Diversifying Dairy in Vermont
Three farms, three stories
Written ByLisa Harris
Written onApril 10 , 2013
Turkey Hill Farm sits on 50 acres of land in Randolph. The view was breathtaking from Stuart and Margaret Osha’s porch, as we sat one morning in April listening to the songbirds and the happy pigs rooting under the trees. I came to the farm to find out what it’s like to launch a value-added dairy product after years of selling raw milk. A few weeks later, the Oshas announced they will be moving on from farming this fall, but their story remains compelling.
The couple, now in their 60s, started their farm in 2001 and currently have six Jersey crosses for their raw milk sales. Although the raw milk business had been working well for them—they’d developed a solid customer base selling their milk, along with some other items they and other local folks produce, including eggs, maple syrup, and meats—they recently took a foray into yogurt production.
It’s a two-mile trek along a dirt road in Randolph that leads to their farm. “We’re not on the beaten path here, we’re out,” Stuart said. That makes their raw milk sales dependent on people who commit to coming out to the farm. High gas prices this past spring added to the challenge, as more people returned to one-stop shopping at large grocery stores and skipped their occasional trip to the dairy farm. According to Margaret, sales were “sometimes inconsistent, which is why we got into doing the added-value. We thought that might be a good way to use extra milk.”
The Oshas began producing and selling their own yogurt last summer, to try to draw in more customers. They were milking five cows and decided to add the sixth for the extra milk needed to make yogurt. But the extra pressures of needing to hire paid help, purchase expensive processing equipment, and provide all the necessary requirements for state inspectors proved to be no small task. Fortunately for them, they were able to construct the processing facility in their garage, which included access to the necessary water and septic systems for processing milk. But they also had to purchase a pasteurizer, chiller, incubator, walk-in cooler, fillers for the yogurt containers, and other equipment. That was a challenge, because some of that small-scale equipment isn’t even made in the U.S. But they did purchase their bulk tank and milking machine from Bob-White Systems, a company in South Royalton that specializes in small-scale dairy equipment.
With all of the challenges creating the processing room, locating appropriately sized equipment and dealing with U.S. customs when they purchased an incubator from the Netherlands—along with the current economy and Tropical Storm Irene—Stuart told me, “In retrospect it was probably a mistake for us. We would’ve been better off just selling our raw milk and having our store and our other products.”
There is a lot of yogurt already on the market. When the existing shelf space is 12 feet long, creating customer loyalty is difficult to achieve alongside well-known brands such as Stonyfield and Cabot. And finding ways to ship the product to stores can be frustrating for a small operation like Turkey Hill. The Oshas had very little time outside of their farming chores to drive around Vermont delivering their yogurt. Arrangements with other distributors didn’t work out, so once a week they were delivering to Hunger Mountain Co-op in Montpelier and hooked up with Farmers To You, which distributes Northeast farm products to families in the Boston area who commit to purchasing a minimum dollar amount from a list of offerings.
A few weeks after I interviewed the Oshas, they informed me that they had decided to make some major changes. They will be handing over the cows and raw milk business to a young farmer from Randolph, Clark Parmelee, who will also set up a small store where other products may be purchased. Yogurt and fresh cheeses will no longer be produced at Turkey Hill, but Fat Toad Farm will continue to make their goat cheeses in the processing room. The farm will become the Osha homestead, where Margaret will continue her educational classes and both she and Stuart will remain chapter leaders for the Weston A. Price Foundation.
But back in April, as I prepared to leave the farm, Stuart told me, “What I’d like you to leave with is that the raw milk business is a good, viable small business, and if you can do other products, whatever you can do yourselves, I think it works.”
Cobb Hill is an intentional co-housing community that sits on the side of a hill in Hartland. Jeannine Kilbride is the director and an owner-partner of Cobb Hill Frozen Yogurt, the community’s latest dairy venture. She is also a resident of Cobb Hill and works in both the cheesemaking and frozen yogurt enterprises there. She met me one chilly morning to talk about the business and to give me a tour.
Of the farm’s herd of 40 or so cows, 16 Jerseys currently provide milk for Cobb Hill Cheese, Cobb Hill Frozen Yogurt, and Spring Brook Farm, which makes cheese in Reading. At peak time in the summer they milk 20 cows. Only so much milk can be used for cheesemaking, though, so Cobb Hill wanted to find a product that would utilize more of the milk that is supplied daily, courtesy of the cows, and provide the community with another on-farm product.
“Frozen yogurt was developed to give us more business,” Jeannine said. “The thing is with yogurt, everybody’s making yogurt. That’s why I didn’t want to make yogurt, plus it’s very perishable. There’s a lot of competition.” She added that frozen yogurt “has a longer shelf life, a year. It never makes it that long…but I ship it out somewhere and I know that we’re not going to lose it in a couple of weeks. I didn’t want to have a product that was highly perishable.” And Cobb Hill is making the only frozen yogurt in Vermont, which is a great niche to have.
Like Turkey Hill, Cobb Hill didn’t have to struggle to set up a processing facility. The cheese production area is shared with the frozen yogurt business. But they did make a substantial investment in purchasing a blast freezer, refrigerator, pasteurizer, and batch freezer used to make the frozen yogurt. They make it in small batches, 250 to 300 pints a week, which are sold in co-ops and food stores both in Vermont and New Hampshire. Compared to the three people working Turkey Hill Farm, Cobb Hill’s location within an intentional community is key to their success. There are people living there who rely on the food produced there and who participate in the enterprises without expecting an immediate paycheck.
