The label on the jar of White Cow Dairy vanilla custard in Patrick Lango's hand proclaims its all-natural ingredients: Milk, eggs, maple, vanilla bean, sea salt, nutmeg.
Not listed: a little dash of hope.
Sell enough of these $3.50 jars of premium pudding and other handmade dairy products, and Lango might be able to save his family's Cattaraugus County farm.
Using century-old techniques, imported Italian equipment and an uncompromising devotion to quality, Lango has gotten White Cow Dairy onto a few shelves.
Commuters rushing through Manhattan's Grand Central Station can grab a jar of White Cow Dairy cherry yogurt at the Murray's Cheese store there. Closer to home, White Cow's yogurts, sauces, drinks and soft cheese are on sale at the McKinley Plaza Wegmans, Bidwell Farmer's Market, Lexington Food Co-op and the East Concord General Store.
"We sell everything we make," says Lango, a man who mixes the evangelical zeal of John the Baptist with Willy Wonka's oddball passion for tastiness. At a time when Western New York dairy farmers lose money on every gallon of milk they produce, making food from the milk might be the best way to survive economically, he says.
"I know there's desperation in the soul of every dairy farmer out there cleaning out his barn right now, who's getting virtually nothing for his milk, nothing for his labor," Lango says.
For all its success, however, White Cow Dairy still hasn't made a profit -- "We have yet to become a sustainable farm project," Lango says -- but it is gaining ground on that goal, and on its secondary mission: creating a state licensing blueprint for a single-family dairy. If White Cow Dairy proves it can work, his farm could be a model for others, Lango hopes.
After years of working with state dairy regulators and the Northeast Center for Food Entrepreneurship in Geneva, Lango has worked out how to make small batches of food that meet the state's stringent safety rules.
Fans like Sheldon Berlow, a commercial real estate broker, say White Cow yogurt only seems pricey when you compare it with factory yogurt, which is often sweetened with corn syrup and thickened with added pectin.
This is different, Berlow said: This is the good stuff.
"Patrick is producing an exquisite, artisanal product that really compares to anything I've eaten in Europe, the old farm kinds of things, the real stuff," said Berlow, who eats White Cow yogurt two or three times a week.
>It's about taste
On the shelves of the Lexington Co-op, White Cow's rich, thick drained yogurt sells for $5.99 a near-pint -- essentially the same price as Fage, a commercial Greek-style yogurt.
The Fage was made in a downstate factory, from truckloads of milk, mixed from a hundred farms' herds. The White Cow came from a single, grass-fed herd's milk, still warm from the cows as Lango pours it into the yogurt vat a few yards away from the milking parlor.
Same price, but a taste worlds apart, Berlow said. "Certain foods, you can conjure up the taste without having them," he said. "This yogurt is one."
Customers' taste buds are "our best selling tools," Lango says. "If you can get it in their mouth, you're great. People say, 'Your yogurt is so expensive.' Then they taste it and say, 'Oh my God, this is amazing.' And their body takes over."
The reaction comes because "they're essentially getting something they can't get anywhere else, a limited production, small batch food," he says.
There are numerous small artisanal cheese makers in New York, said Rob Kaufelt, owner of Murray's Cheese. But Lango's determination to apply the same handmade quality to more humble dairy products like yogurt, pudding and quark cheese makes White Cow stand out.
"I don't know if he's a genius, but he might be," Kaufelt said of Lango. "If there were more guys like him, the dairy farmers would be in much better shape, and customers would have a huge array of products to choose from, as you do if you go to France or Switzerland or England."
The question now is whether Lango can get enough critical mass to keep going, expand his product line and production, without watering down the product.
"The key issue is when one of these small producers really takes off, and they are unable to fill the demand created," said Kaufelt. "Then they sometimes compromise their standards, their production quality. That's not ever been the case here."
>Grazing on grass
On a hilltop meadow in East Otto, 35 miles south of Buffalo, 30 animals are grazing on fresh grass, herbs and other plants, tearing up mouthfuls as fast as they can.
"They're grass predators," Lango says. Unlike large-scale dairies that feed stationary cows chopped corn and alfalfa, Blue Hill Farm, which supplies White Cow Dairy's milk, relies on the cows feeding themselves, except in winter. A movable electric fence system means the cows always have fresh grass.
Lango's sister and brother-in-law, Marion and Bill Anderson, do the hard work of twice-daily milkings and animal husbandry, while their two daughters help with White Cow production. Lango and assistant Jeff Heitzenreiter are the only full-timers.
A stone's throw from the cows' home, the dairy's test kitchen and production equipment line two sides of an airy white-tiled room. Lango converted a century-old barn into his work space, with handmade lumber and Amish stainless steel paneling.
Today, White Cow uses about one of the 14 milkings per week, about 70 gallons, Lango says. The rest of the week's milk goes to the local cooperative on the milk truck that arrives every other day.
The cream scooped from the top of the milk cans is thick, ivory and subtly flavored with hillside herbs. It's so rich that it becomes golden butter in 90 seconds in a counter-top mixer.
"I'm always looking for and buying dairy foods made with grass-fed milk, but not all the recipes are as good as the milk. Patrick's recipes are," said Nina Planck, former director of NYC Greenmarkets and author of "Real Food: What to Eat and Why."
The little jars are perfect for parents who want to provide their children with the best tasting, powerfully nutritious food, Planck said. "I call it real convenience food."
With fans like that, White Cow Dairy has the potential to succeed, Lango says.
"You only need a small, loyal, dedicated following to make something like this work," he says. "You're not trying to sell to everybody. You're not competing with Stonyfield. Stonyfield's just fine. This is a different food."