Randy Lewis almost lost the family dairy farm in 2009. The price of milk had bottomed out, and costs for feed, fertilizer and fuel had gone sky-high.
"It was either find some other way to make money or sell the cows and quit," he says.
But Randy had an idea that might just save the farm. He's bottling milk right on-site. Of the 150 dairy farmers in the state, only five bottle their own milk. And Randy's figured out how to do it without shelling out a lot of money.
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Randy is a gregarious, out-going man. He's the fifth generation to work the land, and up to now his work has been mowing and fixing and cleaning and building and doing just about everything else with his hands to make sure the cows are clean and healthy.
"I have a saying that many is the time I wish I was born rich instead of so good looking. I could have done a whole lot more with the money," he jokes on a recent day. Randy talked while perched high on a piece of machinery, fixing a broken chain. "When other kids growing up wanted to be doctors and lawyers and such, all I ever wanted to do was milk cows. It's all I ever wanted to do."
In the mid-2000s business was good. Randy says he was pretty close to being debt free. And then 2009 hit. Farmers across the state were devastated.
"I probably lost $80,000. That was money we had that's gone," Randy remembers. "And then we had to borrow some money since then. So all-in-all we probably lost $150,000 since '09." They finally got the hemorrhaging stopped, but the damage had been done.
Randy knew that he had to try something new to stay afloat. He huddled with his niece Megan and the two began to dream. Maybe they could make yogurt, or kefir right on the farm. They didn't know anyone else who did that. (And it's true, only one farm in the state makes yogurt. None make kefir.) And then they thought about the milk. Why sell to a middleman? Why not bottle the milk themselves and keep more of the profit?
To do something like that, they would need money. They'd need to build a pristine factory-like space with a huge refrigerator. They had the land, but they didn't have the capital needed to build.
But then the two got to thinking about trucks. A refrigerated tractor trailer truck might work. It was already designed to keep things cold. And it could provide a compact, clean space that could, with a little imagination, be turned into a factory.
Shortly after Megan and Randy wrote a grant for the project, Megan was killed in a car accident. She was on her way to the hospital to have her first baby.
The accident was devastating. Randy doesn't have any children, and his two nieces Megan and Mikayla were his kids.
"It was hard for everybody," he said "I am no different from anybody in our family, or anybody who's lost a child it's just a hard thing to go through."
Megan died in 2012. Randy was filled with grief - and at the same time, he was under intense pressure. The dairy was about to go under.
"So as crazy as it sounds, I put that grant proposal in, and left it up to the to whoever the powers that be," Randy remembers. "If I got the grant then I figured I would go through with this bottling project and figure out how to make it work. If I didn't get it, I would sell the cows and quit."
The grant came through in 2013. The $8,000 changed his life.
The whole milk-bottling operation fits inside that tractor-trailer body - the staff includes Randy's mother - along with Megan's parents, her sister Mikayla and other family friends.
Each afternoon Mikayla rounds up the cows and herds them in to the barn to be milked. She extracts about 400 gallons of milk a day. Mikayla says she's used to hard work and the long hours. But this new milk bottling business? That's scary, she says. A lot of the success of the venture rests on her shoulders.
"I feel like have to do so much right on my end to make their work out. I have to make the cows make enough milk." Bottling milk was never Mikayla's dream. And it was Megan who dreamed of dairy farming. Mikayla had always just tagged along. Now, she's a critical part of the process.
"When she died, I felt like I had to keep it going, because she would have wanted that," Mikayla said. "So I spent more time than I guess I should as a teenager. But I do anyway, just 'cuz I love it. It's part of me already. I know that sounds cliché."
And they are doing it. The process works. The milk is pasteurized, but not homogenized, so the cream rises to the top - the old fashioned way. They've found a number of places to sell the milk, including Weaver Street Market in Carrboro.
The inspiration to use a tractor-trailer truck body may help save the dairy -- and the land -- and the family's way of life. The project is Megan's legacy.
"I've never been proud of too much I done in my life, but I am kind of proud of this," Randy says. "There's a lot of people that were very skeptical that we could get it done to start with. Most of 'em come here and I could push some of 'em over with a feather because they swore up and down that we'd never get this thing running. And we ship milk every week."
Randy Lewis is the subject of a gorgeous new documentary film, The Last Barn Dance. Find out more here.