North Country Creamery succeeding in rural area
By Martha Hoffman
Keeseville, New York — Small-scale dairy processing and marketing usually requires access to nearby urban markets.
However, in northeastern New York, far from large cities, North Country Creamery is finding success selling dairy products throughout the rural region.
Founded by Ashlee Kleinhammer and partner Steven Googin, the creamery produces creamline yogurt, cheese, raw milk and beef from their grass-only herd.
Products are sold in the on-farm store and café, as well as in grocery stores, natural food stores, co-ops, restaurants, schools, hospitals and one farmers market. Recently they started marketing through a small New York grocery distributor.
Last year, North Country sold 7,500 lbs. of cheese, 6,600 lbs. of yogurt, and 2,500 gallons of raw milk. They milk and process year-round to meet customer needs, but demand drops between January and April each year, so it takes some creativity to fully utilize their milk supply since they don’t ship any to a commodity market.
“We sell bulk yogurt to schools, so that helps keep up the demand,” Ashlee explains. “We can also age some of our pasteurized cheeses.”
The farm store sells their own dairy and meat products as well as eggs, vegetables, and meat from friends. The café is in the same building and operates Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from May through October, with one worker serving a simple menu of grilled cheese and soups.
Ashlee and Steven milk 20 cows and keep five to ten replacement heifers, selling the rest of the calves at one week old. Cull cows and one or two veal calves a year are processed for sale, and customers love the lean, grassfed ground beef from retired dairy animals.
No expansion plans
Ashlee and Steven have no plans to expand the herd, since the size works well with the land base with grass-only feeding. “Processing, marketing, and distributing products takes so much time and energy that I can’t manage a larger herd anyway,” Ashlee adds.
The herd consists of Jerseys and Milking Shorthorns. They are transitioning away from the Jerseys because their butterfat runs off in the whey when making cheese and creates a greasier product. Today they are using Normande bulls for their more desirable balance of protein and butterfat.
The cattle graze 42 acres, and Ashlee moves them five times a day using Batt latches on a solar-powered timer. She moves the water and back fence only twice a day. The rest period varies, starting at 20 days in spring and stretching out as the season progresses.
“Rotational grazing is one of my passions,” Ashlee says. She also studies holistic herd health, but does use antibiotics when needed. The herd is not certified organic, but they are Animal Welfare Approved and New York State Grown and Certified.
The milking cows are fed 1–2 lbs. molasses each day (liquid poured on hay), which Ashlee says really helps balance the energy. In addition, the cows drink fresh whey from the one or two 120–180-gallon cheese makes each week. It took the cattle time to try the whey, but now they love it.
The yearly milk average is 30–35 lbs. per day, which Ashlee is working to improve. “It does get better every year,” she says.
Hay quality is a challenge, because their limited acreage means all hay is purchased, and good quality is hard to find. Ashlee feeds hay in the winter and supplements with hay in the pasture as needed.
Finding a niche
In college, Ashlee found her interest in agriculture and started working on farms that hosted youth summer camps. After that, she spent six years at organic dairies, where she found her niche in small-scale dairying.
In 2013, she had the opportunity she had been waiting for — a farm for sale and set up for dairy and small-scale cheesemaking. She jumped at the idea, but hesitated to take on that much debt.
Fortunately, the Open Space Institute, a conservation organization that preserves landscapes from commercial development, had received a private donation that year specifically to preserve farmland in the Champlain Valley.
“I moved to the area just in time to take advantage of this program,” Ashlee says.
The Open Space Institute sold Ashlee the land over a five-year, lease-to-own agreement. The institute retained the conservation easement, which means Ashlee cannot sell the property for development. This reduced the purchase price by $100,000.
Ashlee and Steven got together in 2013 as well, so he has been part of the entire journey. The previous owner had milked seasonally and eventually stopped entirely in favor of buying milk for cheesemaking, so the cattle facilities needed renovation and insulation.
Renovation and renewal
Luckily, Steven is talented at fixing things and loves inventing and building efficient systems, so he brought the dairy and creamery back online smoothly.
They added a fifth stall to the single-four herringbone parlor to speed up their milking process.
The previous owner had milked around a dozen cows and carried each can of milk from the parlor to the bulk tank in the milk house, so Steven installed a dump station during their second year on the farm. Currently they are working on installing a pipeline.
The seller had made cheese, so infrastructure was in place for Ashlee and Steven to start milking and making cheese right away in May 2013.
They were even able to hire the seller through a Northeast Organic Farming Association grant to help them learn the equipment and master the cheesemaking processes, which shortened the learning curve.
Ashlee and Steven did three farmers markets that year and made many cheese types that required different processes. “We started way too fast,” Ashlee says.
Developing markets took time, and often required sending samples to potential buyers. Says Ashley, “It took some persistence.” After six years, markets are pretty well established, and the goal now is to focus more on local markets since new small-scale creameries continue starting up across the broader region.
Ashlee sees plenty of room for these incoming producers to supply the demand in their own areas.
“I feel that we are prepared for more producers to enter the market,” she explains. “We are dedicated to staying local, so we are working to maintain great relationships with our current customers. Grassfed creamline yogurt is no longer a niche product, but we are creative and open to consider diversification if consumer demand changes.”
Another thing Ashlee and Steven learned is the importance of creating a reasonable and sustainable workload for the creamery. Ashlee found she loves making yogurt, which gives more uniform and predictable results than cheese. She says cheese is an art, and she admires the people who do it well, but for her it works best to make just a handful of different cheeses while expanding the yogurt business.
They are making these fresh cheese varieties: Havarti, Dill Havarti, Camembert, Feta, Pepper Jack and “Cheeseville” (Fromage blanc).
Yogurts are creamline and packaged in quart, gallon and five-gallon containers. They come in four flavors: plain, maple, vanilla and lemon and coffee (all flavors except plain are sweetened with local maple syrup).
In addition to full-time Ashlee and Steven, North Country Creamery employs four workers nearly full time with the creamery, café and farm, with more hours in the summer.
At Steven’s urging, they have streamlined work and focused on quality-of-life goals so everyone gets one day off per week. Ashlee says this has been good for everyone.
Steven has also been researching how to transition the creamery into a worker-owned cooperative to enable profit sharing with all workers.
There have been challenges along the journey. Ashlee and Steven’s limited processing experience made for a steep learning curve as they worked to implement the complex sanitation rules. The Food Safety Modernization Act has been another challenge, because it is harder for small-scale producers to comply.
“The biggest out-of-pocket cost is environmental monitoring, which involves sending samples of food contact and non-food contact surfaces to a lab to be analyzed for the presence of pathogens,” Ashlee says. “We are required to verify all our records within seven days of completion, which is unnecessary on our scale.”
The operation is Grade B, but they are working toward Grade A.
“There’s definitely a surprise at every corner,” Ashlee adds.
Even today, there are new things to learn, but Ashlee and Steven have developed a network of friends who are doing dairy processing, enabling them to share knowledge instead of going it alone.
Martha Hoffman is a freelance writer and grass farmer based in Earlville, IL.