Three processors from different parts of the world discuss their business, their opportunities and challenges and what makes their job so rewarding.
Farm Name: Hillacres Jerseys
Brand Name: Hillacres Pride
Contact: Mandy Arrowsmith
Location: Peach Bottom, Pennsylvania, USA
Farm Stats: Milking cows-65, Replacements heifers-60, Steers-30, Pigs-70/year. Acreage: 90 acres with corn and grasses for baleage
Processing Stats: Hillacres Pride started in 2003 with a local Amish cheese maker processing raw milk Cheddar and Colby cheeses, some with flavors. In 2009, they added their own plant to make pasteurized cheeses such as fresh mozzarella, feta, ricotta, quark, camembert, and cheese spreads. We also started making some artisan cheeses that we age. They are inspired by traditional cheese recipes, but most have a twist.
Farm Name: Tanbark Jerseys
Brand Name: Little Brown Cow
Contact: Jenny Butcher
Farm Stats: Milking 50 cows, with a total of 120 head on the farm and 40 acres.
Processing Stats: Started February 1, 2015. Produce several varieties of hard cheese, fresh/spreadable cheese, and curds. Also sell pork, beef, honey, and vegetables.
Farm Name: Az. Agr. Zoot. Posticchia Sabelli, Posal Farms
Brand Name: Masseria Posticchia Sabelli
Contact: Raffaele Di Ciommo
Location: Lavello, PZ – Italy
Farm Stats: Milking 750 Cows (640 Holstein + 110 Jersey), Total livestock about 1800/1900, Biogas Facility that produce 620 KW/H, Acreage: 250 Ha of land for cornsilage, haylage, alfalfa hay
Processing Stats: Established in 1955 and produces a range of high quality products, including fresh pasteurized high quality milk, Caciocavallo Silano D.O.P., yogurt, ricotta, mozzarella, burrata, stracciatella, scamorza, butirri.
Background, History, & Why did you start processing?
Hillacres: The farm has been in my husband’s family for over 50 years. His parents bought the farm, equipment, and cows all from the previous owner. The farm is 100% registered Jerseys. After Tom and I married in 1999 and started a family, we were looking at options for the farm to support two families. Expansion was not an option based on land availability, nor was it really a desire. We really wanted to have me home to raise the kids. We started the cheese with a local processor as a part-time, supplemental job. It has gown from there and it definitely full-time now, especially as we diversified into meats to sell at the farm markets we attend.
Little Brown Cow (LBC): In 2008 we (Jenny and Wes) started dairy farming in a rented facility, while we both worked full-time off-farm. There was a dream to process milk, but starting without any family assets made that seem highly improbable. In 2011, a farm came for sale that was probably the only property on earth that checked all the boxes to turn a far off dream into our reality. A small land base, old cars, boats, RV’s and piles of engines and an empty, decrepit barn shell all precluded people from seeing its potential. But, the mothballed, medium-sized abattoir was structurally sound and the building was laid out well for dairy processing. The property had frontage on the most well-traveled road in Brant County. There was a second house and small mechanic shop to provide cash flow. It took two years to renovate the barn for cows and two years to renovate the building for dairy processing. On February 1, 2015, we opened Little Brown Cow.
Masseria Potticchia Sabelli (MPS): Our family has been in the dairy business since 1850s. We started processing in a more modern and professional way in 1992. The new facility has been built and developed year after year in today’s modern facility. Starting as a small farm, we always processed our milk into typical south Italian cheese, like Caciocavallo. In fact, our Caciocavallo has been certified as a P.O.D. and recently received a Bronze Award at the 2015 World Cheese Awards.
Education & What Did You Learn?
Hillacres: We had to research possible markets to get the permit in Pennsylvania to start processing. This was really for our own good, to be sure that we could sell the cheese. At first, we thought we would target the Lancaster tourist market; however we found that it was as sound of an option as we originally thought because the stores often lacked refrigeration and people did not want to have to figure out how to keep the product cold. We found a few small farm stores and orchards that wanted to try the product.
For training, at first we were not processing, but when we decided to I took a home cheesemakers course to start and experimented in the house. I then attended a conference being offered at a farm and worked with the owners. They let me come and spend a day wit them, which was a big help. After I started making cheese, I attended a three day PASA workshop and decided to try a few more cheeses. The next step in training was a week-long course at the UVM Artisan cheese program. Finally, I hired a consultant to work with me to fine-tune my cheeses. Two things I think I have learned: Marketing is key and visit as many places as you can before you build.
LBC: Neither of us were in a position to easily leave the farm for a multi-day course, so we focused on experiential learning. We made cheese in our milk house semi-regularly for three years. Since the cheese wasn’t legal for sale, we were able to make guilt free mistakes and that really fast tracked the learning process. There’s still so much to learn, but part of what makes cheese fascinating is that with hundreds of varieties of cheese, you could live five lifetimes in the cheese business and still have lots to learn.
