Durham News

Durham's Agri-Science hopes to feed world with quality cows, cheese

A cow in a dairy owned by Agri-Science Opportunities on April 14, 2014.
A cow in a dairy owned by Agri-Science Opportunities on April 14, 2014. vbridges@newsobserver.com

In a walk-in cooler in a Durham dairy, Dr. Sam Galphin held up a square of packaged Cultured Cow Creamery’s Holy Smoked Cheddar made from fresh raw milk and cold-smoked over apple wood chips.

If you look closely at the label, you’ll notice a white cow with dark patches that form a map of the world.

“Our global vision shines right through our product,” Galphin, 62, said of the label.

Cultured Cow Creamery is the cheese-making arm of Agri-Science Opportunities, a 135-acre, multifaceted dairy with a mission to produce food products and cattle to help feed a growing global market.

The company was founded in 2011 under a partnership between Galphin, a veterinarian who specializes in advanced reproduction techniques, and retired real estate developer David Falk Sr., who died last week after a long illness. Galphin said he isn’t sure what Falk’s death means for the future of the Agri-Science Opportunities company.

Dr. Kevin Anderson, a professor at the College of Veterinary Medicine at N.C. State University, said the many facets behind Agri-Science Opportunities make it a unique operation.

“There are so many components to it,” Anderson said.

Those pieces include revenue generated from selling a superior breed of cattle, their embryos and their milk. About a year ago, Agri-Science Opportunities, which employs about 16 part- and full-time employees, opened Cultured Cow Creamery and started making cheese to generate additional revenue.

Agri-Science generates some of its own electricity with windmills and solar panels and grows forage that feeds about 230 cows and heifers, which are young female cows that haven’t produced a calf.

The company also recycles its water used to wash the floors of the cattle housing and sells compost made from manure. Agri-Science is also exploring covering its waste-holding pond to collect methane gas and use it to heat greenhouses filled with fish and vegetables.

A facet of the company is also working through a process that would allow it to move forward with medical research on brain cancer therapy inspired by the digestion process of ruminants, animals including cows, that are able to live on plant-based food.

“We hope someday that we will either have a cancer therapy, a world-class cow, or a world-class cheese, or something that brings us enough attention that will let us tell this story,” Galphin said.

Evolving operation

With Galphin, that story often starts with a laminated National Geographic poster – a composite of satellite images of Earth at night – he has carried around for more than 15 years.

Dots of light on the images denote the areas with resources, such as the U.S. and parts of Europe. And then there are the darker areas, such as Africa and parts of Asia, where populations are growing more rapidly than in the areas with more resources.

With such growth, countries that depend on affluent countries to grow and ship them food will eventually not be able to have their food demands met. Those demands are expected to double by 2050, Galphin said.

“The food needs to be produced where it consumed,” Galphin said.

In fall 2011, Galphin and Falk began to work together to be part of the solution.

Falk’s state-of-the-art cattle facility, which had previously housed Falk’s Kingsmill Farm II, became the location of the evolving operation. They sought to develop a sustainable, private business model that could be duplicated by other companies, Galphin said.

Currently, Agri-Science Opportunities’ milk production averages 6,500 pounds a day and helps pay most of the company’s bills. Its milk is sold to the Maryland & Virginia Milk Producers Cooperative Association, a collaborative that markets milk for more than 1,500 dairy farmer owners throughout the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast.

The high-producing dairy cows also play other roles in the company’s revenue and mission.

“Every little calf born here, I take a little hair sample and send it out to a lab,” Galphin said.

The lab sends back a genomic evaluation that includes projections on the cow’s dollar merit, milk production and body type.

Agri-Science takes the top 5 percent of the females in the herd, fertilizes their eggs and then flushes the embryos out. The embryos are then transplanted into a less superior cow. The process can be repeated every six weeks.

Agri-Science also freezes, sells and ships hundreds of those fertilized eggs across the world.

The company hopes to eventually bring residents from the resource-poor countries to a classroom that sits on the property and teach them how to implant embryos in their own cattle, Galphin said.

Choosing cheese

More than a year ago, the partners decided they needed to produce a milk product to offset the rising price of feed and ultimately bring in revenue that can carry the business. They chose cheese.

“Cheese is milk’s leap to immortality,” Galphin said. “I watched people make cheese with a cheese cloth strung between two trees in the Amazon jungle.”

The company sells its cheeses in the Triangle at five farmers markets and five Whole Foods Market, with an opportunity to expand into nine more. The cheese is also sold through other outlets, including The Produce Box, a Raleigh-based, online farmers market.

Kelly Harding is Cultured Cow’s cheese-maker. Harding starts his cheese-making days at 5:30 a.m.

“The milk is flowing into the cheese vat as the guys are doing the morning milking,” Harding said.

About 30 minutes later, the hourslong cheese making process begin. The use of fresh, raw milk really enhances the cheeses, he said.

It’s the way cheese was intended to be made.

“It is ideal,” Harding said.