Penn Hills' Turner Dairy Farms lands awards in California, Wisconsin

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If the World Dairy Expo is considered to be the Super Bowl of milk, Turner Dairy Farms of Penn Hills is a champion.

At the expo and another highly competitive national dairy contest, the family dairy farm won a total of 11 national awards for its milk and dairy products. Turner was awarded seven gold medals at the 2013 Los Angeles International Dairy Competition in September, and a week later, it took four Top Three awards at the World Dairy Expo in Madison, Wis.

Brad Legreid, executive director of the Wisconsin Dairy Products Association, said the World Dairy Expo is not just a cheese-tasing party but is more like the Super Bowl of milk.

"We are the only association in North America that represents the full dairy industry for both individual farmers and private companies like Kraft," he said. "Eleven years ago, we decided to create a competition to represent all dairy products on a national level. In 2003, we had 100 entries and this year we had 820."

At the World Dairy Expo, Turner Dairy Farms took first place in the cultured milk classification for Charlie's Old Time Buttermilk. Turner's fat-free chocolate milk and whole milk were awarded second place, and its low-fat cottage cheese won a third-place award. The awards are not easily won and are highly valued by those in the dairy industry, Mr. Legreid said.

"Experts from the dairy industry, with years of experience in competitive judging, use over 20 criteria to rate the texture, flavor and appearance of each product. It takes 36 judges three days to evaluate 13 entries in three product categories: cheese and butter, grade A products (like chocolate milk and buttermilk), and ice cream and whey," Mr. Legreid said.

According to the Wisconsin group, milk samples are judged by awarding points on a 100-point scale for flavor, bacteria, sediment, temperature, container and seal. Points are then deducted for various defects. For example, the scoring chart for buttermilk allows judges to deduct flavor points for a slight, definite or pronounced presence of bitterness, chalkiness, fermentation, high acid, rancidity, saltiness, yeast and so on. Markdowns can be taken if the texture is too curdy, firm, gassy, grainy, lumpy -- well, you get the idea.

If winning a first-place award at the World Dairy Expo is an achievement of dairy excellence, receiving a perfect score of 100, as Charlie's Old Time Buttermilk did, is downright Pasteur-ific. And winning a Top Three award at the World Dairy Expo in nine of the past 10 years, as Turner Dairy Farms has done, is udderly amazing. Chuck Turner, president of the dairy farm, appreciates the honor. He knows how much hard work goes into producing award-winning results.

"Making our buttermilk is a more artisanal process. It is a cultured product in which handmade butter is dripped in at just the right pace. Too much, too little, too fast, too slow -- there is really a judgment call to get it right," Mr. Turner said.

"We don't really do anything special for the competition, we just send in samples, but we are testing all year round to make sure the product is the highest quality. We work with experts at Penn State and other industry-testing programs. We also have a couple of people here who are first-rate testers. In the end, though, it has to taste fresh and I have to be happy with it," Mr. Turner said.

Bringing high-quality dairy products to its customers has been a goal of the company since day one, when Mr. Turner's grandfather, Charles G. Turner, brought three cows to a pasture in Penn Hills in 1930. The younger Mr. Turner points to a sign on the wall that says, "Perfect Products, Perfect Service, Treat People Right."

"That was his saying. Even when I was kid working on the farm with a white shirt and wearing a hairnet, I can remember my grandfather always talking about making it perfect. These awards would have made my grandfather extremely happy," Mr. Turner said.

Milk is one of those products that people expect to remain the same forever. Over the years, consistency has been the foundation of the Turner family's success. Today, third- and fourth-generation family members work in the business as do second- and third-generation employees. They use a network of more than 45 independent dairy farms, many of which produce milk exclusively for Turner Dairy Farms. The farms are all within 65 miles of the Penn Hills processing plant, allowing a turnaround time of less than 48 hours from cow to shelf.

Describing how the partnership works, Mr. Turner said, "It really comes down to what our farmers are doing. Having clean cows, clean milk places and how quickly they can get raw milk cold. We test for bacteria regularly. We have worked with some of these farmers for over 50 years. Their dads worked with our dads. There are not a lot of farms that would want to meet our standards. They have to want to achieve the same goal and share the same vision."

Longtime customers will remember the home-delivery service. Many homes had a Turner Dairy milk box on the porch and once a week, the classic milk truck would pull up, deliver the week's order and collect the bill. It was the kind of personal service that has built deep brand loyalty and reinforced the relationship between the dairy and the community.

Consistency over time does not necessarily mean maintaining the status quo. According to Mr. Turner, some of today's challenges include maintaining a longer shelf life and competing for shelf space in coolers with a variety of teas, energy drinks, pop and water. In 1972, the company added a line of iced tea beverages that have become iconic in the region. You can see the Turner's Iced Tea Thunderbird at charity fundraising events throughout the year. This year, the company will produce a pumpkin spice eggnog for the holiday season.

Marketing director Nicholas Yon said the company has always understood its role in the community.

"We try to keep relevant to the Pittsburgh market. Our products are born and bred here and they seem to resonate with the city," he said.

While national awards are nice, they are not what makes Mr. Turner's world go round.

"Dairy people don't brag out loud. The awards we want are from our customers. When I hear about the guy who only buys our milk because it tastes the best, that's the award I want."


Tim Means, freelance writer: First Published October 17, 2013 1:09 AM


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