Dr. Sam Simon knows a thing or two about cows. He also knows a thing or two about dairy farmers, having grown up around both.
As founder of Hudson Valley Fresh, a dairy cooperative, his mission for the past 13 years has been threefold: to help provide a livelihood for local dairy farmers, to produce premium quality dairy products and to preserve the agricultural heritage of the Hudson River Valley.
By his own account, he has accomplished all three.
“Somebody had to be the advocate for the farmer,” said Simon, a former orthopedic surgeon. “On their own, it’s very hard for them to make it. For the members of Hudson Valley Fresh, it has made a big difference.”
These are not easy times for dairy farmers. Due to an excess of milk production and variable commodity prices set by the U.S. government that are consistently below what it costs to produce a gallon of milk, many milk producers are losing money every time they milk a cow.
To ease the burden on local farmers, Simon founded Hudson Valley Fresh in 2005. Consisting of 10 member farmers, the co-op produces a line of nine premium quality dairy products: whole, skim, low-fat and chocolate milk, half-and-half, heavy cream, yogurt, ice cream mix and sour cream.
“I realized we had a premium product and could charge more for it under our own brand,” Simon said. “That way, we wouldn’t be bound by the government’s prices.”
Each of the 10 member farmers — whose cows’ combined daily output supplies Hudson Valley Fresh with its milk — receives a monthly dividend based on the amount of the co-op’s sales for that month. This translates to approximately $108,000 in annual income, which they would otherwise not receive.
“That’s huge,” Simon said. “For many of these farmers, it’s the difference between making it and going under.”
Sold throughout the tri-state area, Hudson Valley Fresh products can be found in approximately 162 locations, from large grocery store chains to gourmet specialty shops, including Adams Fairacre Farms, Hannaford, Hahn Farms, Slammin’ Salmon, Stop&Shop, Fishkill Farms, Mother Earth’s Storehouse, Quattro’s, Rossi & Sons Deli, Marona’s Market, Mrs. Green’s Natural Market, Sprout Creek Farm, Balducci’s, Fairway and Dean & Deluca in Manhattan.
In addition to making its products available to consumers, Hudson Valley Fresh has entered into a partnership with the FarmOn! Foundation’s school lunch initiative, subsidizing the cost of local milk to lunch rooms in the valley so that schoolchildren can enjoy the health benefits of Hudson Valley Fresh’s nutrient-dense premium quality milk.
But even though shoppers and schoolchildren are important consumers of the co-op’s milk, they weren’t the primary reason Simon started Hudson Valley Fresh. It was the farmers, the men and women he grew up with.
Born and raised on a dairy farm in Middletown, Orange County, Simon has milk in his veins. His grandparents, Jewish dairy farmers from Leitz, Germany, were Holocaust survivors who immigrated to the Hudson Valley in the 1930s.
“When the Jews were fleeing Europe, they couldn’t take any money with them but they could take furniture, so my grandfather bought a bunch of Steinway pianos and Leitz lenses and shipped them to America,” Simon said. “When he got here to New York, he turned them into cash and bought the farm in Middletown. My father worked it and then when I was old enough, I worked it, too.”
When it came time for Simon to choose a profession, following his father and grandfather into the dairy business wasn’t high on the list.
“I was either going to become a physician or veterinarian,” he said, “mainly because the two men I admired most were the family doctor and the farm veterinarian, both enormous, very tall men. I literally looked up to them when I was growing up.”
Turns out, it was the vet who convinced Simon to go into medicine.
“He was 7-feet tall,” Simon said, “a gentle giant, and I adored him. ‘Be a doctor,’ he told me, ‘because you’ll make more and then you can have a farm and do both — humans and cows.’ ”
That’s exactly what happened, albeit with a few bumps in the road.
After earning his undergraduate degree from the University of Rochester, Simon was in his second year of medical school at the University of St. Louis when his father died. To keep the family farm in Middletown going, Simon flew home every fourth weekend throughout the remainder of medical school and his orthopedic residency.
Once his training ended, he settled in Poughkeepsie and opened a solo practice as an orthopedic surgeon, specializing in joint replacements.
In 1995, Simon returned to his love of dairy farming by purchasing the 150-acre Plankenhorn Farm in Pleasant Valley, from a patient, Lester Plankenhorn. Plankenhorn’s father had bought the farm in 1923 after crossing the Hudson River from Delhi on the Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge (now Walkway Over the Hudson), riding in a cattle car with his cows to keep them calm. Simon kept the farm name Plankenhorn out of respect for the previous owners.
“The irony is that Lester Plankenhorn’s father, the one who came over the railroad bridge with the cows, died the day I was born,” Simon said. “So it was meant to be.”
Starting with a small herd of milking cows, Simon quickly established himself in the local dairy industry, becoming known for having the highest quality milk and the highest producing herd in Dutchess County 10 years in a row, according to the Dairy Herd Information Association.
“From all those years on the farm taking care of cows, I know what it takes to produce the best milk,” Simon said.
Now, 13 years on, Hudson Valley Fresh is on sound footing and Simon has decided that he’s ready to retire, again. His successor, Ron Stanton, is slated to take over the reins within a year, charged with guiding the future of Hudson Valley Fresh.
But what about the future of the American dairy farmer?
“That’s a tough question,” Simon said. “These farmers are passionate, they’re hard working, they don’t want to be millionaires, they just want to be able to pay their bills and enjoy what they do every day. The mission of Hudson Valley Fresh is to make that possible.”