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Marak milk: Meeker farm-to-table dairy farmer continues family legacy

Kelci McKendrick - kmckendrick@news-star.com
The Shawnee News-Star
A calf on the Marak Farm.

Every day before 6 a.m., Travis Marak wakes up to milk cows on his dairy farm in a blue barn on a dead end road in Meeker, Oklahoma. Eight cows at a time are brought into the milking parlor, and Travis gets to work.

He attaches milking machines to the udders and waits. The milk travels from the milkers through sanitized pipes to a storage tank in the next room, where it is quickly cooled and waits to be bottled up within a day. 

When the cows are finished, he lets them out and brings another eight inside until all 50 dairy cows have been milked. Then, he does it all again 12 hours later at 6 p.m., producing about 200 gallons a day, every single day.

“Christmas, Thanksgiving — you’re milking the cows twice a day, no break,” Travis said.

Travis owns and operates a farm-to-table dairy farm in Meeker that’s been in the family since 1912. He and his crew milk their own cows, bottle their own milk, and sell and deliver it directly to customers rather than selling it to companies like Hiland.

But that’s what makes the Marak Family Farm’s milk stand out on shelves to customers.

“There’s so much milk available and so many different options,” Travis said. “Our packaging doesn’t look immensely different from anything, but there’s a family name on it. Everybody else is just a generic brand.”

The milk at the Marak Family Farm is low-temperature pasteurized but not homogenized, which is a process that breaks down fat molecules into smaller particles to give the milk a more uniform mixture, according to Milk Life. Instead, the milk separates and forms a layer of cream at the top, so customers have to shake the milk before drinking it to distribute the cream back into the milk.

Travis Marak milking a cow.

“It looks funny when it’s sitting on a shelf,” he said. “ There was a learning curve for customers, and some of our restaurants and coffee shops, they’ve never dealt with milk like that — it tastes way better.”

The farm goes all the way back to 1912 when Travis’ great-grandpa, Joe Marak, bought an 80-acre farm. On the farm, he raised cattle and milked cows. He also had pigs, a vineyard and vegetables and grew wheat, cotton and corn — back then, it was a subsistence farm that provided for the family.

Travis’ grandpa, Wilfred Marak, was born in 1919, and after returning home from World War II, he bought an adjoining piece of land to Joe’s, about 160 acres. At first, Wilfred’s farm operated as a subsistence farm, as well. 

Wilfred, along with Travis’ dad Steve Marak and his uncle, Jim Marak, would hand milk the cows, and they started selling the milk and cream to a local place in town. In 1972, Steve and Jim started operating the farm as more of a commercial dairy farm, selling to milk companies like Hiland.

The trio running the commercial farm all worked together. Wilfred did a lot of the field work and handyman stuff, and Travis’ dad focused on the genetics of the cows and breeding. 

A cow grazes on the Marak farm.

Travis’ uncle went to work for the Department of Agriculture in the 1980s, and his grandpa died in 2007. His dad was pretty much running it on his own after that.

Growing up on the farm, Travis had quite a bit of freedom to run around, get lost in the woods, go fishing and be outside. Travis and his sister had chores to do, such as feeding the calves, hauling hay, mowing and getting animals ready for fairs.

Ironically, Travis said one of his least favorite chores to do as a kid was milking the cows.

Travis lived close to his grandparents, and he actually lives in their house now. Cousins were always around, and some of his best childhood memories are from summers on the farm, he said, with his favorites being Fourth of July celebrations.

“As a kid, you tend to remember everything as being summer because that’s the time when you were out of school and your whole life revolved around doing things,” Travis said. “It was a pretty good childhood.”

Born and raised in Meeker, Travis went to Meeker Public Schools his entire life. After graduating from high school, he went to college at the University of Central Oklahoma in Oklahoma City and earned a degree in journalism. 

After graduating from UCO in 2007, Travis decided to travel. He would do seasonal jobs in tourist hotspots, cleaning up hotel rooms, serving meals or other tour services. He spent one summer in Alaska working as a photographer for a rafting company, and he spent a few months in Australia working on a ranch and a few months on a fish farm in New Zealand. Romania, Russia and a few southeast Asian countries were other places he visited, and he spent a few months driving around the United States.

He couldn’t pick a favorite place, though. Each one had their own memories that made them special.

“A lot of what makes the place your favorite is who you meet along the way,” Travis said.

But home called him back to the farm in 2014 when his dad was about to retire.

“I wanted the farm to keep going — I wanted to work on the farm,” Travis said. “I thought what we had was valuable and was worth having around for another generation.”

The pay for selling to big milk companies was below the cost of production, so Travis decided to switch from a commercial dairy to a farm-to-table operation.

Travis had to do a lot of research to figure out how to run the farm. In 2014, few dairy farms in Oklahoma bottled their own milk, especially in the Meeker area, Travis said.

“No one was doing it here, so I thought it would be a good idea,” he said. “It was just figuring out how to do it.”

Travis talked to farmers all over the country to learn how to make the farm-to-table dairy work.

It took a year to build the barn and more than a year to get the business plan going. Travis said it’s been a challenge since 2014. 

“It’s been six years from, ‘Well, I think this would be a good idea,’ until the time where you’re actually selling milk,” Travis said. “It’s been uphill the whole time.”

For the first two years before officially opening in 2016, Travis had to convince stores that the dairy’s milk was worth it, even before the product was readily available.

Travis also had to prove to banks that he had customers. Crows Farm Market in Shawnee and Anthony’s Foods in Meeker and Prague have been supporting the Marak Dairy Farm since the beginning.

