Kenny Matthews and Matthew Boyd, two blond-haired former Mormon missionaries from the American West, claim to have succeeded where many others have failed: getting a dairy farm up and running in Cambodia.
The pair have a small ranch, Moo Moo Farms, located off a highway in Kandal province just south of the capital, which they claim is Cambodia’s first “fully functional” dairy farm.
“Fully functional” is a relative term, however. They only started distributing their product in February, and to just three locations in Phnom Penh. Whether they will be able to scale up and, more importantly, last the distance is yet to be seen.
The Kingdom has in the past been unkind to dairy farmers. Even big players – from 7NG to Mong Reththy Group and Nestlé – have tried and failed to start and maintain farms here, and the country has long imported virtually all of its dairy products.
According to Pen Miranda, director of the Dairy Cow Raising Association of Cambodia, a lack of technical know-how and investment, as well as stiff competition from cheaper milk products from neighbouring countries, have haunted entrepreneurs and corporations alike who have tried to make it in the milk business.
Despite the fact that demand for milk is currently surging in Cambodia, “a lack of a long-term plan” has been a common gravedigger for the Kingdom’s failed dairy farms, Miranda added.
But Boyd and Matthews, who echo the belief that others have failed from a lack of know-how and commitment, think they have a winning formula. And, so far, it has proven successful.
One customer, Jay Miller, owner of Brooklyn Pizza and neighbouring bakery Posh Nosh, reported a “difficult time keeping [the milk] in stock”. It had proven popular among Cambodian customers, who “tend to think it’s healthier for you then boxed milk,” he said.
On a recent tour of Moo Moo Farms, the two starry-eyed milkmen demonstrated how, with a small herd of dairy cows imported from abroad, they prepare their trumpeted bovine juice. (They asked to keep the size of the herd, among other trade details, a secret.) “From feeding the cows, getting the milk, bottling it: it’s all done right here,” Matthews said.
Matthews explained that Moo Moo’s milk is “raw” (unpasteurised) but tested in a small on-site lab for potentially harmful bacteria. They check that every batch, he said, is up to American standards for bacteria counts for pasteurised milk before it is loaded into their small refrigerated truck and driven north.
This testing was demonstrated to the pair by Edwin Shank, a Mennonite (an Amish-like sect) from Pennsylvania who runs one of the largest distributors of raw milk in America, The Family Cow. Moo Moo flew Shank out last month to consult on the on-site tests, which the Mennonite milk mogul pioneered, Matthews said.
Without any dairying experience themselves, Matthews and Boyd, both 26, have relied on consultants like Shank in building their business, and it was Shank who convinced the pair to sell their milk raw.
Raw milk is a somewhat controversial product, with some believing its consumption to be reckless. According to guidelines from the FDA, the US government’s food safety watchdog, raw milk can contain dangerous microorganisms that threaten “serious health risks”.
Yet advocates of raw milk claim that pasteurising, which essentially equates to boiling, kills healthy probiotics and alters milk’s natural taste. Matthews and Boyd claim that unpasteurised milk is easier for lactose-intolerant stomachs to digest and reject charges that raw milk, which must be kept chilled at all times, cannot be safety controlled.
“The FDA says you can never know 100 per cent if raw milk is safe. But we say you can and we have the test results to prove it,” Matthews said.
Both Matthews, who attended high school in Bangkok but calls Utah home, and Boyd, who is from Arizona, wear monochrome collared shirts with a cow on the breast – not unlike the black-and-white Mormon uniform they donned every day during their time as young missionaries here from 2009 to 2011, when they met.
“Anyone who said biking in 105-degree weather on a rickety [bicycle] for miles is fun would be lying,” reminisced Matthews. “But at the same time... It was the best two years of our lives.”
Both Matthews and Boyd came away from missionary service fluent in Khmer, a skill that has been invaluable to them in working through the bureaucratic red tape that stands in the way of starting a business here, they said.
Matthews stressed repeatedly that the impetus for starting Moo Moo was fully humanitarian. After both spending time in the US earning business degrees following their missionary work, the pair brainstormed ventures that could allow them to return to Cambodia and “help Cambodians”.
They reasoned that a business, rather than a non-profit, could do the most good in the long run by providing jobs. (They currently employ eight Cambodians.) And both remembered, with displeasure, the boxed milk they consumed during their service work. They saw a gap in the market and sought to fill it, with milk.
“This is really to help the Cambodian people,” Matthews said from inside his barn, over a rumble of hearty moos.
Moo Moo Farms milk can currently be purchased at the Posh Nosh bakery, the Super Duper supermarket and Natural Garden grocers. More info can be found at their website.