Steeped in family tradition: Jones Dairy Farm still a growing business after 128 years

May 31, 2017

The Country Today posted May 30, 2017 10:27 a.m.(CDT)
by / Jim Massey, Editor | jim.massey@ecpc.com

FORT ATKINSON — People often ask Jones Dairy Farm President Philip Jones and the company’s other 350 employees what dairy products the company produces at its Jefferson County food-processing plant, and the answer to that question is simple — none.

Over the past 128 years, the company has specialized in making breakfast sausage, dry-aged bacon and naturally smoked hams with simple family recipes. The product line has expanded as consumer preferences have changed, and meanwhile, the company leaves dairy products up to the hundreds of dairy facilities around the state.

“People often ask us how many cows we have — it’s a great conversation starter,” Jones said of the Jones Dairy Farm name. “We sometimes say we take care of the other side of the bun. Dairy products are good with our bacon, sausage and ham.”

Jones Dairy Farm is a company steeped in family tradition. Milo Jones, a surveyor who came from Vermont, was one of the original founders of Fort Atkinson, and it was his son, Milo C. Jones, who started the meat company in 1889.

Milo C. developed severe rheumatoid arthritis in his early 30s, so because he couldn’t physically operate a dairy farm anymore, he found another way to make money for his family. He came up with the idea of using his mother’s sausage recipe and making meat products to sell to neighbors and local community members.

The products quickly became popular and Milo C. started marketing his products beyond the borders of Wisconsin. His first sausage advertising campaign began in the form of direct mail pieces to wealthy Chicagoans as potential customers.

Mariah Hadler, sales and marketing manager for the Jones Market retail store, said as the company transitioned from one generation to the next, it was the simple ingredients and quality products that helped continue the company’s success.

“Milo made the first products with four ingredients — pork, water, spices and salt,” Hadler said. “The family has carried on that tradition all these years.”

“The secret to the future is embedded in the past,” Jones said of the company and its products. “We make consistently good products and stand behind them. Generations of people have grown up eating our products and they continue to do so today.”

Jones Dairy has expanded its presence in Fort Atkinson recently with the purchase of a building formerly owned by McCain Foods and expansion of its retail store into what is known as Jones Market. The market sells Jones products and has a breakfast and lunch counter, while the old McCain plant has been repurposed into a facility to make the company’s pre-cooked product lines.

“There aren’t many sixth-generation companies still standing let alone sixth-generation businesses that are growing and continuing to thrive right where they were founded in the 1850s,” Jones said. “The company was incorporated in 1889, but the family has been here since the late 1830s.”

Jones, who last month was inducted into the Wisconsin Meat Industry Hall of Fame, said he has an “enormous sense of pride” that the family business has continued to thrive.

“Most importantly, the people who work for the company are very much engaged in that pride in our history,” Jones said. “There is a very unique camaraderie here. It takes everybody doing their part to help this place remain special, vibrant and healthy.”

The Jones family had a dairy herd until 1984 and processed pigs delivered to the plant until 1985. Company officials decided to dispense of both of those aspects of the business and concentrate on doing what they do best — make meat products.

Meat processors from throughout the Midwest deliver raw cuts of meat to the Jones facility on a regular basis, and those raw ingredients are then processed into the expanding line of Jones products.

Besides their staples of pork sausage, bacon and ham, the company now makes turkey, chicken and liver sausage as well as a breakfast meat called Scrapple, a dish made with pork, cornmeal, flour and spices shaped into a loaf.

Consumer preferences have changed to the point where Jones is now emphasizing the fact that many of its products are free of gluten and antibiotics.

“You have to be really aware of what the consumer wants,” Jones said. “Fortunately consumers today are interested in what we’ve done all along, which is clean-ingredient products. It might not be important to everybody in a given consumer group, but the fact that our products are gluten-free is really important to people who have gluten sensitivity.

“Food safety and quality ingredients is not a trend — it’s just what we do. It’s been a formula for why we’re here today.”

Jones’s face has become more familiar to many people in the past couple years in television commercials featuring him and some of his family members, filmed in the farmhouse kitchen where the company recipes first took shape in 1889.

“It’s had a profound impact on most of our consumer bases on the East Coast,” Jones said of the advertising. “People outside of our immediate area are beginning to recognize that we are a family-owned company.”

The original farmhouse is still featured in the company’s logo that appears on every product the company turns out.

Hadler described the Jones family as “really good people” who treat their employees like family.

“They love their employees, they respect them and they trust them,” she said. “That’s why we have so many people who have been here a really long time.”

The space now used for the expanded retail store was once Milo C. Jones’s office. Hadler said over time, it was used as a mending room for employee frocks, aprons and other production-line apparel. The space was also used as a women’s locker room before becoming a retail outlet store to make use of seconds and byproducts of manufacturing.

The Jones Market, which was remodeled and expanded to four times as much space in 2016, now features the company’s retail products as well as fresh products made on-site such as brats, natural-casing wieners, mild Italian sausage and sausage meatballs. The market features a different breakfast and lunch menu each day.

“This is the only opportunity people get to touch Jones Dairy Farm,” Hadler said. “They can buy our products in stores and restaurants, but you can’t tour the plant. It’s a place for the community to come and enjoy.”

The Jones Market also includes artifacts, memorabilia and family heirlooms that detail the company’s long history. The market’s picnic area lies alongside the Glacier Heritage Trail and has become a favorite stopping point for bikers and hikers.

Shaun Edwards, product development culinary specialist for Jones Dairy, joined the company four years ago after attending the Culinary Institute of America in New York and working in New York City as a chef.

“All of the products I make here get put through the store so it’s kind of like a testing ground,” Edwards said. “You can get stuff here that you can’t get anywhere else because it’s a test product.

“This is quite the family business. It’s still family owned and operated I don’t think that will ever change. I hope it doesn’t. It’s a fantastic place to work.”

The Jones family still operates a farm of about 350 acres in conjunction with the meat business. Much of the land is rented to a local farmer, but company employees still raise chickens, grow such vegetables as sweet corn, pumpkins and tomatoes and manage a flower and herb garden.

Many of the original farm buildings constructed in the 1800s still stand on the property.