Old MacDonald had a Farm Store

0913CowIceCream

Retail shops restaurants popping up on New North farms with ready-to-eat service

Story by Robin Driessen Bruecker

Since owning a farm means owning a business, it makes sense for farm owners to think of ways to bring customers to their business site.

Many consumers are accustomed to thinking of supermarkets as the source of their meat, vegetables, cheese, fruit, dairy, honey and wine. These stores are certainly convenient and carry items that aren’t available locally – and they may have some local products. More and more, however, the aforementioned products have become available directly from the producers. Farmers markets are one way. On-site retail stores and restaurants are another.

“As a farmer with a product, one has to ask, ‘How is the customer going to get my product into their hands?’” said Kay Craig of GrassWay Organics LLC, who runs her New Holstein livestock farm with husband, Wayne. “An on-farm store has the customer coming to the farm. Supermarkets and farmers markets mean the farmer must either figure out a delivery system to the stores – farmer-delivered, hired services, UPS, etc. – or pack up coolers, etc. into the family car/van/truck to take to the market.

“A sale to a supermarket is a wholesale transaction, which is typically a lower-cost sale. Farmers markets are a great introduction to an interested group of people, but it takes a tremendous amount of time and labor. A farm store solves the delivery issue and allows retail – direct to the customer – sales.”

Starting up

With both of them raised on farms, the Craigs purchased their 247-acre farm in 1993. Around that time, Kay heard an organic dairy farmer speak at a women’s group meeting and became intrigued by organic farming and its methods. They wanted their cows to roam free outdoors, eating grass and being raised by methods good both for them and humans.

In 2000 the Craigs began selling eggs, followed by beef quarters and chickens, directly from their farm. Customer response led to the opening of a retail store on-site in April 2005. “We were getting requests for cuts of beef and we saw more opportunity to sell chicken than just slaughter day,” said Craig.

In keeping with the “green” aspects of their farm, the Craigs brought in a Focus on Energy representative to upgrade compressor motors and change the fluorescent lights.

“We reuse egg cartons, plastic bags and paper bags that members save for us,” added Craig.

Adding value to the farm

Over in Fond du Lac County, the Kelley family farm has been operating in the town of Byron near Eden since the Civil War years. A new creamery is the “baby” of the farm, having been born in May 2010 when its doors opened. The Kelleys milk a herd of 65 Holsteins.

“I always wanted to do something on the farm,” said Karen Kelley. “Whether it would be a product or service I wasn’t sure, so I attended value-added conferences and local food seminars. Expanding our dairy herd was something my husband and I discussed, but with three very large farms in a three-mile radius and land at a premium, it wouldn’t be feasible.

“After researching many value-added products, I decided on ice cream,” she went on. “Since we already produced high-quality milk on our dairy farm, why not use the milk to produce a premium non-homogenized farmstead ice cream? Ice cream was always a treat growing up for my family and for my husband’s – it is loved by people of all ages and brings people together for some old-fashioned fun. Real hard, hand-dipped ice cream is a lost art and I wanted to bring the real ice cream back again since it can be flavored in so many ways.”

Those real ice cream flavors number no less than 260 at Kelley Country Creamery, with flavors rotating and 22 available on any given day. A glimpse of its website in late August lists Acai Blueberry, Apple Turnover, Banana Cream Pie, Barnyard Bash (maple walnut ice cream with pieces of pancakes, waffles, French toast and walnuts), Caramel Apple Pie, Cheesecake with Snickers – and that’s just a few examples from the A, B and C sections. And yes, it does have a Z flavor – Zebra, vanilla ice cream with devil’s food cake.

In addition to ice cream, the Kelleys create ice cream cakes and pies for special events, as well as specialty sundaes.

“Some customers do have a hard time making a decision (when ordering at the counter), while others just stick to the same flavor every time because they just love it,” Kelley said. Many come back frequently just to try new flavors or our delicious and always interesting specialty sundaes.”

Goat crossing ahead

Not far from these two farms is another agribusiness with its own store, LaClare Farms in Pipe, located in northeast Fond du Lac County. Larry and Clara Hedrich bought the existing farm in 1978. Two dairy goats were part of the package, which evolved from a hobby for their kids to a 4-H breeding and showing activity to commercial milk production in 1996, and eventually goat-milk cheese including the national award-winning Evalon brand.

Since 2001, Larry has worked fulltime on the farm while Clara continues to teach agriculture at West De Pere High School. Larry also manages Quality Dairy Goat Cooperative of Wisconsin.

