Happy cows, happy plants and happy soils make for a happy farmer. Just ask Tom Trantham.

He and his family are celebrating a successful first year of selling milk directly to customers at their Happy Cow Creamery. “There's a good percentage of the population looking for something better,” Trantham says.

Trantham reports that sales have increased each month since he opened last year in Pelzer, about 18 miles south of Greenville, S.C.

He wasn't always this happy, however.

In fact, Trantham remembers when he didn't know if he'd make it raising cows and selling milk the conventional way.

His cows led him to a new way of farming and eventually to a completely different outlook. At an age when most folks are either retired or contemplating hanging it up, he's just getting his second wind.

Trantham, his wife, Linda, and son Thomas III, and employees are planning a big party the week of Oct. 8 to celebrate the continued success of the Happy Cow Creamery.

They sell pasteurized milk bottled right there on their 100-acre farm in the up-country of South Carolina. A converted silo serves as the bottling plant.

It was Trantham's dream to market milk directly to the community through an on-site store and make a connection with people.

“People enjoy a fabulous product,” says the 62-year-old Trantham. The Tranthams also offer items such as cheeses from Wisconsin, oranges, grapefruit and other fruit from Florida, local honey, pure, uncut maple syrup from Vermont, free-range chickens and eggs and organic seasonal fruits and vegetables grown on the farm.

“I have one doctor who had a Happy Cow Creamery Party and the topic of the entire party was our milk and the cows,” Trantham says. “We have people traveling over 100 miles to buy milk and other products. When they come here, they get a special product.”

Happy cows are the difference

Without his tongue in cheek, Trantham says he owes much of the credit to his “happy cows.”

It was his girls, as he calls them, who opened his eyes to what would really make them happy.

For the first 15 years of his farming career he did everything right and about went broke. “I was in the Top 10 all the time,” he says. “The pressure was there from day one and I was probably one of the ‘brokest fellows’ around.”

While awaiting loan approval for seeds and chemicals to prepare for another season, Trantham's cows broke out of their concrete holding area. “The loan was denied and the cows grazed what I thought were weeds.”

Within a couple of milkings, however, the cows' output was up 2 pounds. “I started watching the cows and said, ‘You girls can have the whole thing.’”

By the first of June, production was up 5 pounds. “I think the Good Lord told the cows what to do,” Trantham says.

The incident prompted Trantham to change the name of the dairy to “Trantham's 12 Aprils Dairy.”

So, he started planting grasses and forages no-till and began a rotational grazing system that continues today. He rotates the cows on 29 paddocks of alfalfa, grasses and millet. “In 29 days, we can be back on the first paddock,” Trantham says. “Our cows graze 12 months out of the year. It's just a wonderful place for the cows. We built 5,900 feet of roads for the cows to travel on. Our cows are now joggers and we have happy cows.”

An employee takes care of the feeding and fieldwork while a herdsman, David Sanders, who's been with Trantham for 10 years, tends the herd. “He says this is the happiest he's been since he's been a herdsman.”

The name “Happy Cows” came from Dan Ezell, former Clemson University Extension director. “He introduced me at a meeting as the man with the ‘happy cows’ and the name just stuck.” Terry Sudduth, Clemson Extension dairy specialist, put Trantham in connect with the experts who could answer his questions.

For Trantham, it's been a journey as well. He grew up in the grocery business in California, following in his father's footsteps. A fortuitous conversation with an unhappy salesman prompted Trantham to sell his house, his grocery store and head back east to the Carolinas.

“He slammed his book down and said, ‘I hate this job,’” Trantham remembers. “I asked him how many years he'd hated his job. He said since he started the job. He said he couldn't quit because he made a lot of money.

“So I asked him, ‘If you could do something other than what you're doing, what would it be,’” Trantham says. “He said, ‘I'd go back to Oklahoma and buy a small farm. I'd be happy if I could just make a living and feed my family.’

“Two weeks after that conversation, I sold my house and headed back to Carolina, where my folks are from,” Trantham recalls.

That was 25 years ago. Trantham has made several changes since then, one of the largest being the decision not to use chemicals or chemical fertilizers in his operation. “It has positively made a difference,” he says.

“I have spent 25 years farming and the first 15 years I was a conventional farmer — and I was broke as the next fellow,” he says.

“I think the future of the small family farm is rather bleak right now,” Trantham says. “We need to find a better way of handling and selling our product. For people close enough to a big town, who are willing to take a risk, I think, there are opportunities.”

“We have happy cows, happy plants and happy soil and we have a happy farmer,” Trantham says.

Making the conversion to selling milk directly to the public was difficult, he says. “The retail and sales of the creamery is a lot of hard work.” He advises farmers thinking about making the transition to “make sure you want to do it and do plenty of research. As a conventional dairy farmer, there weren't enough hours in the day. Now, the grazing program runs smoothly.”

The major difference in making the change has been the way he looks at things. “I spent the first 15 years in farming and I don't recall anyone saying, ‘Hey, Tom, we appreciate all this hard work,’” he says. “I now have people call and ask me if there's anything they can do. They call other people and make sure we have customers. It's unbelievable.”

e-mail: cyancy@primediabusiness.com