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Homestead Creamery looks to cows' genes to broaden milk's appeal

Homestead Creamery looks to cows' genes to broaden milk's appeal

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Homestead Creamery is shifting entirely to A2A2 milk, which some studies suggest is easier to digest.

Homestead Creamery has a plan to urge customers wary of dairy to try drinking milk again.

A few years after launching its first line of so-called A2A2 milk, thought by some to be easier to digest, the Franklin County company is going all in. Each of the dairies it works with has fully transitioned its herd to cattle with the A2A2 gene.

It won’t change the taste or the nutritional value of the product, but it could draw in new customers who in the past have experienced digestive discomfort after drinking milk.

“We started getting testimony where A2A2 milk really made a difference. We’ve been reading some science, and we believed it,” said David Bower, co-owner of Homestead Creamery and the owner of a dairy that provides some of its milk.

A decline in milk consumption — USDA data show per capita fluid milk consumption at 247 pounds in 1975, compared to 141 pounds in 2019 — coupled with the growing popularity of alternatives like almond or oat milk, were factors in the decision to move in this direction, said Kasey Kohl, Homestead Creamery’s president.

The hope is that A2A2 milk will help in “bringing people back to the dairy aisle,” said Rose Jeter, the creamery’s marketing director.

Cow’s milk generally contains two types of beta-casein proteins: A1 and A2. Some cows have one type, while others have a mix of the two. A2A2 milk comes from cows that naturally produce only the A2 protein, said Chad Dechow, associate professor of dairy cattle genetics at Penn State.

“When the proteins are digested, it is thought that there’s a small peptide cleaved off of the A1 variant that causes intestinal discomfort,” Dechow said. It’s the result of a mutation in the gene and therefore does not occur in the A2 variant.

While some people might think they have lactose intolerance, he said, their discomfort with milk might actually stem from an intolerance to the A1 beta-casein.

Research on the subject is limited, and Dechow said some blind trials have shown a small effect, while others have not. He expects more studies to come out in the next year or two.

“It is still a little bit uncertain as to the magnitude, but it does appear that in some people there’s at least a small effect,” Dechow said.

One small study published in 2016 supported the benefits attributed to milk containing the A2 beta-casein; it was funded by The a2 Milk Company in New Zealand.

Dechow said interest is growing among researchers and producers.

“Anything that producers can do to try to distinguish themselves to have a marketing advantage, they’re going to try,” he said.

Dechow predicted that A2A2 milk would eventually shift from a niche product to the norm. But that will take time. He did note that the frequency of bulls with the A2A2 gene has been growing, and the majority of Holstein bulls are now A2A2. The prevalence of the A2A2 gene varies by breed.

Bringing people back to dairyJeter said Homestead Creamery “historically has tried to be niche first.” And that extends to its early interest in A2A2 milk.

“We’re looking forward to making this a specialty part of what we have to offer,” Kohl said.

In 2018, Homestead launched a single line of A2A2 milk. The company chose its 2% milk for the debut.

“And then right away people were requesting, ‘Oh, we’d love whole milk, we’d love chocolate milk. When is ice cream going to become A2A2?’” Jeter said.

But at that point, only one of the dairy farms the creamery worked with was 100% A2A2. Now, after extensive testing, it can say all six have achieved that status.

While there are some other A2A2 milks on the market, Jeter said Homestead Creamery is unique in that it will be offering A2A2 milk in so many flavors, like strawberry, orange and “cowpuccino.” And of course they’ll be in the company’s signature glass bottles.

Jeter said consumer feedback from that first A2A2 line reassured the company and indicated that setting the other dairy farms on this path would be a worthwhile endeavor.

Customers wrote to Homestead expressing their excitement about finally adding real milk to their cereal and with stories about how they tentatively started with just a few sips and, after feeling no discomfort, continued drinking the product.

“We’ve always gotten notes about our taste and the quality, but for someone to say, ‘I was able to drink this after years of avoiding dairy,’ it’s really neat,” she said.

However, she said it’s important to recognize that A2A2 milk won’t make a difference for people with a diagnosed milk allergy or lactose intolerance. This product is directed more toward people who have self-diagnosed in response to discomfort from dairy, which might be related to the A1 protein rather than lactose.

