Iowa Public Television

 

Family Dairy Farm Builds Family Dairy Plant

posted on February 23, 2007


According to the Organic Trade Association consumers spent nearly $14 billion on organic foods in 2005, which represented 2.5% of total U.S. food sales.

Sales of "natural" foods, those items which are minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients also have grown dramatically.

Advocates claim the higher cost of the goods more accurately reflect the true costs of production. Typically though, producers receive a considerable premium for producing their goods in a more "natural" manner.

David Miller reports on a Midwest dairyman who is milking a premium by producing and processing his own brand of dairy products.

 

Family Dairy Farm Builds Family Dairy Plant

Like other dairy farmers, Russell Sheeder rises early to do his chores, but even after the operation's 80 cows are milked his work isn't done. Three times a week, he dons a hairnet and begins packaging some of the milk under the Sheeder Cloverleaf Dairy label.

For Sheeder, and his wife Merici (mah-REE-suh), the journey from inspiration to operation at this North Central Iowa farm took almost 20 years.

Russell Sheeder, Sheeder Cloverleaf Dairy: "...our motto is that we crawl before we walk meaning that we take small steps into any project and get our learning curve under control and feel comfortable and what not. But when we started into this pretty much all bets were off."

In 1997, after 9 years of working both on the farm and in town, Sheeder quit his job with UPS and began milking cows full-time. Merici, a school teacher in nearby Guthrie Center was glad to see him give up his "town" job.

Merici Sheeder, Sheeder Cloverleaf Dairy: "It was a good thing. ...he didn't see the kids and I very often. You know, he left the house early and got home late and it was a good change, it was a great change."

In 2003, the Sheeder's decided to make their next move and begin processing. The couple wasn't planning on investing $350,000 in a processing facility if they didn't have any customers, but they soon found that without a product no one would guarantee any purchases.

Russell Sheeder, Sheeder Cloverleaf Dairy: "...when you walk into a grocery store with an empty bottle and say we're going to put milk in a bottle like this, you know, they kind of say, 'Well that's nice and when you get some cows come back', you know, type thing. And so our marketing was kind of discouraging and I never thought of myself as a marketer, you know. But after we got milk in a bottle and we were able to sample it. People became receptive and luckily it had somewhat, to some people a taste that attracted them and they appreciated it."

By 2005, the Sheeders were ramping up to fill their first orders. Merici quit her job in town and the couple began working full-time on the farm.

Merici Sheeder, Sheeder Cloverleaf Dairy: "It wasn't like a snap decision. It was something that we'd been working toward for years and had finally gotten here. So, no, you didn't wake up one morning and say gosh, golly I'm going to change my career."

On Monday and Thursday, the Sheeder's are joined by a crew of one full-time and two part-time employees to bottle various amounts of whole, chocolate, 2 percent, skim and cream. Wednesday is devoted to making butter and during the winter holiday season they make eggnog. The Sheeders also have hired another part-time person to help with milking.

So far, only about half of the output from the herd is being processed. Currently, the Sheeder's sell their milk to the Dairy Farmer's of America Cooperative and buy back the amount needed to fill orders. Though the Sheeders have employees this is still a family farm. Merici is a full partner in the dairy, handling bookkeeping and processing chores. Their oldest daughter Becky helps with milking, their youngest daughter, Emily, takes care of the cattle before school, and their son, Grant, has been dividing his time between college and the dairy barn.

Some of the business accounts were garnered by making personal sales calls and others came via word-of-mouth. The Sheeder's now make deliveries at least twice-a-week to 25 grocery stores and small businesses along the 50 mile route from their Guthrie Center operation to Iowa's capitol city--Des Moines.

To help differentiate Cloverleaf Dairy products from others on the shelf, the Sheeders publicize the fact that their cows are grass-fed and hormone-free. To further distinguish their brand, the fluid milk is bottled in glass containers.

Dahl's Foods, a supermarket chain with 12 locations in the Des Moines metropolitan area, was one of their first customers.

Pat Childress, Dahl's Foods: "Sure, you know, the old-time packaging definitely has a nostalgic look to it and it gets people's interest. That it's hormone free is a good selling point. It's not organic, you know, they can't bottle it as an organic product but it's probably the next best thing. You know, people want that hormone free, that, you know, back to nature type stuff."

A half-gallon of whole milk costs $2.79 and the customer pays an additional $1.50 bottle deposit. Childress orders more than 200 gallons per week for just his store alone and he believes demand will continue to grow.

The same products also appealed to several other small businesses including a local confectioner-- Chocolaterie Stam. Stam, with an almost 95 year history of candy making and roots to a family business in the Netherlands, receives 45 gallons each week that is a combination of whole, 2 percent and cream. The 2 percent is used in the shop's gelato, an Italian ice cream.

Ton Stam: "Well, obviously the most important thing, flavor. And then secondarily our motivation is the issue of buying milk that is close by, supports local Iowa farmers instead of supporting I don't know who from I don't know where. You know, I'm a small business myself so I'd rather support another small business person than some conglomerate that I don't know the name of."

The Sheeders don't plan to ever return to making a living by just milking cows, or even taking on a larger herd to make ends meet. Their hope is to continue making a quality product that has appeal to area businesses and consumers.

Russell Sheeder, Sheeder Cloverleaf Dairy: "...it's a direction not for everybody but we're not interested in milking 1000 cows or farming 3000 acres, you know. When we're done with this farm we want it to be better than what it was when we got it."

For Market to Market I'm David Miller

 


Tags: agriculture dairy Iowa milk news rural