LaClare Farms’ most recent development is a 35,000-sq. ft. facility opened this past August that features a dairy plant; a 600-goat housing and milking parlor; a retail shop that sells a variety of Wisconsin-made products in addition to LaClare’s specialty cheeses; and a cafe that serves lunch and dinner.

With the new milk-processing and cheese-curing space, LaClare can begin adding to its popular line of cheeses made from goat milk and mixed milk from cows, goats and sheep. Its brands – which include Evalon, Fresh Chevre and Fondy Jack – are made by daughter and skilled cheesemaker, Katie Hedrich. Son Greg serves as a business manager, daughter Jessica heads up the retail store, and daughter Anna helps with the family’s 375 goats.

“This has been a labor of love for the Hedrich family,” said Larry Hedrich. “This is one of the most modern facilities in the U.S. with vertically integrated components that allow us to produce the highest-quality goat milk products possible.”

Networking

As with any business, networking with farming colleagues can be valuable to an owner.

Prior to opening their store, the Craigs visited a couple other on-farm shops, with the owner of one of the farms becoming a mentor of sorts, Craig noted. Besides beef, free-range chicken, eggs and cheese, the GrassWay Organics farm store carries some items from other local farms, although not as much as Craig would like.

“We are an organic food store,” she explained, “so while I certainly make exceptions and carry non-organic local, it does limit my options somewhat.”

After eight years of running an on-site store, the Craigs have learned a few things they in turn can share with other farm owners. When they were starting out, Craig said, “The one thing we didn’t take into full consideration was the time needed to tend the store. Someone has to be there all the time you are open. Also, one of the reasons people come to us is for information, i.e. they want to talk. People also want to get their kids exposed to a real farm. This all takes a tremendous amount of time.”

“I think the best advice I could give someone is to really think about what you want the store/farm to be,” she continued. “Why would someone drive 30 miles to get to your store/farm when it is so much more convenient to stop at the large markets? You must offer something that they can’t get anywhere else, or is so much better that they are willing to drive by the other guy to get to you.”

LaClare Farms will share its new dairy plant with other dairy producers – be it milk from goats, cows or sheep – and offer guidance when needed. The facility processes not only LaClare’s milk but can also be rented by other dairy entrepreneurs who want to create new products.

Learn your craft

To get started on working a creamery, Kelley took a couple of short courses on ice cream making at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and another through the University of Florida on running a successful ice cream business. Additionally, she said, “I built my network of ice cream entrepreneurs by visiting other farmstead operations, ice cream shops and by attending ice cream organization conventions.”

When possible, the Kelleys use the products of other local farms – maple syrup, honey, rhubarb and berries – to flavor their ice cream.

While the development of Kelley Country Creamery was spearheaded by Karen, it’s a family-run business with husband, Tim, and son, Clark, doing creamery maintenance in addition to running the dairy farm. Daughters Amie, Betsy and Heidi make ice cream, and Amie and Heidi also handle baking and ice cream cake decoration for events, for which Tim does delivery. Another daughter, Molly, works the creamery counter and serves as assistant manager.

Best of the best

Starting an ice cream shop on a farm “in the middle of nowhere,” as Karen Kelley put it, was a big risk. It’s one that paid off big time this summer when its ice cream was recognized as the best in the country by ABC’s Good Morning America.

As Kelley explained, “The show asked viewers to email in their favorite things to do in summer. They received emails from over 50 ice cream shops in the U.S. The person who sent our name in did it anonymously. Since July is National Ice Cream Month, they decided to feature three of the shops on the show.”

The Kelleys were chosen as finalists and appeared on the July 22 show in New York City.

“We are very honored to have been given this opportunity,” said Kelley. “We thank the person who sent our name to the show. They treated us very well.” She added that the creamery’s business has “definitely increased” since that episode aired.

It wasn’t their first big accolade – the creamery was voted Best Ice Cream in Wisconsin in 2010 by USA Today readers, the same year it opened.

The Hedrich family is no stranger to product recognition either. In spring 2011, Katie Hedrich won the U.S. Championship Cheese event held in Green Bay for LaClare’s Evalon goat’s milk cheese. Her prize-winning cheese beat out more than 1,600 entries from around the country. Also in 2011, LaClare’s Chevre cheese took second place at the Wisconsin State Fair.

More information about these farm stores is available at their websites and through the Farm Fresh Atlas of Eastern Wisconsin.

Robin Bruecker has 17 years experience in magazine and marcom writing. Contact her at robinbrueck@yahoo.com.