Central New York, the rectangle comprised of Albany, Ithaca and the area perhaps 60 miles north and south of the line connecting them, is exceptional diary country. It is graced by emerald green, rolling country, small towns still with farming dealerships, moderate temperatures, 40 inches of rain and 180 days of sunshine per year. Not the world’s greatest soil for vegetables, it is excellent for grass.
It was here, almost 10 years ago, that a creamery was started which was quickly to become a beacon for over 200 struggling local dairy farmers. The central idea was that an organic yogurt, made with 100% grass-fed milk, would appeal to a growing consumer segment. And with the premium from such a product a reasonable price could be paid to small farmers for their milk – a price high enough to keep them in business.
The creamery was the brainchild of Tim Joseph, at the time a struggling diary farmer himself. But he didn’t start out that way.
“When I was 13,” he relates, “I told my parents I wanted to be a farmer. I didn’t have a farming background at all, but I was fascinated by it. My grandfather on my father’s side was an Armenian from Turkey. I never knew him, but he was a baker and bought land in Long Valley, NJ to raise cows to milk for cheese for his baked goods. The price of milk went so low, though, that he soon found out it was cheaper to buy cheese than raise it.
“As a young man,” he continues, “I started working for my friend who had a company in Westchester County. We made dental imaging equipment. I was involved on many levels, but finally was a product manager. We were bought and sold a number of times and it ended up being owned out of Atlanta.”
But Tim had been working at home and thought this might be a good time to scratch his farming itch. He was looking to buy a house, but realized that the price of a fixer-upper ranch house was such that he could buy a whole farm in Central New York for the same price. His wife Laura was supportive, and they both felt raising a family on a farm was a good way to do it. So in 2003 they bought a 250 acre old dairy farm, Stone Creek Farm, in Little Falls, New York. Tim kept his day job to pay the bills and they decided to raise sheep and hogs.
Within a year they realized that was a mistake. Besides not having any experience with livestock, Joseph realized there wasn’t a stable revenue stream in the critters. But he and Laura wanted to ‘just farm’ to support their growing family. So they thought they would try milking cows.
“In 2004,” he sighs, “we bought 64 cows and became dairy farmers. We had no background or knowledge to help us, and we had a lot of on-the-job-training from neighbors. But we made an awful lot of mistakes. It was a tremendous amount of work but Laura and I pitched in and tried to make a go of it. I still had my day job with a good deal of travel necessary, so Laura ended up with a lot of the milking.”
But they were doing the conventional dairy thing, bringing in feed to the barn for the cows and carrying their manure back out. It all seemed backward to Tim — the cows should be out eating and manuring the fields. When he was younger he had read Stockman’s Grass Farmer magazine and went to some of their meetings. He understood the value of feeding grass and was intrigued by converting solar energy into food.
“And grain feeding just didn’t pencil out very well either,” he says. “Grain was expensive, we were moving a lot of material. It just didn’t make any sense. The Van Amburgs, a farm family at Dharma Lea Farm, were also finding out the same things. We were friendly and only forty minutes apart, so we compared notes.”
Once they stopped feeding grain and corn silage it became obvious to Tim that a lot of the subtle chronic problems the cows had were from their diet and lifestyle. With cows those problems are even more pronounced than with humans, because cows are production animals and we are pushing their biological limits. One of the first things to show up is feet and leg issues — dairy farmers know that lameness is a big culling signal.
“A year after we changed to grazing,” Joseph recalls, “the guy who came each year to take care of their hooves said he didn’t think we needed him anymore. Now the cows were out wearing down their hooves grazing and didn’t need him for trims. Our farm had a heavy slate soil and they were up and down the hills all the time.”
Tim knew that making yogurt was one proven way to add value to milk, and he thought there might be a market niche for a grass-fed brand. He experimented with different recipes on the kitchen stove, trying the results out on the kids, and finally came up with a creamline yogurt that became their hallmark recipe. A neighbor had an old barbeque restaurant storefront in Little Falls that Tim converted to a yogurt and cheese making facility. So after a few years of grass-fed dairying, in 2009 Tim and Laura started Maple Hill Creamery (named for the beautiful maple covered hill behind the old restaurant). Joseph gave up his day job to throw himself fulltime into building the business.
It was a lousy time to make that decision, however, and leave the only steady income they had.
The recession was peaking and he and Laura quickly ran out of money. They couldn’t afford groceries or to heat their drafty old farmhouse, and were just scraping by on the farm. At this point Tim’s sister, Julia, and her husband, Pete Meck, decided to quit their dependable, well-paying jobs in New Jersey, and join Tim and Laura in order keep the business alive.