We also toured a couple dozen small scale processing plants, mostly on-farm processors in the United States. This was really important for us because U.S. dairies farms generally don’t have nearly the access to capital that Canadian farms do, so they tend to have extremely practical set-ups. Many times, we reverted back to one of the plants we saw to show inspectors or suppliers that doing something a little more primitive was indeed possible and practical in our situation.
MPS: There are several schools and training available to become a dairy processor, but basically most comes from studying from others to learn. It’s mainly a tradition, transferred from one generation to the other.
Hillacres: It is certainly nice to control your price, although only part of our milk goes through our cheese business. That is a good balance for us because if we used all of our milk, we would need to always process. We are already tied down enough with the farm. We are fortunate that our coop and milk hauling company work with us.
LBC: Our business increased our own connection to our farm. The rewards of improving milk quality, the aesthetics of the farm, or cow comfort all have an exclamation point on them now. It has also increased our connection to our community. Being truly responsible for feeding your neighbors is something that will never get old for us.
The most challenging part of processing is coming to terms with the fact that there is so, so much more than hard work standing in the way of where you’re at and your goal. Patience, tolerance for endless bureaucracy, and tactful dealings with the municipality, health unit, DFO, OMAFRA, electrical safety board, gas safety board, equipment calibrators, etc. are daily challenges. The fixed cost of time and expense to deal with these entities make it virtually impossible to be a small processor and can force unnatural growth on a business.
MSP: Best part of processing definitely is selling to more customers, trying to stabilize the ups and downs of the dairy business related to the big milk price volatility. The toughest part is the presence of big actors in the dairy products market which are not linked to farming – They have the possibility to follow opportunities, which are unreachable for farmers.
Marketing & Target Audience
Hillacres: The majority of our product goes through farmers markets. We attend two markets from May-Thanksgiving and have quite a following. We also have cheese in about 15 smaller stores. Our target audience is people who want to know who is growing their food and appreciate good quality.
LBC: From day one, we made a deliberate decision to sell 100% of our product from our farm retail store – for at least the first couple years. This was the best decision we ever made. We promised ourselves the cows would always be our number one priority and the raison d’être of the entire business and we feel going to farmers markets would be the first step in breaking that promise.
MSP: Primarily we market our products to local stores, located about a 100km range from the farm. We sell through our small store at farm, groceries, small stores, supermarkets, large-scale retail trade, and retail purchasing consortiums almost on a daily base. We try to communicate to our final customer the real value of what we produce, which comes out of our long farmin tradition, respect for nature and safety of our product, which is produced with only raw milk produced on our farm. Also, since 2008, all the energy used at both the farm and cheese factory comes from our biogas facility – Making us a 100% renewable and sustainable energy company, this is seen from our customers as an Environment Caring.
What is most rewarding and what is most challenging selling directly to consumers?
Hillacres: Most consumers are appreciative of the time that we put in to grow the food. They want to hear what we have to say. The most rewarding part is direct feedback. Probably the biggest challenge is getting them to realize that we are not a store – we do run out of items.
LBC: We operate the farm with an open door policy and allow customers access to the entire farm, encouraging questions. We have certainly found that transparency is far more important to consumers than any certification or label claim. The best part of opening up the farm is that it actually holds us accountable to our promise of focusing on the cows. Things are far from perfect here, but when you operate like you have a tour group from the city coming every day, it is a good thing!
We are proud to share that our customers have a distinct confidence in the dairy aisle at the grocery store. The dairy products we sell are a result of unique taste, freshness, or simply to support a small local business. This is in sharp contrast to what they tell us about beef products. It is clear to us on a daily basis that not allowing BST into Canada built a deep trust between Canadian dairy farmers and their consumers.
MSP: Selling cheese products to consumers is a challenge, a different job from just farming, but knowing that many people for generations have grown up drinking our milk and eating our dairy products is the biggest reward.
What advice do you have for those who may consider incorporating processing into their dairies?
Hillacres: Do your research. Visit as many places as you can that are doing it and see what set-ups work for them. Check out your markets and price points before you build to be sure you make what they want. Make a high quality product that you believe in.
Two quotes I like “Things turn our best for people who make the best of the way things turn out”-Unknown and “Quality is not an accident, it is the result of intelligent effort” -John Ruskin.
LBC: Since we renovated a building instead of building new, we didn’t have huge monthly payments to make and thus, sales targets to live up to. This allowed us the luxury of starting slow and allowing the business to grow organically. This way, we have been able to build our product line around our customer base. Growing in smaller increments is also advantageous from a quality standpoint, allowing cheese to be aged and recipes to be improved over time.
MSP: Processing is a different job from farming that needs time and practice, but it also repays all the sacrifice you make to make it work. Our company motto is “Sicuro come madre Natura” (Sure as Mother Nature), which express our confidence in what we do.