The milk is more expensive commercially produced milk on the shelves by almost double, Travis said. Starting out, he had to give free samples to stores just to see if it would sell, and it sold out fast at Anthony’s Foods.

Freshly bottled Marak mile.

“We’ve been in Meeker since 1912, and (at) Anthony’s Foods, we sell more milk there than we do anywhere else,” Travis said. “The town of Meeker has really supported us.”

Anthony Buoy, owner of Anthony’s Foods, said locally produced milk was worth the try, but he had no idea it would be as good as it is.

“I don’t think (the milk) gets any better,” Anthony said. “The taste is great, fresh, creamy — it’s easier on the digestive system.”

Anthony thinks highly of the Maraks and of what Travis has done with the farm, and he’s happy that some of his customers buy from and support local businesses.

“There ain’t a better family out there. When you look up the American family in the dictionary, it ought to have their picture right there,” Anthony said. “For the money that you’re spending on it, you’re not going to get a better quality.”

In addition to the challenge of finding customers, Travis had to make sure everything met the health department’s standards.

According to the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry, dairy farms have two responsibilities: assuring the consumer a “safe and wholesome supply of milk" and “inspecting milk and milk products processing plants.”

In a routine inspection, all aspects of the farm are observed, including maintenance of the building, cleanliness, making sure the milk is at the proper temperature, checking pasteurization equipment and analyzing samples of milk, according to the ODAFF.

“You have to make the health department happy. You have to make your customers happy. You have to get milk to people on time,” Travis said. “There’s way more that goes into it than what you would think.”

Now, Travis sells to many places, including Urban Agrarian in Oklahoma City and coffee shops such as The Gathering Place in Shawnee, Cuppies and Joe, Cafe Kacao and Elemental Coffee, all in Oklahoma City, and Manvel Avenue Coffee Co. in Chandler, Oklahoma.

Travis and the rest of the staff produce, process, market and distribute everything on their own. From buying their own bottles and labels to delivering their own milk themselves twice a week on Tuesday and Friday, everything is done through them.

Even with all the challenges and hard work that comes with running the dairy farm, Travis said the customers make it all worth it.

“We built a really good customer base, so people thank us for producing milk,” Travis said. “That’s so much more valuable than anything else because it validates what you’re doing. It gives you a boost to keep going … That’s very rewarding in and of itself.”

Travis said his journalism degree has helped him with a few things for the farm. It helped with marketing — while his experience in Photoshop and photography helped him create ads, and he even made his own labels, which saved him money.

A normal day on the farm starts at 6 a.m. with Travis milking the cows. After finishing, he cleans up and goes to help the bottling crew, who come in around 8:30 a.m. to fill up about 200 gallons of milk and put the gallons into a cooler. 

The crew cleans up after finishing, sanitizing everything possible in the room. Then the calves are fed along with other small animals.Travis gets a little break in the afternoon before he has to milk the cows again in the evening.

Some days, cows wander off into the wrong pasture or fences go down, so those have to be taken care of some days. Travis has to track down invoices, and sometimes cooling units need to be fixed.

“You milk the cows, you bottle the milk, and then you just put out any other fires that exist, which on a normal day, there can be any number of things, from the tractor won’t start to the cows are in the neighbor’s yard,” Travis said. “There’s always mowing to do. There’s always cow work.”

Every single day, there is work to do, including holidays. Thankfully, Travis has a good team. His mother Robbie Marak, his father, two cousins and longtime family friend Richard Smith help out, so it’s not one person’s responsibility to do everything.

The bottling process.

Richard was a friend of Travis’ dad in high school and actually milked cows for Steve back then, and Steve offered him the part-time job bottling the milk after Travis launched the farm-to-table operation.

“I’m very thankful to be working out here,” Richard said. “It’s a unique opportunity, and I really enjoy it.”

Robbie Marak is a retired teacher who began working with her son when the dairy opened in 2016, and she loves helping her son continue the family legacy.

“If you’re retired and don’t have a volunteer job or another job — it’s just a sense of, ‘I did something helpful today,’” Robbie said. 

The crew did a lot of sanitizing before the COVID-19 pandemic and even more since. Travis said he tries to limit contact with other people, and he wears a mask when delivering products. 

The coronavirus affected the Marak Family Farm because a few of the restaurants it sells to closed entirely or partially. 

However, Travis said what the farm lost on the restaurant side was gained on the grocery side from customers buying more milk. The crew also put a website together for pre-orders and offered certain pickup locations to customers.

“We had to find different avenues to make up for sales we were losing from the pandemic,” Travis said. “Trying to outguess people and governments and viruses has been very challenging.”

Travis said that as one of the few small dairies in the area, the two biggest “competitors” would be Braum’s and Hiland, but since those are big corporations, the competition isn’t really close.

“It’s like a tee ball team playing the New York Yankees,” Travis said. 

The goal is to try to stand out around all the different types and brands of milk customers can buy.

“The only way we can stand out is to be pretty transparent and honest about how we produce our product and where it comes from,” Travis said. “The fact that you can come to the farm and see the animals — that’s how we stand out. Plus, our milk is way better than anything else on the shelf.”

Customers have to actually try it first, though, Travis said. The packaging doesn’t look too different from most other brands, but after someone buys it once, Travis thinks people will buy it again.

Travis never thought his life would turn out the way it has, coming from being a photojournalist and world traveler to helping run a dairy farm — his family’s legacy.

“It’s history. There’s no reason a farm has to stop … I wanted it to last and be viable,” Travis said. “I didn’t want the work from my great-grandpa and my grandpa and my dad to just go away. I want to contribute to that.”

Travis Marak cleaning the milkers.