Jeff and Jill Burkhart own and operate an 80 acre rotationally grazed grass farm where they milk 80 Jersey cows in a Grade A dairy, and then bottle the milk in a Grade A creamery. The farm is divided into paddocks, with a break wire being moved twice daily not only to ensure the cows get fresh grass often, but to the use the grass more efficiently. The pastures are alfalfa, orchard, and rye grasses. There is also a 25 acre field which the Burkhart’s chop for corn silage. The Burkhart’s rent another 80 acres of hay ground to harvest for year around use.
Picket Fence Creamery is a family operation, consisting of Jeff and Jill and their children, Jenna, 17; and James 4. They employ Jeff’s brother to help with milking, and Jill’s sister to help bottle and run the store.
Sustainable practices were carried out prior to this grant. The Burkhart’s have been rotationally grazing for 15 years, and installed a filter strip near a creek that runs through the farm eight years ago.
PROJECT DESCRIPTION AND RESULTS
Our project goal, as described in our grant application, was to enhance our quality of rural life while sustaining a way of life for our children, through the construction of a bottling plant on our dairy farm.
In our grant application, we mentioned an educational goal of sharing information with other producers, educators, students, and the general public. We joined up with Practical Farmers of Iowa and had a field day in August, 2004; and again had our own field day/1st Anniversary Open House in October, 2004. At the August event, publicized by PFI, we had approximately 120 people tour and lunch here. At our three day October event, we hosted over 900 people. We’ve hosted visitors though Iowa State University from several countries, had thousands of local school children here, and have had three Greyhound bus tours so far. We’ve enjoyed good publicity as Jill possesses a degree in journalism and writes press releases periodically, in addition to submitting pictures to the local media. We are happy to take students through the story of milk…from cow to carton! They can see all processes in one place here at Picket Fence Creamery. By the way, we started charging for tour groups, $2 per person, in the spring of 2004, because we were spending a part of everyday taking care of curious visitors. Now, tours are set up in advance at specific times.
The process in starting an on farm bottling plant began with writing a business plan and a market feasibility study, and then surveying area grocers and consumers about whether they would be interested in purchasing local dairy products. We had a adviser from Iowa State University, Ron Orth, who took us through these steps and made suggestions on how to accomplish the preliminary work. We also spoke directly with Francis Thicke of Fairland, Iowa the only other dairy farmer in Iowa at that time processing his own milk. We drove to his farm, toured his creamery and asked many questions of him.
Once we decided to go with the project, the next step was to contact our state inspector, get building specs ready, research equipment possibilities, and make a visit to our banker. Our SARE grant application as to help in purchase the creamery equipment. We secured a loan by showing our banker the business plan and marketing study. He said it is the first time he had ever seen a farmer bring in such reports. The information he needed, such as income projections for the next three years, were all at his fingertips. Once we signed the loan papers, we began pouring cement and then built a new creamery/country store. Equipment was installed in July, 2003 and we received our permit to bottle milk in October, 2003.
Picket Fence Creamery is considered a “value added” project. we are adding value to commodity (raw milk), by bottling it ourselves. The purpose of the SARE grant was simple: to help pay for equipment to get this project off the ground. The results of our planning and research are evidenced in the operation of Picket Fence Creamery!
Here is a list of producers and others who assisted with this project:
– Ron Orth, Iowa Institute of Cooperatives: business plan, feasibility study, surveys, our ongoing adviser.
– Mike Upah, Pappajohn Center: financial information and multiyear projections for the business plan.
– Pat Paustian, Iowa Ag Innovation Center: a $1000 grant from the Iowa Dept. Economic Development to pay for Mike Upah’s services.
– Rich Wrage and Joyce Patterson: Boone County Extension Service: letters of support for grant applications.
The results for the Picket Fence Creamery project are not measured in increased yields or field analysis. rather, the results are measured in the boosting of profitability of dairy farming through an on site bottling plant. Our projections called for selling a gallon of bottled milk for $3, instead of being paid $1 per gallon by a coop for raw milk. These figures have proven to be very close to reality. In fact, we are charging $6 per gallon for our flavored milks, which have become a good niche for us. Our flavored milk include vanilla, strawberry, chocolate, root beer float and tropical orange. Kids and adults both love them!
And, after our first year of operation, we are sustaining a way of life for our children and we hope for generations to come.
From this grant, we learned that with some willingness to step out of the box, explore innovation marketing techniques, and work hard toward a goal, that small farms can still be sustainable. Neither of the Burkhart’s holds an outside job (Jill resigned in September 2003). This project had to stand on its own; the dairy cows are making a decent living for this family, and visitors from several states are curious to know how it all works. There is ample room for more value added, sustainable agriculture projects. The consumer is becoming increasingly interested in knowing not only where food comes from, but what animals are fed, how they live, how they are treated, and yes, knowing the people who produce the food. Our customers enjoy stepping foot on a farm, being welcomed by name, smelling the fresh air, and seeing the sights a farm has to offer. Even in Iowa, most people don’t have access to a farm, let alone the opportunity to drive into the driveway, lean about how it operates, and actually purchase farm fresh foods.
The advantages of implementing a project such as ours include: ability to stay on the farm and continue sustainable agricultural practices, educate others about dairy farming and farm practices, increase in income, ability to include children in the business.
The disadvantages of implementing a project such as ours include: a thousand hoops to jump through to get the Grade A bottling permit, long hours (16-20 hours per day, no days off) until the point is reached when labor can be hired. This isn’t for everyone. But if you have an inspiration and are willing to work hard for it, it can be done.
The methods used for telling others about our project, our project events and project results, have been a series of news releases which usually prompt a reporter into visiting the farm to do a story and take pictures. We even had a TV reporter call and say she wanted to milk a cow. We didn’t turn her down. The story ran on the early morning news and was replayed all day long!
We joined with Practical Farmers of Iowa to have a field day in August, 2004. They took care of publicity, which went to educators, local media, local chefs, etc. We had a good turnout of 120 people, who also ate lunch here.
We sponsored our own field day and anniversary open house in October, 2004. Over the three day weekend, we hosted 900 people. We gave three large group tours, and all sampled the milk and ice cream! We had a great weekend.
We will continue to publicize our monthly events. For example, we have a Sample Sunday each month, to showcase all of the delicious, local foods we sell in the store. On average, around 300 people attend these events. Our next sample day is Sunday, December 12 from noon to 6 pm. We advertise in the local media regularly.
We have spoken to a dozen other dairy families thinking about a value added project. We don’t sugar coat and are frank with them about the advantages and disadvantages. Much depends on the current financial situation, how much money will need to be borrowed, the work force available and their willingness to make the project work, and a good marketing strategy.