Consumers nationwide love big ice cream names like Dreyer’s and Haagen-Dazs. But do they know that the milk in these ice creams flow from San Joaquin Valley cows? To answer this question, Valley Public Radio's Ezra Romero visits ice cream factories in Kern and Tulare counties to report on how Big Dairy in the San Joaquin Valley is contributing to the nation's ice cream supply.
Clifford Fung, eats a lot of ice cream. Three to five times a day Fung and his crew of ice cream tasters chop taste and decide if the Haagen-Dazs ice cream made in Tulare, California, is one… palatable and two … worthy of your freezer and belly.
"We're making sure that we're delivering our best product to our consumer," Fung said. "We analyze it, we taste it, and we look at it visually so that when the consumers receive it they expect the best when they see our product."
Fung is a quality supervisor and sensory coordinator at the Nestlé's Haagen-Dazs facility in Tulare.
Fung works at the smaller of Nestlé's two ice cream factories in the region. It's second only to the Dreyer's ice cream facility in Bakersfield, which the company claims is the largest ice cream plant in the world.
Tim Keating is the Bakersfield plant manager: "We produce all of the Nestle products that are sold in the U.S. with the exception of Haagen-Dazs, which is produced up the street in Tulare."
Last year, ice cream production in California topped 131 million gallons, which leads the nation. And making that much ice cream takes a lot of milk. Nestlé's Bakersfield and Tulare plants alone use just under 1 billion gallons of dairy products each year.
"Traditional ice cream made with dairy products is still a really, really big part of our industry," says Tricia Blattler, the executive director of the Tulare County Farm Bureau.
The sheer amount of Valley milk and cream used in Nestlé's ice cream is vital for the Valley dairy industry.
"Our dairy industry is the largest concentrated region of dairy production in the United States and possibly the entire globe," Blattler said. "And all of the dairy products that we produce here are produced on a scale that almost implausible to other regions of the nation."
Nestlé in Kern County employees 1,200 people at their Dreyer's Bakersfield plant. But the Valley wasn't always an industrial scale ice cream Mecca.
Around the turn of the century Bill Dreyer immigrated to America from Germany and started an ice cream business in Oakland. In 2003, Dreyer's began operations in Bakersfield thanks to the San Joaquin Valley's strong agricultural economy. In 2005, they expanded the facility, eventually shifting production to the valley from older plants in Commerce and Union City.
"The reason that we are located here in Bakersfield is number one, we are closest to the raw materials, we're closest to the dairy source primarily and close to some of the other agricultural products that we include in our ice cream, such as nuts."
Today the 600,000 square foot Bakersfield facility accounts for 33 percent of Nestlé's domestic ice cream production.
Dreyer's also came up with the original flavor Rocky Road, after the stock market crash in 1929 to make people smile during rocky times.
Just like Dreyer's, the minds behind Haagen-Dazs saw Central California as the best kept secret for ice cream production. The so-called "superpremium" brand was licensed to Nestlé Dreyer's in 2003.
In the case of Haagen-Dazs the decision to locate a factory in Tulare in the 1980's was initially met with skepticism from the company's founder, Reuben Mattus. But according to Maci Daramy, new products manager at the Haagen-Dazs plant in Tulare: "They flew him out here, he saw the area and he thought Tulare would be a great place to make this ice cream, ultimately, because this is where the cows are."
The company with the funny name started in the Bronx, New York in the 1960's and is now owned by General Mills Inc. worldwide - licensed to Nestle in the U.S. and Canada.
Today these two leaders produce ice cream products that line grocery freezers across the nation. But Tim Keating from the Bakersfield plant, says most consumers have no idea that their Drumstick or Skinny Cow ice cream sandwich likely came from the valley.
"I don't think people understand the sheer volume of ice cream we are producing here, but that the world’s largest ice cream factory is here in Bakersfield. We recently put a billboard sign on Highway 99 to get some awareness there, but with the oil industry here in Bakersfield that's really the top industry."
Daramy in Tulare says that Haagen-Dazs has planted itself in Tulare County for a reason. It's all about taste.
"We have a lot of larger scale dairies that we can provide a lot of milk to the factory," says Daramy. "We have a constant supply, a constant flow coming in from these dairies. The flavor of that milk is always very consistent because the herds eat very similar nutrients for their diets, because the milk that a cow produces – the taste is really determined by what they eat."
But whether or not consumers know exactly where their ice cream comes from, when it comes to the clank of spoon to bowl this summer, there will likely be a little bit of Central California making people smile all across the nation.