Things got worse before they got better — the electricity was shut off, the family car was repossessed and, at one point, the farm was in foreclosure. But, somehow, things began to turn around. The yogurt gained a loyal following, especially at farmers’ markets in Manhattan. The grass-fed philosophy began to catch on with conscious consumers and the business started to grow. Two other 100% grass-fed dairy farmers (the Van Amburgs of Dharma Lea, and the Kings of Hidden Camp Farm) joined with the Josephs, and with the extra milk supply they were able to increase production and distribute their yogurt across the Northeast into natural food and specialty stores. By 2012 it was clear that the little creamery could no longer support the increasing orders so the families sold the farm and moved to Stuyvesant, NY to a much larger facility.
In the few short years since then Maple Hill has become one of the fastest-growing dairy brands in the natural channel, available from over 6,000 retailers across the US in all 50 states. Over 200 farms, all 100% grass-fed, supply milk to the creamery. In 2014 Pennsylvania Certified Organic (PCO) began certifying their farms to validate the grass-fed label.
Of course the change to grass-fed dairying is not always easy. For one thing, milk production goes down when a cow starts relying on grass. Across all the herds now supplying milk to Maple Hill, Tim estimates that when a cow goes from grain to grass the farmer experiences a 20% to 35% drop in milk production.
“We didn’t really have anyone to talk to then about how to manage this,” he admits. “But the right answer is to put more cows on an acre. If you are managing well you can do that. You are pushing on a string to try to get more milk out of a grazing cow, but if you are grazing properly and getting your pastures working, you are able to support more animals on that pasture. More hooves and mouths on the grass actually creates more grass and that equals more milk.”
In making that transition to grass a farmer has an income gap until things even out. The creamery that buys the milk has to make up that gap by way of milk prices. But in the long run the farmer’s better management can improve the financial picture even more than just pricing alone, with lower input costs, higher milk quality and better herd health.
Maple Hill has a seasonal pricing model. Tim uses it to tell farmers when they want more milk. Creamery prices are lowest in the spring when there is a spring flush and everyone is drowning in milk. The price goes up slowly over the year until, in December, January and February it reaches a peak. That is when Tim needs more milk, the market for yogurt is good, and farmers can have a lot of costs to buy and store hay.
“On a year round average,” Joseph estimates, “our farmers are making $39 to $40 per hundredweight, depending on how they are managing their herd. If they do a good job on quality and follow seasonal pricing to freshen their cows in July, they can make $42 or even $43.”
Tim heard about the Regenerative Organic Certification program when it was just being put together.
“For us,” he affirms, “it just seemed like a confirmation of what we were already doing. We have always been trying to leave the soil better than when we started. That is what we spend a lot of time on with our farmers. That is the only way they can make it work better for their farm – to make the land better than when they started.”
ROC serves as a way for Maple Hill to separate their brand from others in the market. For more and more consumers, he says, how the food is raised matters. Grass-fed is a growing segment of the dairy case. Maple Hill yogurt pioneered grass-fed certification and has been certified 100% grass-fed for 4 or 5 years now. That certification gives credibility to their grass-fed claim in a market where sometimes claims are made on a container but there is no third-party backing that claim up. With the certification they can demonstrate to retailers and distributors that Maple Hill is able to back up their label claims. Increasingly, that matters, just like it does with non-GMO or organic.
“The ROC is just forming itself right now,” Tim explains, “and we all are moving forward in parallel together. Of course the organic claim is the foundation of this all and we can check that box, but the others are important. We’re 100% grass-fed, so we can check that box. We do a massive amount of on-farm monitoring of soil and have more data than I think anyone has on their farms — pasture cover, soil organic matter, everything. When the time comes for that box to be checked we’re ready to clearly show our work on soils. Animal welfare is important to consumers and of course us too. 100% grass-fed systems are healthier for the cow in a number of ways. There are a number of animal welfare organizations doing certification, there is other stuff coming together in organic, and I don’t think we will have trouble checking that box over the next year.
“We will have to deal with the social justice issue too,” he continues, “when we do the ROC audit. We survey a lot of information from our farms, not just biological, and on 98% of our farms the person doing the milking is the owner of the farm. The tricky thing about that is that the owner of the farm is often not operating at an economic level that you would consider just, or right. I know it is hard to come up with a standard for justice or fairness that applies to Third World conditions as well as domestically, but I think we will work that out. I just don’t know if we are going to go for a separate existing certification program or what.”
Already a national leader in grass-fed dairy products, Tim has been working with PCO, NOFA-NY, Organic Valley and others for a couple of years to create a national grass-fed certification program.
“We hope to be rolling out an organic grass-fed certification,” he announces, “that will be available through all independent accredited certifiers in 2019. Maple Hill will migrate there, and PCO will become a part of that. It will be an additional add-on label to organic. Up to now it has been just a working group, but we’re forming the non-profit as we speak.
Published in Winter 2018-19 issue.