Meet the Urbana business that has 1 family, 4 cows and new ideas on milk

12:00 p.m Sunday, Nov. 12, 2017 News
Joyce Nelson with one of her prized dairy cows at Dugan Road Creamery Friday. Bill Lackey/Staff

When Chris and Joyce Nelson opened the Dugan Road Creamery in April, their idea was to ease into a simpler life after spending decades running a small dairy farm.

Instead, they’re traveling to farmers markets, providing tours of their operation and processing 30 or more gallons of milk a day into their homemade cheeses, flavored milks and Greek yogurts. And that’s when Joyce isn’t on duty at her day job as a bus driver for the Urbana City School District. The Urbana couple can’t imagine any other kind of life.

The license plate on Joyce’s 2010 Chevy Equinox reads, “MMMMilk,” while Chris’ 1999 Checy pickup reads “IDairy.”

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“Every kid should be raised on a dairy farm,” Joyce said. “They develop a very strong work ethic.”

Chris Nelson grew up knowing the challenges of running a dairy. In Arizona, his father ran a dairy farm with about 800 cows. The Nelson family’s farm, which sold milk to a co-op, was much smaller with only about 40 cows. But the business had become increasingly difficult, leading them to look for other options.

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“The money just wasn’t there,” Chris said. “We didn’t have control over any of the pricing.”

Instead, they decided to sell make their own products and sell directly to their customers. The hardest part, Chris said, was downsizing their operation from about 40 cows to only four. Over a period of several months, the pair learned the details of running a creamery and installed bottling and pasteurizing equipment they purchased from a company in Maryland.

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In just the first few months they’ve been open, the business has seen steady growth. Their milk is now sold at local businesses like Char’s Market and Kitchen in St. Paris, Oakview Farm Meats in Urbana and even the Urbana municipal pool during the summer. They also regularly provide tours of the business for local children, including the small barn where they milk their four cows every morning. The tours allow children to pet the cows and have their picture taken with the animals.

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“We want people to see where their milk comes from and how these cows are treated,” she said.

The pair also regularly try to make products their customers might not expect. Their most popular dairy item is their half-gallon of chocolate milk, but they also sell flavors that include orange creamsicle and strawberry, among others.

“We wanted something for kids who normally don’t like to drink milk,” she said of the additional flavors.

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They also make soft, homemade cheeses like mozzarella, a six-pepper cheese and several spreadable varieties. Their children have stayed involved in the new business as well. Their daughter helps manage the online presence and makes labels while their son, a senior at Urbana High School, helps bottle the milk and take care of the cows.

One of the best parts of the new business, Joyce said, is it allows them to share their experiences on the dairy farm with other families in Champaign County.

“I believe every kid needs a cow and every cow needs a kid,” Joyce joked.