“Fun,” “high tech” and “unbelievable” are words most often associated with a theme park, not a large-scale dairy.
While it isn’t Walt Disney World, the 4,500-cow MVP Dairy in Celina is a tour destination with interactive displays, virtual reality milking and jitney bus drive-throughs of its vast barns. It supplies milk for Danone North America, maker of Dannon yogurt. The goal is to tell the seemingly simple story of how a cup of yogurt starts with carefully nurtured soil.
“It’s unbelievable,” said Jann Klopfenstein, a Wapakoneta City Schools second grade teacher. Her class and two others were among the 5,000 people who toured MVP’s Dairy Learning Center and dairy in the summer and fall of 2019. The tours were made possible with a grant from Auglaize County Farm Bureau.
The center also hosted professional visitors and events for groups, such as the Auglaize, Logan, Mercer and Shelby county Farm Bureaus. Another 3,000 visitors were set for spring of 2020 but pandemic restrictions prompted closing until conditions improve.
“The kids were simply amazed and excited,” Klopfenstein said. She was especially impressed by the farm’s cleanliness, attention to detail and care the staff showed while working with the students.
The International Dairy Foods Association was impressed, too. MVP’s cutting-edge technology and concern for its cattle, environment and community enabled it to win the group’s Innovative Dairy Award for 2020.
“Everything they do has a ‘scientifically proven benefit’,” said Allison Ryan, MVP’s marketing and communications director.
Taking care of the environment
Environmentally friendly practices include recycling water and regenerative farming, which rebuilds soil’s organic matter and biodiversity.
The cow manure, so prized by home gardeners as a natural fertilizer and soil enhancer, is also recycled. It’s processed and treated with technology that allows some to be applied on fields through the irrigation system. Dried manure is used on the dairy’s fields, which produce much of the feed for MVP’s herd, and by area farmers.
A testament to the efficacy of the processing system — one of the dairy’s partners lives next door.
Starting MVP Dairy
The dairy’s story, a two-family affair, began about 15 years ago, after the VanTilburgs of Celina started regenerative farming to revive declining soil. They were so far ahead of this curve, they made their own seeders to plant cover crops, which boost the soil’s organic matter and valuable biodiversity.
About five years ago, three VanTilburg brothers, Kyle, Luke and Matt, part of a century-old farming family that’s diversified into ag-related businesses, decided to get off the “roller coaster” of commodity crop prices. They learned of Danone’s regenerative approach and the stability of its cost-plus arrangement with suppliers. However, they lacked dairy experience.
Enter the four McCarty brothers, Clay, David, Ken and Mike. They are part of a fourth generation farm family operating four dairies with thousands of cows in western Kansas and Nebraska supplying Danone NA. They hoped to buy a dairy to support Danone’s new lines at the Minster plant about 20 miles from MVP. The brothers met by chance when vetting properties.
Given their shared vision for sustainable farming with positive environmental, social and economic effects, they decided it would be easier to start from scratch than retrofit an existing operation.
During the permitting process, they invited people in to allay concerns, Kyle VanTilburg said. Transparency was applied to all aspects of the operation.
Adding the learning center
“Most people in the general public don’t know where their food comes from,” said VanTilburg, a Mercer County Farm Bureau member. “Plus there’s negative thinking about animal agriculture, and we wanted to fix that.”
Thus the learning center was added to the project, and eventually so was Allison Ryan, who came to MVP after 11 years with the American Dairy Association. Ryan, who grew up on a dairy farm, helped develop the displays and website and now oversees the learning center, an unusual feature for dairies.
The partners’ attention to detail and careful planning allowed the dairy to go from zero cows to 4,500 in about three weeks.
“We had the staff to do it,” said Brock Peters, general manager. He started working on a Kansas dairy farm in high school and has been with the McCartys for about 13 years. There are 40 full-time employees.
VanTilburg urges other farmers to “look outside the box” when considering new ventures. “Agriculture is always evolving and changing,” he said. “It’s (MVP) a farm-to-table product on a large scale.”
Because of its size, “there were some grave concerns” at first, said Claudia Coe of Celina. She serves with Luke VanTilburg on the board of the faith-based drug recovery program Mercer County House of Hope. She and her husband, John, own Celina’s radio station WCSM.
“They have been very good stewards,” she said of the dairy. She’s an enthusiastic fan, who has taken visitors to tour it several times. “It’s an asset to our area. It’s just wonderful.”
Michael Leach is a freelance writer from Grove City.
- MVP Dairy is a certified B Corp, one of a growing number of businesses, such as Danone and Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, that balance purpose and profit. The goal is using business as a force for good.
- MVP Dairy is certified by Validus, an independent auditor of standards regarding animal welfare, environmental protection and worker care and training.
- During the COVID-19 pandemic, some grocers started limiting the amount of milk that could be purchased, giving the false impression there was a milk shortage. In reality, it was a logistics problem that righted itself when Ohio Farm Bureau, American Dairy Association Mideast (ADA Mideast) and other organizations joined forces to contact stores and ask that they lift their limits because there was plenty of milk to meet their needs.
- In 2019, American Farm Bureau assembled a task force that reviewed and made recommendations for modernizing and improving federal dairy policy. The task force consisted of Farm Bureau members and prominent dairy industry stakeholders.
- Concerned about the future of the U.S. dairy industry, American Farm Bureau conceived and created a new dairy revenue insurance program, Dairy Revenue Protection, which went into effect in 2018. The program is projected to disburse hundreds of millions of dollars this year directly to dairy farmers.