HELENA — In 1991, Ron Crain was teaching English at the Phillips University branch at Uji, Japan, when his dad called to see whether he might like to join the family dairy business.
Ron and his wife, Barbara, then with two small children, were on their second stint in Japan — far from Wagon Creek Creamery west of Goltry, along the old Jet road and its velvety, green wheat fields and rolling hills.
The choice was difficult. Ron grew up in the Helena-Goltry area, but Barbara was a city girl from Tulsa.
But four more children later, and on the other side of the world from Japan, Barbara now tends a grass-fed dairy cattle herd and crafts fresh raw milk daily.
For more than 10 years, the creamery has grown on hard work, prayer and perseverance.
The Crains first sold their raw milk directly through a dairy cooperative. They considered making cheeses, but fluctuating commodity prices and lack of control pushed the couple into diversifying.
With the help of an Oklahoma State University small business seminar and product development center, they developed a plan to make yogurt cheese. Yogurt cheese with its rich sour cream-like texture was not well-known, but the Crains went for it. They began making dips from the yogurt cheese, which has far fewer calories than sour cream.
The creamery had plenty of leftover cream, so Bob Waldrop of the Oklahoma Food Cooperative suggested they make butter.
Now, their silky smooth yellow butter is shipped to Texas and other states and to Oklahoma grocers and farmers markets.
Barbara’s Mondays begin with setting the milk in motion by 4 or 5 a.m. so that processing is in progress for the creamery workers who arrive several hours later.
By evening, she is bagging yogurt into cheesecloth bags to drain. Tuesdays are catch-up and butter-making days. By Wednesdays, the crew is dispensing butter into containers and preparing them for sale. The creamery makes salted and lightly salted butter.
By 8:30 a.m., Ron is off to tend the milking. The once-a-day process began after the Crains decided to give pasture grass supplemented with hay to their mixed herd during the winter months. Before, Ron had to get up at 2 a.m. for the first milking, and there was another milking later in the day.
They do not give hormones to their cows. Milk from cows receiving medicine is separated out and discarded. A strictly grass-fed cow does not produce at the same rate as most cattle. "We get very high-quality milk this way,” Ron said.
At first the cows did not like the empty feed troughs, and they had to practically be dragged to be milked. "We often still do,” he said.
Ron spends the rest of the day moving cows from one paddock to another where there is fresh grass, cleaning the barn and doing "soft marketing.”
"We’ve been novice marketers and are now getting our online store set up,” he said.
Dairy helper Kelly Schwahn created the artwork for the Wagon Creek labels; her daughter posed in a long prom dress while sitting on a kitchen stool. The cow in the logo is now called Cover Girl.
The couple did extensive research before creating their business plan.
Again, they reached across the ocean for help, this time the Atlantic.
They contacted the Pladot Co., which creates miniaturized dairy-processing facilities that include all the equipment required to manufacture a variety of dairy products. Engineers from Israel came to install the machinery. The cream separator came from Italy. Then a nutritionist spent a week in Oklahoma teaching them how to make the recipes.
Having drawn knowledge over two oceans, the Crains continue the work started by their homesteading ancestors.