Joe Knolle Jr. chats with me as he replaces a part in one of his milking machines, the conversation unimpeded by his multitasking. It’s early evening, and his glossy, toffee-color Jersey cows will soon be gently herded into position for their second milking of the day.
Joe and his wife, Christina Knolle, own Knolle Dairy Farms in Sandia, about 40 miles northwest of Corpus Christi. With a herd of more than 1,000 Jersey cattle, Knolle Dairy Farms is one of the oldest independent dairy farms in Texas, having been established in 1928. However, neither the age nor status of the farm have protected it from the mounting economic pressures many small farms face, including struggling to compete with the low prices of products from large commercial dairy farms that have more economical, less animal-friendly practices. In 2016, the couple made the business decision to pivot to producing farmstead cheeses, curds, and yogurt, and the multiyear process has brought the farm financial respite.
Knolle Dairy Farms
940 CR 360, Sandia.
The farm is open Wed-Fri 4-7 p.m. and Sat 1-5 p.m. Schedule is subject to change, but visits are also available by appointment. 361-876-2274; facebook.com/knolledairyfarms
Joe is the fourth generation of Knolles (pronounced Ka-no-ll-e) to own and operate Knolle Dairy Farms. Nearly 100 years ago, brothers Ed and Henry Knolle took over their beekeeper father’s side project of rearing Jerseys with a herd of just 12. By the mid-20th century, it had become among the largest herds of Jersey cattle in the world, with 8,000 milking cows. Raised on the farm, Joe says he filed his first tax return at the age of 7. “We made more money then than we do now,” he says with a wry smile.
Steeped in history, the farm has served its South Texas community with premium Jersey milk from cows whose lineage includes the King Ranch and Taft Ranch herds—the high society of the dairy world.
Joe and Christina purchased the cattle and took ownership of the farm in 2012, determined to preserve the farm’s traditions while growing the business in a sustainable manner. The decision to expand into dairy products was a calculated risk. “I’ve shed a lot of tears over the fluctuation of milk prices,” Christina says. To keep costs down and reduce environmental impact, almost everything in Knolle’s building extension is repurposed, from light fixtures made from old milking machines to a display refrigerator salvaged from Hurricane Harvey debris. Joe’s degree in industrial distribution enabled him to design a system that minimizes electricity use, sustaining the old with modern innovation.
In November 2020, Knolle Dairy Farms launched its first handcrafted cheeses, curds, and yogurts, and the products were quickly successful. Jersey milk has a unique supple heft, weighing deliciously on the palate. The plain yogurt is rich and sweet enough to enjoy solo, but also pairs well with nuts or fresh berries. The curds and Mexican-style cheeses, including panela and queso fresco, are blended with fresh herbs and spices, with flavors ranging from ghost pepper to rosemary-garlic.
Visitors to the farm, open to the public Wednesdays through Saturdays, can sample and purchase all of the products, as well as feed and pet the soft, skittish calves. Bathory Salazar, who has many different roles on the farm, says her favorite part of the job is working with the calves. “I love forming a bond with them,” she says, “Each one has their own name and own personality.”
The farm is welcoming a stream of new customers with its most recent initiatives, and the simple, wholesome experience of visiting the dairy farm appeals to a wide range of folks. “We have visitors whose uncles or grandfathers used to work here,” Joe says. “They often travel a long way and are really happy to see that the farm is still evolving.”
Knolle Dairy Farms products are available at independent grocers, butchers, and delis around Texas, including Moody’s Quality Meats in Corpus Christi, Granzin’s Market in New Braunfels, and Wiatrek’s Meat Market in San Antonio.