By Maggie Edwards
BEEP. BEEP. BEEP.
A 3 a.m. alarm blares as Circle J Dairy prepares for morning milking.
“Dairy farming is something you really enjoy or really don’t,” said Ralph Junkin Jr., who grew up milking cows on his father’s dairy. “It is in your blood, or it’s not. It is a great atmosphere. You get to watch the sun come up. It makes a great way of life.”
Ralph’s parents owned the original Pickens County dairy, which milked 200 cows from 1956-1995.
“My daddy, Ralph Sr., was the ultimate dairy farmer,” he said. “He loved his cows and the whole process.”
Fast forward 28 years, and the next generation is carrying on the legacy of dairy farming.
“I never thought we would get back into it,” Ralph said. “(My daughter) Jessica showed interest, but we knew it would be hard to make it with a conventional dairy selling to a co-op.”
After picking up a Neighbors magazine with Blue Ribbon Dairy in Tallassee on the cover, the Junkin family was intrigued by the on-farm-bottling approach. That was June 2018.
“My passion stems back from my papa starting the dairy when he was young,” said Jessica Junkin Vails, who graduated from Mississippi State University (MSU) in 2019. “My dad came back to the farm after graduating from MSU, so I knew it was possible to make a living from this. The stories of the old dairy motivated me to reinvent the dairy.”
Before Circle J Dairy began to rebuild, the family visited Michaela Sanders Wilson’s Blue Ribbon Dairy to see her fresh take on an old-school technique — milking, pasteurizing, bottling and selling wholesale straight from the farm.
Direct-to-consumer dairies run by young farmers like Jessica and Michaela are encouraging, said Alabama Farmers Federation Dairy Division Director Colton Christjohn.
“There are just 16 permitted dairies left in the state,” Christjohn said. “Circle J Dairy and Blue Ribbon Dairy are giving a new name to the dairy industry in Alabama. This shows there is a community need for farm-fresh milk.”
Being one of the few has its perks, Jessica said.
“We are making our mark in the dairy industry,” said Jessica, who serves on the Federation State Dairy Committee. “It is always great to meet other dairy farmers and make connections. Dairy farmers help each other out.”
In December 2022, the Junkin family milked its first set of Jerseys and Holsteins in nearly three decades. The farm store opened in January.
“We are Sweet Grown Alabama,” said Jessica, noting the state agricultural brand and its logo on Circle J Dairy milk jugs. “We sell from our farm store and sell to restaurants, grocery stores and coffee shops. We deliver in Pickens County and surrounding areas.”
Social media is their major marketing tool, Jessica said.
“A lot of people think their milk comes from a grocery store,” she said. “There is so much more that goes into getting milk to the shelves. It is important to teach consumers about it.”
Growth is a mindset for the family. The dairy plans to add buttermilk, chocolate milk and ice cream when time and equipment allow. The herd is already increasing, up to nearly 40 cows from the initial 14.
For now, Circle J Dairy’s sole offering is farm-fresh milk that’s pasteurized — or heated to a certain temperature to kill bacteria — and non-homogenized. That means the cream separates from the milk and rises to the top after bottling.
The Junkins contemplated using the farm’s original milking parlor for their new-generation dairy. Instead, they kept the classic, white-washed building intact and built a new parlor next door that allows cows to eat and milk simultaneously.
“A lot of our equipment is refurbished,” Ralph said. “We bought several items from older dairies that closed. Our receiving jar came from Daddy’s dairy that we used for 40 years.”
The Junkins also raise poultry and beef cattle, in addition to having jobs off the farm near Gordo.
“This is a family operation,” said Robin Junkins, Jessica’s mother and Ralph’s wife. “We all have our different jobs. Everyone pitches in.”
The family is slated to grow in early 2024. Jessica and husband Tyler are expecting the fourth-generation dairy farmer in January.
“It is special to be able to carry on my papa’s legacy,” Jessica said. “I hope my children will want to carry on this dairy one day.”