Bigger Is Not Always Better

Micro Dairies Show That Small Can Succeed

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Above, Leahey’s Jersey cows

The new size of dairying is micro. Stina Kutzer’s Gammelgården Creamery in Pownal, Vermont, and Phil and Jen Leahey’s Leahey Farm in Lee, Massachusetts, prove that it is possible to run farm businesses with just a handful of cows. For these farmers, big success comes in a small format.

Stina’s dairy couldn’t have been any smaller at the start. In the fall of 2011 she was milking one Jersey cow, Babette, a gift from her husband, Peter, on her 50th birthday. Now in her third year, Stina milks five cows and makes skyr, butter and cheese as Gammelgården Creamery.

“I’ve worked on big dairies, but I’m not a fan,” she said. The layout of Stina’s farm is on the human scale. Each day she descends the short slope from her little milking parlor to her compact stand-alone creamery building. Her modest pasture pushes out 20 acres to the northwest. It’s just enough land for the milking cows and a few heifers to graze. Stina works with a small pasteurizer designed for micro dairies processing as little as 20 gallons of milk at a time.

Some 40 miles to the south, Phil and Jen Leahey have revived dairying on land that has been in the Leahey family since 1889. “This is part of my dream here,” Phil said while standing in his historic barn. His grandfather pasteurized milk and delivered it to homes in Lee before demand waned in the late 1960s. His uncle shipped bulk milk through the early 1970s. Phil and Jen returned the farm to dairying last year.

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Stina Kutzer making Skur.

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SJen Leahey cares for the future milkers at Gammelgarden Creamery

“As long as we can get the product to the people and get a fair price for it, it’s gonna work,” Phil said, gesturing toward the 288-square-foot shed housing their new milk processing space. Whereas his grandfather milked 35 cows, Phil and Jen have eleven animals in the dairy herd, and currently are milking seven. The number of cows in milk is just a matter of where they are in their lactation cycle.

The small scale of these dairy farms means that the products are incomparably fresh. Few days pass without Stina tying a cloth over her long blond hair to work on making skyr, her signature product.

“I was looking for a Swedish yogurt, but then we arrived at skyr,” she explained while draining a new batch of the Icelandic-style yogurt. Leahey Farm delivers milk multiple times a week to area stores.

“About every other day we’re bottling 45 gallons in half-gallon containers,” Phil explained while standing inside the new milk processing building. His 45-gallon vat pasteurizer occupies one corner along with a small filling machine.

Both farms have found a market hungry for locally produced specialty products. Stina’s silken-textured skyr has won over many customers from national brands of strained yogurt and customers find that Leahey Farm’s cream top Jersey milk outcompetes store brands in flavor and richness. As demand grows, their focus has shifted to sales and marketing.

“Marketing is a bit of a different job than production. You can’t hide on the farm,” Stina said. In 2013 she upgraded her pasteurizer to a slightly larger one. At a maximum 40 gallons capacity, it’s still a piece of specialist micro dairy equipment, but it helps her meet the growing demand for her pudding-like skyr south of the border in Massachusetts. Similarly, Leahey Farm has steadily expanded its sales network since receiving its state processing license less than a year ago. “I feel that we’ve made some tremendous strides here,” said Phil with great expectations for increased sales in 2014.

Well-planned investments helped to keep startup costs low and profit within reach for these farms. Stina built her minimalist milking parlor and creamery in part with used equipment salvaged from defunct dairy farms in the area. Those inactive dairy farms remind Stina of the challenging economics of dairy farming.

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Leahey’s milking station

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Phil and Jen Leahey with milk cows.

“When I was in college, milking 30–40 cows to sell fluid milk was enough, but not anymore,” she said while rolling up a spool of round skyr labels depicting Babette. “You either have to be tiny like me, or have 1,000 cows. There’s not much in between.”

The Leaheys applied for a state grant to invest in small-scale dairy processing last year and are currently developing frozen yogurt to sell from a mobile unit at farmers’ markets and other events.

Even though their models are small, Gammelgården Creamery and Leahey Farm do not resist growth. Leahey Farm’s business plan predicts profitability with eight milking cows, but “If we could do it with 15 cows, that would be awesome,” Phil said. The future of Leahey Farm rests on the success of added-value products like yogurt, which is available at select retailers, and frozen desserts.

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Micro dairy portable milker

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Micro dairy vat pasturizer.

Gammelgården Creamery has grown by collaborating with other southwestern Vermont food businesses, pairing Leslie Kielson’s crunchy and sweet Battenkill Brittle and Ross Warren’s Jamtastic Jam with unctuous skyr. “It’s fun to promote three local businesses all at once,” Stina said. She also produces butter, cheese, and buttermilk.

These farmers are vocal local food advocates. Stina keeps her distribution radius small so that her products are consumed close to home. “Nothing bothers me more than seeing California milk advertised on Vermont television,” she growled. Phil and Jen note that their dream of a micro dairy depends on customers who value the unique quality of Leahey Farm milk and yogurt. They enthusiastically broadcast the idea that money spent on local food strengthens the entire community. These dairies are micro, but their positive impact on the land and local economy is bigger than it seems.

Brent Wasser is interested in the processes by which plants and animals become food. He manages the Sustainable Food & Agriculture Program at Williams College.

WHERE YOU CAN FIND
GAMMELGÂRDEN & LEAHEY PRODUCTS

GAMMELGÅRDEN CREAMERY PRODUCTS

  • Cricket Creek Farm, Williamstown
  • Spine n’ Nice Natural Foods, Bennington
  • Tunnel City Coffee, Williamstown
  • Wild Oats Cooperative Market, Williamstown
  • Williams College Eco Café

LEAHEY FARM PRODUCTS

  • Berkshire Co-op Market, Great Barrington
  • Berkshire Organics, Dalton
  • East Lee Package Store, Lee
  • Loeb’s Foodtown, Lenox
  • Meadow Farm Market, Lee
  • Peace Love & Chocolate, Stockbridge
  • Public Market, West Stockbridge
  • The Starving Artist Creperie and Café, Lee
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