save their farm.
"At that point, we could have sold all the livestock, our land, and bought a house in town. But we felt we could sell the milk off the 20 cows and make the mortgage payment. In 1999, when our daughter Bryn arrived, we knew we had made the right decision to stay on the farm," says Bob.
The drought of 96 drove it home to the Stryks that to survive another one, they needed a niche market. That same year they created Strykly Texas Cheese, a retail custom cut, shaped, and waxed cheese business.
The dairy's conversion from a commercial milking operation to a raw-for-retail milk operation began in earnest during the drought of 2006. The Stryks had found a new niche market, one that would carry their now 60-head Jersey cow dairy successfully through the historic drought of 2011.
However, they weren't immune to the hard decisions that drought brought to farmers and ranchers. The dry, moisture starved pastures where they grazed their 35-head beef cattle herd were no longer producing enough forage. The Stryks had been providing the herd supplemental feed for months. In February, they decided they could no longer justify the costs and made the tough decision to sell the beef cattle herd. Ironically, a couple weeks later, the needed rains began to fall. They rolled the dice on Mother Nature and lost that roll.
Customers know their farmer, and their food
Visitors to the farm travel from as far away as Houston, Corpus Christi, Austin, and San Antonio. They are able to see first-hand the journey their food takes from pasture to pitcher to plate. They are encouraged to explore the farm and see the animals that produce the milk they are drinking and cheese products they eat.
"Knowing your farmer and knowing your food is huge in the raw milk industry, because your kids are drinking milk every day," Darlene says.
Visitors also witness first-hand the enthusiasm and passion the Stryks have for their livelihood, whether it's Bob showing customers how he makes his raw milk cheddar cheeses or Darlene's enthusiastic questions as she carries milk to a customer's car.
"Our customers share with us their appreciation of the nutritional value of the product and the fact they see directly where their milk is coming from. A lot of them want to see the farm first," says Darlene, adding, "They are like an extended family. We care about what the customer says about the product."
They both say they derive great satisfaction from the face-to-face relationships they have with their customers who purchase their milk and benefit from the hard work of their labors.
"It's nice that the customers appreciate us, because before when we were shipping our milk commercially, we had no connection whatsoever with the consumer,"; Darlene says. "It is a constant reinforcement in our decision to pursue our lifestyle on the farm."
The Stryks charge on average $7 a gallon and also sell half-gallons of milk. They have gone up on their prices once and that was only 50 cents.
"Our average customer is willing to pay. They aren't trying to buy the most expensive or most gourmet product. They want to know where their food came from and who produced it. This whole raw milk and farm to plate movement is growing. We feel like we are dealing with an informed group of people," Bob says. "Our customers are our quality control."
Customers can also buy some of Bob's national award winning raw milk cheeses which include mild and sharp cheddar, chipotle cheddar, and caraway cheddar. In 2011, he received silver and bronze medals for his raw milk cheese entries, black pepper cheddar and cheddar, respectively, from the 2011 North American Jersey Cheese Awards in Wisconsin.
Bob's raw milk cheeses have opened up a whole new niche market for the dairy. He studied and experimented with different processes to create the award winning specialized cheeses. His raw milk cheeses can be found at farmer's markets in Austin, along with being available at the farm.
Caring for cows
The farm's dairy cows are a precious commodity. They value each animal and work to ensure they receive the needed nutrition, water, and shelter.
It was during the heat of a summer that Bob decided the cows were walking too far to available water sources. This added effort on the cow's part also can result in a drop in milk production, he says.
He sought out advice from the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) about options on how he could design his water sources to reduce the distance a cow traveled to water.
The NRCS field office staff in La Grange provided him with technical assistance on the design and installation of the water lines which are now located around the perimeter of the grazing pastures. They also worked with him on a conservation plan for the farm.
"We were able to bring the water source to the cow, instead of the cow coming to the water. You're always trying to make the heat of the summer more comfortable for the cow," says Bob, who utilized the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) program through NRCS to help with some of the costs to install the water lines.
Over the years, Bob says he's also utilized NRCS technical assistance to help him design terraces on tilled land.
"The thing about NRCS is we use them more as a tool than for financial assistance," he says.
Stewards of the land
The Stryks are dedicated stewards of the Fayette County land that not only supports their livelihood, but has been a part of the Stryk family for almost 60 years. They are serious about conservation and their efforts have been recognized with awards and honors.
They are past recipients of the Conservation Farmer Award given by the Fayette Soil & Water Conservation District (SWCD) #341, for promotion of soil and water conservation. They were also honored with an Award of Merit for outstanding accomplishments in resource conservation by the Goodyear/SWCD Fayette #341.
It's the Stryks' commitment to customers and to providing a safe and wholesome product that keeps the visitors traveling to the farm.
"We are going to grow as long as we can continue to serve our customer. We still know our customer. That's the whole satisfaction of this business. It works both ways - they know where their food comes from and we know our customer," Bob says.
The Stryks generous natures and willingness to share their dairy and lifestyle with others continues to draw people to the farm and keeps the traffic steady on the gravel road that leads to the dairy barn.
"We have an open door policy. We leave the light on for them," Darlene says with a laugh. "We just ask them to turn the light off and make sure the cooler door is closed."
For more information on Stryk Jersey Farm visit www.texascheese.com. For more information about NRCS, its partners and activities visit www.tx.nrcs.usda.gov or follow NRCS at http://twitter.com/NRCSTexas.
Bob Stryk, who with his wife Darlene, own and operate Stryk Jersey Farm, along with Strykly Texas Cheese, shows some of the award winning raw milk cheeses in one of the farm's walk-in coolers.
Darlene Stryk visits with Alliene Wood Lockett of Austin, who travels to the farm to purchase raw milk for her three children.
Milk flows into a stainless steel tank as it is being milked directly from the cow's udder in an adjacent milking pallor. At the bottom of the tank is a valve which allows the Stryks to fill jugs with fresh milk straight from the tank.
Bob Stryk mills curds after the process of "cheddaring" cheese slabs. These curds will be salted and put in a 40-pound mold which is then placed into a cheese press for 16 hours at 50 pounds of pressure. The end product is a 40-pound block of cheese, which will be cut into 8-ounce packages of cheddar cheese.
Since 1955, Stryk Jersey Farm outside Schulenburg in Fayette County, has been owned and operated by family members. Jersey cows rest and chew their cud in pastures green from recent rains.
Jerseys walk past a water source as they head to the barn for their afternoon milking. The NRCS field office staff in La Grange provided the Stryks with technical assistance on the design and installation of the water lines which are now located around the perimeter of the grazing pastures.