“So I live here, I can get raw milk for myself, cheese, meat, beef, lamb, I can buy some maple syrup,” Jeannine said. “A lot of the time our common meals are everything that comes from the farm—all the vegetables we’re eating were raised here, and meats, whoever’s cooking will make some homemade bread. It just makes us feel good that we can be doing something like that. It’s not always profit driven.”
In addition, there are other folks who provide valuable consulting resources and often get paid by barter—a gallon of maple syrup or some pints of frozen yogurt—for their time helping with business planning, administrative assistance, and institutional memory from previous years of enterprise work there.
I asked Jeannine how she thinks Cobb Hill can become more popular with Vermont consumers.
“The only way I see that’s going to happen is to get our products into the big chain stores because people don’t have time to go to the farmers’ market and Shaw’s and the co-op.” Unfortunately, though, there is a lot of red tape involved in that pursuit. Hannaford has expressed interest in Cobb Hill Frozen Yogurt, “but the process is excruciatingly painful, to say the least. I fill out some forms, then two months later I finally pick up the phone and say, what’s going on? And then I’ll be e-mailed some other form, I fill out that form, then it will be another couple of months.”
The subject of distribution also came up.
“Blue Moon Sorbet was helping with our deliveries. I’ve had an offer from Leonardo’s Gelato to distribute…So you can get people who are willing to truck your product around who are already doing it, which is good for them. Wilcox Ice Cream is also offering.” Jeannine stresses that it’s important to find out who is located along their routes, and speak directly to the stores to find a way in.
One alternative that Jeannine is exploring is a group called the Organic Renaissance Food Exchange (ORFoodEx). Based in Boston, it facilitates relationships between local buyers and local producers to strengthen the Northeast local food system, providing pickup, delivery, and storage space options for the regional farmers. “I think ORFoodEx is going to be big,” Jeannine said.
Lisa Kaiman runs Jersey Girls Farm in Chester. She took time from one of her busy days to tell me about the successes, and challenges, of operating a grass-based, raw milk dairy—one that might sell ricotta and pasteurized milk soon, and eventually butter.
Lisa started out shipping her milk through Agrimark in 1999. The frustration was evident in her voice when she admitted, “After a few years I realized, every time that milk truck left this cowyard, I was losing money. And if I kept that up I wasn’t going to be here very long.” So she began looking at other alternatives.
Consider Bardwell Farm in West Pawlett was looking for cow’s milk to make a high-end cheese. “They needed really high-quality milk out of grass-fed cows because silage-fed milk makes cheese gassy.” She supplied them with milk for three or four years, but the one-and-a-half hour distance “just became prohibitive. We had to cross two mountain ranges, in the winter.”
Then she began shipping milk to Spring Brook Farm in Reading for the production of their Tarentaise and Raclette cheeses. That was good for a while, but then along came Tropical Storm Irene. “They couldn’t get here for a month. Their town was destroyed. I had 15 feet of water go through [one of my] fields; it was three feet from my house…I couldn’t ship milk and I didn’t have a road for a while either so that really hurt.” Consequently, she lost that customer and had to just make it through the impacts of Irene.
The cows were so stressed that three spontaneously aborted their calves. Those that had already had calves and were producing needed to be milked. And everyone needed to be fed and provided with bedding through the winter. Sawdust was nowhere to be found and she had to resort to cotton bales. It was a bad time of year to find hay.
The good thing going for Lisa was the popularity of her raw milk, and the inns and restaurants that purchase her eggs and veal. They’ve been wanting her to make a dairy product that they can incorporate into their menus, so she’s decided to make ricotta and pasteurized milk, and perhaps eventually butter. She doesn’t want to make aged cheese, though, which is a more complex endeavor.
“I’m not a cheesemaker. I’m not pretending to be a cheesemaker. I don’t want to be a cheesemaker,” she said. “I’ve got enough to do. I’m not looking to make it a whole lot harder…but I’m looking to make it. I’m a dairy farmer. This is what I do.”
Lisa began construction on a new processing facility at the end of last year but her plans have stalled because she has to find a way to afford the installation of a toilet for the use of the inspectors, as is required in federal regulations. She has already purchased all the equipment she needs to pasteurize and bottle her milk and to make ricotta cheese—her customers are all lined up and now just waiting.
Lisa is content with the equipment she bought, but would rather use a new pasteurizing technology that is gentler on her delicious milk: the Bob-White Low-Impact Pasteurizer, which was developed for micro-dairies by Bob-White Systems. It saves energy, is less damaging to the beneficial aspects of milk, and is less labor intensive for the farmer. Unfortunately, the technology is not a part of the Pasteurized Milk Ordinance (PMO), which lays out the regulations for dairies and processors. Hence, it currently cannot be utilized by the farms for which it was designed. (The company is working on changing that.)
So for now, Jersey Girls will continue to do what it has always done: rely on its longtime customers. They are a loyal bunch, traveling from Connecticut, Massachusetts, and other places, even at the current price of gas, just for her milk. As Lisa notes, “My customers hug me. They hug me. Which is fine, but I had to get used to it.”
About the Author
Lisa Harris currently lives in Huntington, where she writes, eats, and is breathing new life into her blog.