‘A united vision’

Homestead Creamery works with six local dairies. The first to transition its herd exclusively to cows with the A2A2 gene was Bower’s Goldenview Dairy in Glade Hill.

Bower began breeding for the A2A2 gene about seven years ago. But making the change entirely through breeding is a slow process. Bower said he ultimately sold about 40% of his herd that did not have the A2A2 gene, which can be detected through DNA testing, and replaced them over time with cattle that did.

“There’s nothing different other than the fact that there’s A2A2 in their DNA,” he said.

Though the shift to an A2A2 herd does not require operational changes for dairy farmers, there are upfront costs with testing, selling and purchasing cattle. The cost would vary depending on the speed of the transition, but Bower said it’s safe to put the price tag at tens of thousands of dollars for a 100-cow dairy.

If farmers aren’t facing a deadline, they could just breed for the gene, in which case the only cost associated with making the shift would be genetic testing.

Bower’s farm supplied the milk for Homestead’s first A2A2 line, but now all the other dairies the creamery works with have followed suit. He said it wasn’t difficult to get them on board.

“Everybody that ships milk to the creamery, they have the same vision,” Bower said. “We carry a united vision in trying to take care of our customers and listen to what the people need or want to buy in their food.”

The founders started Homestead Creamery 20 years ago because they believed people wanted something different from their dairy, Bower said. He believes their focus on a high quality, wholesome, health-conscious product will help them attract consumers who have perhaps stopped drinking milk or switched to a plant-based alternative.

“If they know that we care about them and we’re listening to them, we feel like that market can be regained,” Bower said. “That’s why we’re doing A2A2, that’s why we have the creamery, that’s why we’re using the glass bottle.”

Bower acknowledged that research on the benefits of A2A2 milk is limited but said the company was basing its decision in part on an “organic market test” — the feedback from people who have tried A2A2 milk and found it to make a difference.

“Our test is do the best we can and get it in the hands of our customers and let them tell us what they think,” Bower said.

Not all shoppers will care that their milk is A2A2, Bower said, but Homestead Creamery serves the customer that “cares about where their product comes from, where their food comes from.”

High-quality products don’t come cheap, but Bower said that niche market doesn’t seem to mind.

“We’ve found that there’s a lot of people that are willing to pay a little bit more for their milk,” he said.

When the creamery launched its first line of A2A2 milk in 2018, the price differed from its other products, in part due to the cost of keeping it separate from the rest of the milk, Jeter said. But the company does not plan to adjust the price of its milk in response to the overall switch to A2A2.

Still a niche market

The Virginia State Dairymen’s Association has been monitoring news about A2A2 milk and the growing interest around it, said Eric Paulson, the group’s executive secretary.

“Anything that’s going to help people consume dairy products is always something we’re going to be supportive of,” he said.

Though Paulson said he’s aware of some producers actively testing their herds, many are still waiting on more definitive research confirming the benefits said to be provided by A2A2 milk. But people in the industry seem open to the idea.

Currently, A2A2 milk is still more of a niche market, which Paulson said makes a smaller company like Homestead Creamery suited to producing it.

After picking up the milk from the dairies it partners with, the Franklin County company handles every aspect of processing and bottling, which Paulson said gives it “a closed circuit, almost” that allows for the control and standards needed to ensure the product is 100% A2A2 milk.

People are eating more dairy products, like cheese and yogurt. If there was a similar uptick in the consumption of milk, Paulson said, it would be huge for the industry.

Milk is a tried-and-true commodity at grocery stores — it hasn’t changed as much as some other products, he said. But A2A2 milk offers something new to consumers.

“People are always wanting to try something new,” Paulson said. “I think that’s a natural tendency when you see something like that on the shelf.”

He expects consumers who believe they have a sensitivity to milk will at least try it. And if they find the product helps them, perhaps they’ll become dairy converts.

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Casey Fabris covers business for The Roanoke Times, where she has been a reporter since 2015. Previously, Casey covered Franklin County. She can be reached at (540) 981-3234 or casey.fabris@roanoke.com.

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