by Paul Garrett

Pregnant cows are given special treatment at Happy Cow Creamery.

The woman in the straw hat has a bee in her bonnet.

“Every time I have company from out of town they insist on fat free organic milk. I try to get them to drink Happy Cow milk but they absolutely refuse, and I have to go out and buy them the fat free stuff.”

There are about thirty of us in the picnic shed; seeing that she has an audience, she repeats herself, a little louder this time.

By the time she repeats herself for the third time, I’ve had enough. “Just keep an empty carton of the other stuff around and when you have company, fill it with Happy Cow milk.” The crowd chuckles and nods approvingly.

We are at Happy Cow Creamery, near Pelzer, SC, as part of the CFSA Upstate Farm Tour. It is a place I’ve been planning to visit since I’d heard about the farm a few years ago. We are awaiting the sampling of milk that has been bottled a few yards away in a repurposed silo. Tom Trantham, the owner is pacing at the front of the group. As we will learn today, he seems always on the move. His name tag identifies him simply as “Farmer.”

Ashley Trantham gives a tour of the bottling facility in a converted silo.

Along with his cows, Trantham seems happy as well these days, but it wasn’t always so. Earlier, as we climbed aboard a wagon pulled by a big John Deere, which his daughter-in-law Ashley piloted around the farm, he told his story.

He started out in the grocery business, which he learned from his father, in California and was successful, having a store of his own by the time he was 22; but he found it unfulfilling.

“You get up in the morning and go to work and put a can of beans on the shelf and somebody takes it off. You put another one up there and somebody takes it off and you put up another one and somebody takes it off. I said,’ There’s got to be more to life than this.’ “

He sold his store and bought a farm in South Carolina where he learned his chops, and then in 1978, he bought this hundred acre farm, which had been previously run unsuccessfully by an accountant. Trantham mentions that one of the mistakes the accountant made was to put steps on the concrete ramp up to the milk barn. It turns out that cows don’t like steps.

Tom Trantham tells the history of his farm on a recent tour.

Through hard work and dedication, Trantham made the dairy successful using the standard farming practices of the day, which included heavy use of chemicals, corralling his cows to a small area and keeping close control over what they ate, and shipping in food by the ton from outside the farm. Soon he was the largest milk producer in the state. Then things began to spin out of control. First, the USDA got rid of Parity, which was a pricing structure designed to keep milk prices stable and farmers in business. Then milk prices plummeted, along with land prices. “Go big or get out” was the motto of the day. Trantham saw the handwriting on the wall. He regrettably told his son to leave the farm, that there was no future for him in the dairy business.

Saved by Houdini

While family farms across the country were being gobbled up by huge agribusiness concerns, he tried to keep the farm afloat and hold bankruptcy at bay for as long as possible. The death blow came one spring day when Tom showed up at his bank to get his annual loan for feed, chemicals and herbicides. His banker told him flatly that milk prices were way down as was the value of his land, and he already owed $200,000 more than his farm was worth. There would be no loan. He returned to the farm knowing he was just delaying the inevitable.

At the time he had a cow he had named Houdini. “Smartest Cow I ever saw,”he says. The cow was so smart, Tom had to change the latches on some of the gates to keep her from opening them. One afternoon he went to milk the cows and they had vanished. They had broken out of their confinement, no doubt led by Houdini, and were grazing in one of the fields he had been planning to spray, had he been able to get his herbicides. It was April, and the cows apparently couldn’t resist the urge to devour the lush green growth of the neglected pasture.

He decided he’d had enough. He threw his hat into the dust and stormed off. To prove he was through farming, he did what he had never done before. He sat down in the middle of the day to watch TV. It didn’t take him long do get bored with that, so he decided to go out and milk the cows after all. After the morning milking the next day, he checked the milk level in the tank and found there were several hundred pounds more milk than average. He was already the top milk producer in the state, and this increase was a shock, kind of like discovering your car has suddenly started getting 10 more miles to the gallon.

He put his cows back in the pasture the next day and every day after that. They thanked him by giving him much more milk, up to 180 extra pounds per day for the herd. Tom wondered what would happen if the cows could enjoy April all year round. He came up with the “12 Aprils” concept. In the pasture he had noticed that the cows only ate the top half of the plant. An analysis revealed that that is most nutritious part, the bottom half being mostly non-nutritive lignin. By dividing his farm into a series of individual paddocks he could give them fresh grass all the time by perpetually moving them to new pasture a soon as they’d eaten off the top half of the plants on the old one. Constant rotation meant the cows received maximum nutrition from their grazing activity.

One of the pastures at Happy Cow Creamery awaits the next grazing rotation.

Once the girls leave a section, he has time to fertilize, seed and mow the old paddock as necessary to get it ready for the next rotation. By keeping the cows in perpetual “Aprils,” he keeps them happy. His daughter-in-law Ashley claims the cows fairly dance with joy each time they are turned onto new pasture. According to Tom, using the “12 Aprils” concept, he has been able to pay his bills, get out of debt, “…and keep a little for myself.” Now, while other dairymen are still mourning the death of parity, Trantham is smiling all the way to the bank.

He no longer uses chemical fertilizers of herbicides. He points to what looks like a patch of weeds growing at the edge of a paddock: “See that? That’s Lambs Quarters. It’s a very nutritious plant, and the cows love it, but they only eat the top few leaves.”

His son has now returned to the farm. He designed and built the bottling facility in the old silo. The silo was once used to store feed for the cows, but since they’re now on pasture the silo isn’t needed for that purpose any more.

Trantham only sells three kinds of milk, whole, chocolate and buttermilk. He doesn’t do low fat, claiming that the fat is where most of the nutrition is held. Even his buttermilk is whole milk, not the watery skim milk stuff you get in the chain stores. He also sells cheeses and other wholesome foods in his store, which is attached to the bottling silo. Happy Cow milk can also be found in many other locations around the area.

In the tasting shed, cups are passed out, and we are given samples of milk from bottles kept on ice at the front of the building. The whole milk tastes clean and fresh, and brings back memories of milk I drank long ago, before government regulation and the Fat Police took hold of the food industry.

Next comes the chocolate milk. It doesn’t taste anything like the skim version with the artificial chocolate flavor I get at the supermarket. It has a much richer flavor. Finally, the buttermilk gets passed around. I have never liked buttermilk. I’ve tasted it before, and it has never appealed to me. But Ashley has done such a good job of selling its health benefits during our tour of the milk barn and creamery, I decide to give it a shot. I am pleasantly surprised. It tastes nothing like the bitter, acidic commercial version, but more subdued – a taste akin to plain yogurt.

After tasting Happy Cow milk, it’s easy to see how one may want to proselytize. Maybe happy cows do make a difference. Or maybe it’s just that cows given chemical free natural diets naturally give excellent milk. Either way, since leaving the farm, I’ve found it difficult not to do a little proselytizing, myself.