KENAI — Kevin Byers’ only day off is Sunday.
The other six days of the week he wakes up early on the farm, milks his 10 cows and, if it’s Monday, Wednesday or Friday, loads his GMC Safari with bottled raw milk and drives for hours over the Kenai Peninsula and up to Anchorage distributing his product.
Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday he spends on the farm.
Byers grew up on a farm in Wisconsin tending cows. He is a farmer, he said; he has been nearly his entire life.
“There’s probably five years of my life that I’ve been off the farm,” the 48-year-old Kasilof resident said.
In 2008 Byers moved up to Matanuska-Susitna Valley to help his brother with his dairy farm. But that was too large an operation between the two of them, he said, and he wanted to get out.
Since 2010, Byers has been running his own dairy farm just off the Sterling Highway in Kasilof. And though he works hard, and the pay is poor, he is content knowing he is sharing a healthy product with his community while living the only life he’s known, he said.
And his business is growing rapidly, he said.
What started with a central Kenai Peninsula distribution has now expanded to the entire Peninsula, and even to Anchorage. Byers now has about 150 active shareholders in Kenai, Soldotna, Homer, Seward, Anchorage and even a few in Sitka, he said.
“Each month you’ll steadily get people that want to buy a share,” he said.
Byers only has 10 cows on his farm, he said, but he lives a more relaxed lifestyle now than what he was used to when he tended roughly 100 cows on his brother’s farm or the 150 to 180 cows some days in Wisconsin.
From his 10 cows, Byers can make about 24 gallons of milk a day, he said. He bottles it raw and, in a week, drops off about 150 gallons of raw milk to his coordinators in Kenai, Soldotna, Homer, Seward and Anchorage from the back of his van.
For $9, a shareholder is entitled to a gallon of raw milk a week, said Sue Hawker, a customer in Kenai. But since selling raw milk is illegal, Byers sells shares of each cow, not the actual milk, she said.
Annually Byers said he grosses about $50,000 a year with his dairy farm. But his overhead — more than $20,000 a year in gas, $1,800 a year in feed, $1,600 annually in hay — cuts through almost all of it, he said.
“Then you got a bunch of the other costs that creep in there from month to month,” he said. “There’s a lot of things. You never know what’s going to come up.”
And the work is constant, he said. At minimum Byers puts in four to five hours a day on the farm.
“It’s not the easiest road that I’ve ever drived,” he said. “You got to work at it to make it go.”
He would welcome an extra hand about the farm — milking cows, shoveling slop, feeding the animals — but he can’t afford the help, he said. And until his distribution grows and he finds ways to cut costs, he will continue to operate on a slim margin.
But it’s not for the money that Byers started his dairy farm, he said.
“I was born and raised on it,” he said, about his farm life, “and I think it’s a healthy way of living.”
For Byers, his small dairy operation is a way to share with the community the benefits of the lifestyle he was raised on.
And shareholders are grateful.
Kenai-based coordinator Michelle Turnisky said it is “a connection between Kevin and the shareholders.”
“I had never had raw cow’s milk before,” Turnisky said. “A friend of mine turned me on to it and I was shocked.”
She said the milk is not gooey or hay-flavored like she feared and there was no aftertaste on the roof of her mouth like she has with store-bought milk. Instead, the raw milk is thick, rich and creamy on the top, she said.
“You don’t need a big, tall glass to quench your thirst,” she said. “You just have one glass and your belly’s happy.”
But it was not only the taste that sold Turnisky, she said. Rather, buying from Byers represents a cultural and economic shift, she said.
“What I’m noticing is there’s been quite a shift of people going towards organic and raw food,” she said.
Byers raw milk, Turnisky said, is healthier than pasteurized, store-bought milk. Although state health officials say raw milk can cause severe and long-term health consequences, sometimes even death, she is unphazed. She said she doesn’t trust the health system to tell her what is healthy for her or her family.
“The health department’s going to say it’s not healthy,” Byers said. “But if you do a deep study in it ... I know there’s some doctors that would refer it. Everybody that gets it thinks it’s healthier, and that’s why they get it.”
Laura Ganshow, Byers’ Soldotna coordinator and a shareholder, said there is another incentive to invest in Byer’s operation: buying locally.
She said she prefers buying locally when she can because it makes the community more independent, and she does not like relying on the Lower 48.
“And it’s just this great feeling that you can do that,” she said.
Byers agrees, he said.
“People like to stick with the local-grown stuff, the locally-produced stuff,” he said. “If our times do come, people know what they can do to survive. That self-sustainability thing is a big thing up here.”
Byers said he is doing his share to support the trend by supplying the community.
And, besides, at this point, he said it is just a lifestyle.
“It’s just something that I do,” he said. “I just don’t know how to do much else.”