By Tim Unruh
The Salina Journal
REXFORD -- Flanked by two loyal canines, Tom McCarty spun sideways in his pickup truck seat, took a sip of coffee and cream, and relished the dusty day.
He gazed upon happy Holstein cattle sauntering into milking chutes, and tanker trucks waiting for loads of liquid white gold destined for processing in Fort Worth, Texas, all while landscapers scampered to spruce things up.
"For cows, this is cattle country, without a doubt," said the northeastern Pennsylvania native. He migrated with family to the Rexford area in northwest Kansas in 1999.
The McCarty family is flourishing on the High Plains during their fourth generation in a dairy business that produces nearly 60,000 gallons of milk and cream a day from 7,200 cows in dairies near Rexford, Bird City and Scott City.
The family is readying its multimillion-dollar investment in northwest Kansas for Wednesday's visit by state dignitaries and a contingent of customers from Dannon -- at least one from Paris -- the McCartys' sole buyer of condensed milk and cream. They inked a multiyear deal with the worldwide yogurt maker just more than a month ago, after months of negotiations. The McCarty dairies have been supplying milk products to Dannon since April 1.
Suppling milk to Dannon
This week's social events include private gatherings with Dannon officials Tuesday, and a public celebration from 3 to 7 p.m. Wednesday.
"It's a full-blown open house," said Tom, 68, but neckties are not required. "I've been told it's casual."
The McCartys are supplying milk to one of three Dannon plants in the United States, said Michael Neuwirth, a Dannon spokesman, with domestic headquarters in White Plains, N.Y.
The worldwide company is known overseas as Danone, he said.
"(McCartys) are a dairy farm. We're a dairy processor," Neuwirth said. "They're going to provide milk that helps us make yogurt."
Both entities share goals of "producing food people enjoy in a sustainable manner," he said.
From contented cows?
Dannon is out for consistent quality and supply.
"We're very interested in animal welfare, in how the cows are fed, and the qualities of the milk that is produced," Neuwirth said. "One of the challenges that Dannon faces when we buy from a co-op is that we don't know the farmers."
By guaranteeing a high quality and quantity of products, the McCartys fetch a better price that's not subject to commodity price fluctuations.
"We agreed, right out of the gate, that it was the right thing to do," McCarty said. "The law of supply and demand is less of a factor. The best thing for us to do was eliminate the volatility and go with consistency."
Key to the entire operation is a condenser that boils off roughly two-thirds of the water in milk, leaving condensed, pasteurized skim milk and cream.
What would be 3 1/2 tanker truck loads of raw milk is reduced to one, which greatly cuts transportation costs.
Trying to conserve water
Water is reclaimed, filtered and put back into the system to water cows and young stock and wash the equipment, said Ken McCarty, one of Tom's four sons. After the water has been flushed through the animals, the waste is pumped onto the McCartys' farmland, also saving fertilizer and water-well pumping costs.
From the low-flow sinks and toilets to waterless urinals at company headquarters, Ken said, "We try to be as efficient and as light of a water user as we possibly can."
The company is also careful not to overpump its water rights and works closely with the Kansas Division of Water Resources.
So what's changed for the McCartys since 1999? Just about everything, except for their passion for the dairy industry. It's not just about the money.
"Personal gain is not at the forefront of our minds," Ken said. "Since we moved here, we've become what we hope is an integral part of the community."
It's not Pennsylvania
The landscape and climate are vastly different from the humid hills of Pennsylvania, where a sprawl of people and environmental pressures forced the McCartys to shop around and relocate.
"People were moving in. They liked the idea of an idyllic farm but didn't want to deal with the realities of agriculture," Ken said.
That reality was the need to grow to gain volume and counter tight profit margins.
"We chose to grow larger and hit a niche market at the same time," Ken said. "We never dreamed we'd be supplying milk to Dannon."
The McCartys found land, open spaces, dry conditions, adequate water supplies, reduced operating costs and a warm welcome from folks in northwest Kansas.
The family melded into a population that embraces big agricultural operations.
The sights and smells
"Western Kansas is a much more ag-based economy. People are accustomed to the sights, sounds and smells of large ag," Ken said. "It was just a much more welcome environment."
The McCartys were raising feed for their cattle in Pennsylvania on many 1- and 2-acre fields, and their largest was less than 50 acres.
