If Robbie Hoover hadn’t showed up with his cell phone, you wouldn’t be reading this. On a chilly, gray Saturday in March, he and a friend came upon this writer wandering about the Hoover family’s farm in Sanborn.
Farms in late winter aren’t bustling places, especially in these parts. A sharp wind cut around the corners of Hoover’s darkened dairy shop (they had closed earlier in the day), so I was relieved when Robbie shuffled over in his work boots and offered to call around to some relatives.
Minutes later, Robbie’s dad, Rob, rolled up in his heavy-duty pickup and led me through a back door to tour his family’s milk bottling operation. Several rooms are outfitted with 1,200-gallon holding tanks and other stainless-steel equipment used to process raw milk that gets trucked in twice a week from Niagara County farms.
There aren’t cows at the farm anymore. Six generations of Hoovers have farmed in Western New York, starting in the 1840s when the family moved to Penn Yan from southeastern Pennsylvania. Their Sanborn dairy operated from 1920 until the 1980s, when the family sold off the milking cows to neighbors during a federal herd reduction program.
What the Hoovers haven’t let go of is a family-first way of doing business, from carefully managing their crops to using word of mouth to get customers into the dairy shop, located down a gravel drive beyond the family’s country restaurant.
HOOVER'S DAIRY STORE
6035 Ward Road, Sanborn, 14132
Today, Hoover’s Dairy produces between 4,000 and 6,000 quarts of plain, chocolate-, and strawberry-flavored milk every week. The family’s trucks deliver the plain milk to 1,400 Niagara County customers in old-fashioned glass bottles (if you want the flavors, you have to visit the farm).
This milk isn’t the trendy, raw stuff; it’s homogenized to keep the cream from rising and is separated into whole, two percent, and skim. But there are subtle differences that set it apart: the butterfat ratio in its whole milk is higher than in milk from corporate dairies, and no stabilizers or additives are added other than vitamins and the flavor syrups. A local company in Dunkirk provides Hoover’s with a proprietary strawberry flavor, and the bottles are manufactured in Ontario.
Most importantly, Hoover’s flash-pasteurizes its milk to 173 degrees Fahrenheit before quickly dropping it down to around 37 degrees for bottling. Unlike an ultra-pasteurized process, this shorter heating time helps retain the freshly milked flavor, Rob explains.
Hoover’s uses glass bottles because they are nonporous and won’t leach chemicals into the milk, as plastic can. "We also wanted to preserve how it used to be done, and people seem to like it," Rob says.
And like it they do. During the holidays, Hoover’s is the destination for real-deal eggnog, made from a family recipe of whole milk, cream, and a blend of spices. People from all over WNY drive to the farm between the first of November and New Year’s to pick up the limited-edition flavor, which is stacked into weathered, wooden milk crates—some more than forty years old and collected from around the state.
In the summertime, locals head to the family’s restaurant for homemade fruit juices, which are also bottled in glass, and for scoops of Perry’s ice cream. The Perry’s stand has become so popular that the line can wind out the door on a hot day.
The Perry’s connection has been a loyal one, Rob says, recalling one summer when the restaurant’s freezers broke down. Perry’s brought a refrigerated tractor-trailer out to the farm so they could keep scooping.
Rob, forty-one, runs the farm, which produces soy, corn, alfalfa, wheat, oats, and hay. He also oversees the milk bottling and helps manage the restaurant with brother, Tom, and their parents, Judy and Bob Hoover. And then there’s Robbie, who at fifteen knows nearly as much as any of them about the businesses, from driving combines to bottling eggnog.
According to Rob and Judy, Hoover’s is at capacity and plans to stay there as long as possible. All dairy farmers must compete with more alternatives to cow’s milk, Rob says, noting the soy, almond, and coconut milks that line supermarket shelves.
Resisting the economies of scale that can benefit larger, less diversified dairies is also difficult for such small operations as Hoover’s—one of the only independent fluid milk producers in the state—but it’s a gamble they are willing to take. Size no longer guarantees success. "There used to be more dairies like us, and larger, but they’re mostly all gone around here," Rob says, looking out the window.
In 2008, Gene Hoover, the beloved patriarch and heart of the family, passed away. Rob is quietly emotional as he remembers how he worked side by side with his grandfather. "Even in his eighties he was here every day, we were always together," he says, quickly rubbing away tears.
What keeps him hopeful about the future is the next generation. In addition to Robbie, Rob and his wife, Darci, have a twelve-year-old daughter and a ten-month-old son. Then there are his three nephews—Tom’s kids—including Jonathan, a farm-obsessed first-grader nicknamed "Little Hoss."
This job is the Hoovers’ life, and life is about family. That might be what brings them back to milking someday.
"Maybe someday, we could return to that, who knows," Rob wonders aloud. "I still miss the cows. They were like family to us."
Lauren Newkirk Maynard writes about food and farms for several Western New York publications.