What's Going on With the LiLi?
By: Bonnie North
Seven years ago, Local Banquet’s summer issue featured an article on Royalton Vermont’s Bob White Systems and their innovative “LiLi”—a low-input, low impact system for pasteurizing milk. The LiLi is designed for “micro dairies” processing milk from as few as 4 cows. No systems had been installed yet in 2011, but in 2014, Local Banquet’s autumn issue published a photo essay from a ribbon cutting for one of these pasteurizers on a dairy in upstate New York. The Grist featured a longer story on the potential of these new systems the same year. We’ve checked in with Bob White Systems founder Steve Judge to get an update on the LiLi and what it’s meant for micro dairy.
Steve Judge started Bob White Systems—named after the Northern Bobwhite Quail that once foraged in the hedges and fencerows separating small pastures-- in 2006. Judge ran a dairy farm on a hillside pasture in Royalton, in a barn he built for just four Jersey cows after years of experience with herd sizes much larger. Having firsthand experience with the challenges of reaping a decent profit from a very small dairy, Judge turned his attention towards developing technology to make micro dairy farming more profitable and accessible. Thus was born the LiLi pasteurizer, geared towards selling fresh milk directly to consumers and allowing farmers to have more control over their product and profits.
LiLi uses High Temperature / Short Time (or HTST) pasteurizing. It's not an uncommon pasteurization technique in itself, but the equipment has been difficult to scale for small dairies, and the LiLi significantly improves processing time over other options. The LiLi also minimizes the amount of handling milk goes through before reaching the bottle. Judge has referred to other equipment as “roughing up” the milk and damaging the fat molecules, affecting flavor. Judge’s equipment is designed for small-to-mid sized dairies to sell non-homogenized, gently pasteurized milk to consumers who want the quality of farm fresh milk but don’t necessarily want raw milk. The pasteurizer heats the milk at 164 degrees for 17 seconds, just above the FDA threshold, before quickly cooling it to 37 degrees in a holding tank. The LiLi completely pasteurizes without homogenizing, separating, or standardizing milk. Proponents of the method say it offers the food safety benefits of pasteurization while maintaining milk’s nutritional value and deliciously fresh flavor, which some milk drinkers believe are compromised by traditional pasteurization and homogenization.
In 2011, Judge’s vision was “. . . hundreds of micro dairies throughout Vermont, each with a handful of cows providing fresh, ‘gently pasteurized’ milk directly to neighbors.” That vision has not yet been realized.
Although there are seven LiLis being used across the country, Norwich Farm Creamery is the only farm in Vermont that currently operates one. Plant manager Chris Gray says that they have one of the very first models and are using it for the milk they use to produce regular milk, chocolate milk, yogurt, ricotta, and ice cream.
There are various possible bottlenecks to more LiLi's in Vermont. When the LiLi finally received FDA approval, many of the small and mid-sized dairies in Vermont either had already invested in their own HTST system, were using the lower temperature, longer time vat pasteurization common for farmstead cheesemakers, or were committed to contracts with bulk purchasers. Meanwhile, selling raw milk has become a little easier here, with a 2014 law change that provides a path to limited farmers market sales in addition to sales from the farm. Heavy restrictions on raw milk remain, however, and Rural Vermont director Andrea Stander noted in a 2017 interview that regular retail sales remain a long ways off.
Undaunted by the lack of customers in his native Vermont, Judge is pleased overall with the success of, and the prospects for, the LiLi, which has established itself as an important innovation for smaller specialty dairies all over the country. There are even two farms milking camels using the LiLi. One is in Missouri and the other is in Colorado.
Peter Southway, owner of New Jersey’s Springhouse Creamery, is more than happy with his investment. “The product goes from the cow to the store shelf within hours — a far cry from normal store-bought milk.” Southway said in an interview with the New Jersey Herald earlier this year, “We’re real excited about it… The economics of dairy farming are tough, and this is the way I think our family sees to keep the family farm going forward.”
Maybe we need a few more LiLi’s here in Vermont?