A 12-mile haul of corn silage to their cattle was through "multiple towns and villages," Ken said, "and oftentimes, people didn't want to see you there."
Fields in northwest Kansas are much larger and closer to their dairies, he said.
But relative to northwest Kansas standards, the McCartys still have small fields. They raise crops on 215 acres that are irrigated by center pivot systems.
Kansas was eye-opening ** MUG DAVE
Their introduction to Kansas was "an eye-opening experience, just to see the scale of things in this part of the world," said Ken. "We were a little naive as to what it took to run and manage dairies of this size. There was a steep learning curve over the past 12 years." He and brother David completed degrees from Kansas State University, while his father was educated at Penn State University and older brothers Mike and Clay completed degrees at Lycoming College, in central Pennsylvania.
The McCartys found easy access to land and "large volumes of affordably priced feed."
They also relish the climate.
"We have extremes. In Kansas, a blizzard is not a lot of fun," Tom admits. "The wind and dust are offensive, but that breeze going through these barns gives cattle a break. It's better than 98 degrees and no breeze (in Pennsylvania)."
Temperatures rise to triple digits on summer days, he said, but it cools to 70 dry degrees at night.
"Cattle are not lovers of humidity," Tom said, and Pennsylvania summers are steamy, while temperature swings are only 10 degrees.
For the McCartys, northwest Kansas is a relatively new frontier, founded more than a century after their home town of Wyalusing, Pa.
"The permitting process for a large operation is vastly easier than in many other states. It was a very welcoming and inviting feel, a welcome change," Ken said of Kansas.
Being good neighbors
Family and "great assistance" from dairy industry and K-State experts helped smooth the way.
The basic human reaction in Kansas is special to Tom McCarty.
"People here are good neighbors, and we want to be good neighbors," Tom said. "We still have property back there (Pennsylvania), but there is no way I would move back. There were a lot of changes there, because of urban influx."
Rexford is very rural. The tiny town is 15 minutes from a Walmart, but there are few indoor shopping malls within a half-day's drive, and not many cultural niceties common in a metropolitan area.
"There are probably some wives who can't get away from urban cultures, but for me, I couldn't be happier," Tom said. "It's all about lifestyle."
Good for a school system
What they didn't realize in 1999 was their effect on western Kansas. The McCartys' investment may have saved a school system in Bird City, where their new, 2,700-cow dairy opened in the fall of 2008.
The McCarty dairies employ between 102 to 105 workers at their three dairies.
"It's had a tremendous impact in helping us increase our school population," said Cathy Domsch, executive director of Century II, a community foundation that aids in economic and community development in Bird City.
"I'm not sure where we'd be today without the dairy, and I'm glad we don't know," she said.
Since the dairy opened three miles east of Bird City in eastern Cheyenne County, the town's population has grown from 482 to 500, Domsch said.
Century II helped out with a "significant loan" to the McCartys "to help them get started," she said.
The McCartys are "humble and hard-working," Domsch said, and the dairy "brought wonderful families into the community and students into our school system. It's been a great positive impact."
Important to community
A manure-spreading company has since opened in Bird City.
"We've become incredibly cognizant of the fact the communities rely on us being here," Ken said. "We don't want to let anybody down."
Tom and Judy McCarty couldn't be more proud of their four "very intelligent, hard-working and humble" sons, who all are involved in the business.
Mike, Clay and Ken McCarty are focused on the three dairies, while David, who lives in Syracuse, serves at the company's chief financial officer. He's phasing out of managing a dairy not owned by the McCartys in Hamilton County, Ken said.
"I do not like arrogant people, and they are not," Tom said of his sons.
The nine McCarty grandchildren will have the opportunity to be involved in the dairy business, he said, but only "if they choose."
From progressive stock
The McCartys come from progressive stock, Tom said. His late grandfather, Taylor, and father, Harold McCarty, were among the first in northeastern Pennsylvania to use bulk milk tanks, incorporate a piping system, and automatic milking machines.
As for the McCarty migration to Kansas, Tom's sure his father and grandfather "would've approved, full-blown, 100 percent."
As for those two dogs in Tom's pickup, Princess and Bertha, northwest Kansas is heavenly, where they rest up for nightly rabbit hunts in pastures around Rexford.
"It's been a wild ride," Tom said, "but a lot of fun."