Nine-tenths of the American towns are so alike that it is the completest boredom to wander from one to another. Always … there is the same lumber yard, the same railroad station, the same Ford garage, the same creamery, the same box-like houses and two-story shops …

— Sinclair Lewis, “Main Street”

Sauk Centre, Minn. — Some things haven’t changed in Sinclair Lewis’ hometown since he disparaged its like 80 years ago. Sauk Centre still claims two locally-owned banks, its own newspaper and no shopping mall. But “what was ordinary then is extraordinary today,” says George Economy, adopter of the famous Main Street and the new co-owner of the town creamery, one of the state’s few remaining independent dairies.

Central Minnesota Cooperative creamery is now Pride of Main Street Dairy. “We’re building on traditions from 80 years ago with innovative dairy products,” says Economy, founder of Helios Nutrition Ltd. He and partner Larry Karass purchased the dairy primarily to produce kefir, a fermented dairy beverage with more beneficial bacteria than yogurt. Economy is also committed to continuing the creamery’s eight-decade history of processing milk and ice cream — all rBGH-free.

Milk vision a surprise

Economy never envisioned buying a small-town dairy when he founded Helios Nutrition in 1997 to produce kefir (reported in Ag Innovation News, April 1999). He started out with a St. Paul processor that “wasn’t geared to specialty products like kefir. The dairy industry is used to high-volume, low-margin products.”

Casting about for better options, Economy inspected several dairies and the Sauk Centre plant “emerged as the best.” He started production in November 1999 but faced setbacks early on. First he had to find a steady supply of organic milk, obtain an interstate milk shippers’ license and devote several months to tweaking production to achieve the desired quality.

“Ironically, on the day I announced the batch was superb, (Central Minnesota Cooperative) announced the plant was closing.” Not wanting to move, Economy shifted gears and bought the dairy.

The co-op selected Helios Nutrition’s bid because it “recognized that the company’s production of specialty products and access to national markets would be good for the community’s future,” says Economy, a former investment banker who is active in the biomedical industry and lives in Woodbury, Minn.

“Stearns County is the heart of Minnesota’s dairy country and has been rated as one of the top four counties in the United States for dairy production … the Napa Valley of dairy,” Economy says. Yet, the Sauk Centre creamery is the only fluid milk processor remaining in the region.

Economy says consumers increasingly understand that buying locally supports the community and are “considering the social impact of their purchases.”

Paying premiums to locals

Economy says he supports the co-op’s tradition of “buying milk locally and producing locally.” Pride of Main Street Dairy carries the “Minnesota Grown” logo.

Of the 12 former creamery employees, “we retained seven and have recently added two. One has worked at the creamery since before I was born — for 45 years,” says Economy, who adds that they also hire part-time employees with developmental disabilities through a nonprofit program. “The dedication of the work force, the high quality, is unique in the production world.”

The dairy sells milk and ice cream through independent distributors who deliver to homes and retail stores between St. Cloud and Alexandria. “We offer the only rBGH-free, premium ice cream you can find that’s moderately priced,” Economy says. Pride of Main Street also co-processes products such as fruit smoothies and milkshakes for a California company.

Economy says he’s willing to pay a premium to the dairy’s workers and farmer-suppliers. “At a time when many rural people are employed at minimum wage with no benefits, we pay decent wages with full benefits.”

Organic and rBGH-free farmers receive above-market prices. “At one point this year, our organic premium was 80 percent over the price of conventional milk. … More farmers have gone — and others are going — organic because we provide a local market.”

Identity-preserved milk with special attributes could also lead to higher premiums, he says. For example, European researchers are studying special livestock feed that may increase beneficial nutrients in milk.

Kefir, an Old World star

As a bonus, Economy provides his farmer-suppliers with a case of kefir every week. “They drink it and give it to friends. There’s a growing interest,” he says. Even the local rotary club asked him to talk about kefir, which has a milkshake-like consistency and is available in plain, raspberry, peach and vanilla flavors.

Ever keen on winning converts, Economy rattles off kefir’s benefits. It contains more than 30 natural strains of seven beneficial bacteria and yeast — up to 1000 times more live organisms than yogurt, according to University of Minnesota tests. Antibiotics, excessive sugar consumption, toxins and stress can deplete the beneficial bacteria needed to keep the gastrointestinal and immune systems healthy to fight infections, illness and allergies.

Economy formulated kefir with the help of his wife, Linda Long, MD. His partner, Karass, heads up sales and marketing activities.

Nutritional expert Donna Gates, author of “The Body Ecology Diet,” only recommends the Helios Nutrition brand of kefir. It is unique because the company uses authentic kefir cultures from European grains and adds FOS, or fructooligosaccharides — a dietary fiber from chicory that multiplies “good guy” bifidobacteria in the GI tract by up to five times. FOS also helps the body absorb calcium and other minerals and vitamins.

“Our main competitors aren’t other kefir producers, but yogurt eaters and ignorance,” Economy says. Though kefir has been popular in Eastern Europe and Scandinavia for centuries, United States sales have been limited to specialty and health food stores.

That is changing, Economy says, as Helios Nutrition’s Organic Kefir with FOS is now in 40 states, and sales have doubled in the past few months. In Minnesota, it is sold in most natural foods stores as well as Coborn’s, Cash Wise, Byerly’s and Kowalski’s.

Sauk Centre’s Pride of Main Street Dairy might be in the right place at the right time, Economy says. “There are certain ideas out there at certain times that take on a life of their own. … What was considered New Age yesterday is, in fact, Main Street today.”