Shetler Family Dairy
5436 Tyler Rd. SE
Farmers: Sally, George, Caleb, and Peter, plus seven other part-time employees.
Nickname: Sally is often know as Grandma Cow.
Production: Approximately 200 gallons of milk per day and 110 gallons of ice cream a week.
Herd: 42 cows. Crossbreeds of Brown Swiss, Holsteins and Guernsey; and one Jersey.
Favorite Equipment: Tractors and our Amish buggy.
Farm Animals: Louie, our English Shepherd; Darth, our Labrador Retriever; and one barn cat. Cows: Flora, Matilda, Speck, and Novice. (We pass on the names to the offspring!)
Products: Whole, skim, and 2 percent milk; half and half; cream. Strawberry, chocolate, Moo-cacino, and orange flavored milk. Buttermilk, plain yogurt, and strawberry, blueberry, raspberry, and peach fruit smoothies. Eggnog, 20 flavors of ice cream, regular iced tea, and sweet tea. (We use Food for Thought fruit and cane sugar in our products.) Meat: ground beef, steaks, roasts, sides, pastured pork, and chickens.
Growing Practices: Pastured, grass-fed. In the winter, we feed our cows hay and open-pollinated corn silage that we grow ourselves. We use no pesticides and no GMOs.
Favorite Recipe: Homemade hot fudge sauce and also sloppy joes, buttermilk pancakes, and caramels.
Why do you love farming? George: It's my calling. It's a lifestyle. You can't explain it. I wouldn't be happy doing anything else. Sally: For 15 years, I couldn't stand cows! But I decided, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em, so I put up cow wallpaper and started milking, and I came around!
What's challenging about farming? We now know what the seven middlemen were doing before! We thought how hard can this be...we found out! If we knew, we might not have done it. It's hard to investigate these things. You get up in the morning and what can go wrong will go wrong. What you planned gets put off to the next day. It's also hard to find employees that really know cows.
What are you proud of about your farm?Out of 15 farms that were in the area when I started, we're the only ones left. Raising five kids on a dairy farm, with no outside income. We live simply.
What's unique about your products? Our milk is non- homogenized; no drugs, no antibiotics; happy cows!
Our slogan: "Our cows aren't on drugs, but they are on grass!"
Favorite Story: One man told us he couldn't drink milk for 24 years. Finally, he tried our chocolate milk and he had the biggest grin. Later he told us, "I tried your milk and I can drink it on my cereal now, instead of water!"
By Janice Benson, Taste the Local Difference
George and Sally Shetler met at Sunday church.
Whenever I need to be convinced that there is still goodness in the world, I spend some time at the Shetler Family Dairy.
From the moment you step onto the farm and meet any one of the family members, you have a sense of something special. You are reminded of a simpler time, when people really cared about the products they produced. You witness a dedication and passion that will make you believe in the viability of the small family farm again.
When George Shetler was just a baby, his mother often put him in a toolbox on the back of her tractor while she did field work. “That must be when it started!” laughs George. He has always felt farming was what he was meant to do.
He was born in Pennsylvania, where his grandfather had a dairy farm. His father worked for a church publishing house and had a small farm at home. When George was 10 years old, his family moved to Clare, Mich. to a run dairy farm there. Later, his family moved to Beaverton, then, finally, Elk Rapids, where his father managed the Maple Bay Farm, on US-31, from 1968-72.
After graduating from high school, George moved to Smithville, Ohio to work at a Boys Village, where he managed a dairy herd and worked with troubled youth. Occasionally, he traveled back home to Elk Rapids to see his family, and there’s one trip he’ll always remember.
It’s the trip where George went to church with his family and noticed a pretty girl in another pew. That girl was Sally Zook, and she was visiting the church with a friend. Immediately, there was mutual interest between Sally and George. After that first meeting, they started writing letters back and forth, and George made long drives on many weekends to visit Sally.
Sally was born in Port Huron and grew up in both Sturgis and Fairview. After high school, she and her friend moved to Traverse City, and she worked at a nursing home and the Grand Traverse Medical Care Facility.
When George’s job at Boys Village ended, he followed his “interests up north” and married Sally. “I said I’d never marry a farmer,” she laughs, “but a dedicated farmer is what I got!”
Together, they moved back to Ohio to a farm just down the road from Boys Village. Neighbor farmers had heard about George and were anxious to employ him.
As George’s father got older, the couple decided to move back to Michigan and buy his farm. They purchased their current farm, in Kalkaska, in 1979 and for 20 years ran their own dairy farm and raised five children. They managed 38 cows and sold their milk to Dean Foods.
Searching for Alternatives
Over the years, George read Mother Earth News and the Rodale Press and got interested in other, more natural farming methods, partially because his son Jake suffered from allergies. “I thought about our kids and I wanted to find an alternative to using chemicals,” he said.
George also remembers hearing ads on WTCM for the Gallagher Dairy Farm and their glass-bottled milk.
“I thought that was really cool. Doug Gallagher was an inspiration to me.”
Shetler's product line includes yogurt smoothies.
So, in 1995, George took a holistic management course and started researching the idea of bottling their own farm’s milk. The couple visited other farms to learn more.
“We met an 80-year-old couple from the Upper Peninsula who were bottling their own milk and we thought, if they can do it, we can too!” Sally explains.
Sally sent out a survey letter to health food stores around the state and 88% responded that they would be interested.
“That was it, so we dove in! We got the equipment and made it happen,” George recalls. “That first day, June 19, 2000, was a long day! We bottled 200 gallons of milk. It was exciting and scary. We broke a lot of bottles until we figured it out!”
Each day, he got up at 2 a.m., milked the cows, then started bottling at 6 a.m. At 4 p.m. he milked the cows again, and cleaned up the plant until about 9:30 pm. Sally did the sanitizing and deliveries, eventually Jake took that over.
Then, when their son Kaleb returned home from the military, he started running the bottling operation. “He’s a perfectionist,” smiles George, “which makes him the right man for the job!”
Kaleb has pushed their business to include new specialty products, especially their signature, made-from-scratch ice cream.
Today their son Peter is also involved; he manages the farm with his father and occasionally fills in for Kaleb.
Connecting with Customers
Presently, the Shetlers supply between 40 and 50 stores and restaurants throughout the region and also attend the Traverse City farmers market.
George beams about the quality of their milk, “We drink the milk raw. I don’t put anything in the tank that I don’t want to drink!”
Kaleb is especially proud of their ice cream.
“When somebody tastes our ice cream and their eyes get big, that makes my day! Quality is important to us. I love that we’re bottling our own product. We make the best product we can make.”
“And I love the connection we have with the customer,” Kaleb adds. “People walk up to us and say thank you for what you’re doing. It’s those things that make it all worth it. You’re doing something good for somebody who appreciates it.”
A good time to visit their farm is during their Open Barn Day, every September. “You’ll see over 2,000 people smiling,” says George. “It’s the most fun we have all summer!”
Though the Shetlers never claim that it’s an easy life, they are proud of what they’ve accomplished. According to George, their family and their faith has been the key.
“We’re really proud that the family is interested in keeping this going. Being able to make a difference to people around you is important to us. Maybe there is a better way."