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By MaryBeth Matzek
MAA Editor

HUDSON, Mich. — Acquiring one of Michigan’s most controversial farms and transforming it into a model of green sustainability put Milk Source LLC on the state’s agricultural map in a big way.
But three years after picking up the defunct Vreba-Hoff farms — and investing more than $40 million into new technology and site upgrades — the owners of the newly minted Hudson Dairy say they will continue to seek innovations that will bolster both the economic and environmental prospects of the operation. 
“South Central Michigan boasts a very progressive dairy culture, so we knew we would fit in well here,” said Bill Harke, Milk Source’s director of public affairs.

The previous owners — Vreba-Hoff farms — garnered headlines between 1997 and 2010 for mismanaging farm wastes, polluting local surface waters and getting into a very public legal fight with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. Vreba-Hoff declared bankruptcy in 2010.
“We understood the challenge we were undertaking in purchasing these farms,” Harke said. “But we don’t dwell on the past either: Whatever failings the previous ownership brought to the forefront, they were shortcomings of a company, not an entire industry.”
That’s the message the two-time Leopold Conservation Award finalist farmers sent this fall during a three-hour, total-access tour of Hudson Dairy for the press, water-quality experts and agricultural organizations from Michigan and Ohio. 
“We believe steadfastly in the application of science, not rhetoric, in managing water quality on behalf of the Great Lakes and Michigan’s inland lakes,” said Todd Willer, Milk Source partner. “If we can help share some of the ways we accomplish measurable and meaningful goals, if we can help demystify agriculture for people who may never have set foot on a farm before, we’re happy to do it.”
Milk Source’s “Deeds Not Words” approach to community relations has taken numerous forms: A June Dairy Month promotion raised thousands of dollars for the local food pantry. An annual spring compost giveaway delivers tons of nutrient-rich soil to local gardeners. The introduction of Monarch Butterfly Safe Havens inspired others to protect area milkweed zones. And the decommissioning of four manure lagoons grabbed national headlines — seemingly for flouting the stereotype that large farms only create such pits.
“We did our homework after first meeting with Milk Source,” recalled former Hudson Mayor Dennis Smoke. “And we’re pleased they’ve lived up to their reputation. They have been ideal corporate citizens.”
Events like the tour and open house can create humorous moments as rural sources sometimes struggle with communicating to non-farming, urban writers. One reporter mistakenly assumed cows eat sand after hearing about the farm’s sand separation technology, while another misidentified clear treated water from a Livestock Water Recycling system as “liquid manure.”
Harke said a sense of context often is missing in conversations about Michigan’s large dairy farms. According to state government statistics, he cited, Michigan is home to about 412,000 dairy cows, fewer than half of which are milked on large farms. The state also boasts about 10 million acres of farmland.
This matters because the average dairy cow can fertilize a maximum of 1 ½ acres of farmland; meaning large farm cows provide nutrients to less than 5 percent of the land being farmed, or fewer than 300,000 of the state’s 10 million agricultural acres. “All those acres need — and receive — some form of fertilization,” Harke noted.
Milk Source spent millions renovating and retrofitting the Vreba-Hoff site to not only meet and exceed compliance standards but reflect the company’s forward thinking about sustainability, recycling its resources and protecting the surrounding environment.
“We immediately saw a great opportunity with this farm site,” Willer said. “It has been a lot of work over the past three years, and a huge challenge to make Hudson Dairy what it is today, but we are committed to our role in the industry and our role in the local community, and we are very proud to have become a member of one of the nation’s leading large-farm communities.”
 


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