Starting a Microdairy and Creamery
We recently interviewed Jesse Vivian, operator of Lane's End Farm Creamery, a microdairy and creamery in Western Pennsylvania. The Vivian's are a 2021 recipient of the AgChoice Farm Credit Jumpstart Grant, which awarded 15 startup farmers with a $10,000 grant. To listen to the full podcast, click here:
Can you start by telling our listeners about yourself and how you came about starting a microdairy and creamery?
I grew up on a normal sized Pennsylvania dairy farm out in Western Pennsylvania on the edge of the Allegheny Mountains. We milked 110 cows. We farmed 600 acres. Growing up, it wasn't that big. I really like dairy farming, but through the course of what's happened this century, that model just became harder and harder to sustain. I had to leave the farm, but I was still helping my parents do stuff. One thing led to another, and some not so great stuff happened. The farm had to close. Me and my wife had purchased a 20-acre horse farm. My parents told me what was going on with the farm and we knew it had some issues. I always wanted to try a jugging dairy. They went out of phase in this state sometime around the sixties, but I always thought that was a good model.
Me and my wife bought two heifer calves off of my parents. My wife, Lisa and I both have off farm jobs. I was thinking, "Well, we’ve got about 18 months to two years to figure this out." We just set out on this path to figuring out how to start a microdairy. We found different companies like MicroDairy Designs and Dawn's Dairy Supply. They gave us a lot of great information. Our inspectors helped us through the whole process, we got set up and we were ready to go when the first calves hit the ground. That's how we landed here.
About how many cows do you have right now
Currently, we're milking eight cows, but we have three dry cows. We have 11 cows total right now, plus the calves and the young stock that go along with that. Keep in mind, in 2018, we had two beef cows roaming around in the pasture field because we didn't want the pasture to grow up. I'm not a big horse fan and my wife didn't grow up on a farm. She had no idea about this world. When I put her in this situation, she was thinking, "What are we doing?" She fell in love with the idea of this stuff. She's super supportive of it.
Could you share with our listeners a little bit more about the creamery itself? What products do you sell? How do you market them? What quantity do you sell in a given week?
When we started out, we had no idea how everything worked. We just wanted to start. We both had off-farm jobs, and this was originally going to be a hobby to keep me in touch with farming side. I'm a real estate agent. In real estate, you're either really busy or you're not doing much at all. On those days where I wasn't doing much at all, I wanted to be farming. When we started out, we got all our permits and we got everything lined up with the creamery. We got plans from Microdairy Designs on what to do. We got them approved by our local inspector. He said, "If you build what's on this design, you won't have any problems." We did that and we built the plant out.
The actual plant is 20 feet by 20 feet. The plant has fiberglass, is insulated, and has a heated cement floor. We did everything the way it's supposed to be done. We didn't know what products we were going to do, but our first cow came fresh six months before the other one. We had six months of just milk supply that we couldn't sell yet. We started playing around. We were making cheese, we were making yogurt, and we were doing fluid milk. One of the carpenters who was helping me said, "I don't know what you're messing around with all that for, this milk's amazing. You should just be selling the milk." We are doing a cream line milk, we're just pasteurizing, and then putting it into the jug. He was right, because the first day we were actually open, we did have cheese and cultured butter and milk in the refrigerator
By the fourth day, the only thing we could do was milk, we were just selling it like crazy. It was an amazing experience, as far as that goes. What we offer is half gallons of regular milk and chocolate milk. We do pints of the regular milk, chocolate milk, and then we'll do seasonal flavors. We do a caramel milk through the fall and winter seasons. We also do a strawberry milk in the spring and summer. Then we mix in a peppermint milk through the Christmas season, which people really enjoy. We're playing around with other flavors. We'd like to do a maple maybe and some other stuff like that in the future.
Oh, that sounds delicious. That caramel milk there, Jesse, I think I'll need to have some of that.
That's my favorite flavor by far. Everybody complains when we stop producing the caramel milk and switch to the strawberry. Well maybe not everybody, but a lot of people.
Do you just sell on the farm or are you marketing your product through other outlets as well?
We market our products through other outlets. I think one of the biggest hang-ups that people face in consumer sales off of the farm is the worry of what people will think of your farm. They're farms and they're not always picturesque or picture book. You can try to make them that way, but they can't always be that way. Sometimes that can be a hang-up people have instead of just starting. We did that and we live on a private lane. There are three other houses on this lane, and we were worried about traffic. We do probably 40% of our sales at the farm.
We started out at Freemer's Market. They're a deli, catering shop, and small grocery in our small town of Brockway. Then we picked up Calliari's Bakery, which is in the next town, Dubois, and they do the same thing. Then we went to another neighboring town in Brookville, and we sell at a barbecue place. We only sell pints there. We sell at a barbecue place called the Devil's Barbecue and Angela's Pizza. Then we picked up another pizza place in Brockway, because apparently pizza and milk go great together, just watch the movie Home Alone when Kevin dumps the milk all over the pizza. Anyways, we did Pizano's Pizza and then we went to a grocery store in another town called Ridgeway Elk County Foods. That's the only grocery store that we currently sell milk in, but we sell about 175 gallons of milk a week.
Selling direct to consumers has gained a lot of interest, especially in recent years with many farmers like you adopting their business models to meet that demand. What did you find the most challenging in starting a direct market farm business, and what resources did you lean on to help you through getting started?
The biggest thing for us was the fear of starting and it not working out. The thing that helped me was that we are big podcast listeners. We also like to read. I read a book called, The Market Gardener by Jean-Martin Fortier. He's a guy in Quebec, and he's dealing with direct-to-consumer sales with vegetables. That really has a lot of similarities to direct consumer sales with anything you're producing on a farm. Hearing somebody else having success really helps break through that fear. Again, I think another thing that helped us is that we weren't a conventional farm. I’m not saying that you can't do this from a conventional farm. We had nothing, so we just started doing direct to consumer sales.
We had no other market to outlet it, but we just started giving out free samples, then word of mouth spread around. Originally, our biggest customers were people north of 55 who remembered getting milk off the farm when they were kids, and they would drink the milk. One guys said, "This just reminds me of being 10 and getting milk at Jim Grant's Dairy." That guy tells his kids, and then his kids for the first time ever, experienced drinking farm fresh cream line milk. They tell their friends and our business started growing. Then we developed a social media page. My wife’s social media stuff has been great. She's sold so much milk just by getting the word out that we're actually doing this through social media. Those are the two big things: word of mouth and social media for small direct-to-consumer sales. You’ve got to get yourself out in your community and be proud of the product you're producing.
You have significantly grown your business since you started just a couple years ago. What do you envision the future of your farm to look like?
We would like to keep growing at a steady pace that we can learn and grow with. In this business, you have to keep learning. We’ve got little kids. We're still in our thirties. Our kids are 10 and under. We've got a 10-year-old, a 7-year-old, and a 3-year-old. We watch a lot of PBS Kids shows like Curious George, The Rankin's, The Berenstain Bears, and Farmer Ben. We'd like to be a child storybook farm where you can come, and it fills your mind up with what you think these places should look like.
We would like to get into some agritourism eventually. We want to expand our farm into more people coming and just seeing what a farm looks like and getting the farm feeling. Being around a farm is getting to be less of a thing. When my grandparents were my age, everybody knew a farmer. When my parents were my age, everybody knew somebody that knew a farmer. You get to my age and people are like, "You have a farm?" It's going away and I hate to see that happen. I think that places like this can maybe bring it back some.
Can you share one piece of advice you have for someone interested in getting started farming, whether that's direct market or not?
My biggest advice is to ask a lot of questions. Also, find some material you can read that will inspire you. Then go see a couple of farms. We did this too. I grew up on a farm, but we didn't do any direct-to-consumer sales. I went and sought out some farmers who were doing it and just saw what they were doing. A salesman was taking me around. The first farm I went to, I felt like I could do this. Then he took me to a farm that had been doing it for 40 years. I felt so discouraged when I walked away from that one because I felt like I was never going to be able to do that. I went back to the first farm, and I thought that I could do it by staying within my means.
You have to start by self-investing. That way, if it doesn't work out, you can always tell yourself, "Well it was an adventure and it didn't work out, but it didn't crush me." My friends that are carpenters were helping me build the plant. I joked a lot because they were like, "What are you doing? You're spending all this money." I figured that if it didn’t work out, I would have a cool place to hang out. I made myself a man cave. In the back of my mind, I didn't believe it. I knew it was going to work the whole time, but I gave myself a little defensive mechanism.
It did take a lot of the pressure off because, if it didn't work, I had invested the cost of a fancy pickup truck in this thing. It wasn't going to crush us. Had I gone and tried to build that plant that it took those guys 40 years to build, I don't know how this would've went. Maybe it would've went the same, maybe it wouldn't have, but had it not, it would've been a real disaster. I think that takes some of the pressure off when you start that small, if you're starting out from nothing.
Finally, tell our listeners where they can find you online to learn more and to connect with you.
As far as finding us on social media, you can find us on Instagram @lanes.end.creamery. To find us on Facebook, we are @Lane'sEndFarmCreamery.
Jesse, thanks so much for sharing your story with us today, and congratulations again, on being one of our recent grant recipients.
That's been a big help. We're currently using that to upgrade the electrical system in the barn so we can get bigger processing equipment and install a milking pipeline. That's going to be a big help. That's really going to improve our efficiency and allow us to stick our toes in some other waters.
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