Regular viewers of Market To Market have over the years been introduced to a number of ingenious on-farm enterprises that have developed ways to gain greater value from what they grow. And while the quest to add value to locally grown commodities is not always rewarded, there are successful ventures that require minimal investment.
A case in point is a small-scale Iowa enterprise that increases the value of a raw commodity by nearly 3,000 percent before it leaves the farm. David Miller reports.
Chef David North is preparing a whole stuffed roasted chicken using greens and a soft goat cheese, also known as chevre', in the kitchen that serves the upscale restaurant David's Milwaukee Diner. However, Chef David isn't preparing this gourmet item in a bistro located on either coast but in the Hotel Pattee in Perry, Iowa. And the chevre', a somewhat exotic cheese, doesn't come from the hills of New England, but seven miles away in Woodward, IA.
The raw product for the chevre' comes from this herd of Nubian goats owned by Kathy Larson and Wendy Mickle. Milked under the name Nubian Bubbies, the output from the herds 16 does is used to make several varieties of specialty goat cheese in the cheese kitchen of their sister company Northern Prairie Chevre'. Last year, with their partner Connie Lawrance, Northern Prairie sold 2200 pounds of cheese to central Iowans.
Kathy Larson, Northern Prairie Chevre': "It was just a dream that we've had and we knew we had to pursue it and the time was right to try it now. We're just hoping and praying that it continues to go as well as what we hope it's going to."
Ten years ago, Larson and Mickle purchased their first two goats, Mick and Maude, with the idea of using them for grass control on their farm. The $20 investment has blossomed into a herd of 62 animals, including 25 kids.
Wendy Mickle, Northern Prairie Chevre': "We had Mick and Maude as pets for the first two years ...So, we were only intending to just bottle feed the kids, I'm not sure what we were going to do with the extra milk not realizing how much extra would be."
They soon discovered that there was a lot of milk left over after weaning. Not wanting to waste it they began experimenting with making chevre' cheese. Some of the first people to try the chevre' were friends and relatives. After some encouragement, the pair decided to make larger quantities and offer it for sale.
During this time Mickle and Larson were milking the goats, making cheese and holding down full-time jobs. In a serendipitous chain of events, their friend Connie Lawrance asked to be part of the cheese making business. Glad to be able to take advantage of both Lawrance's 15 years of business experience and an extra set of hands she was made a full partner.
Connie Lawrance, Northern Prairie Chevre': "I was interested in the goat cheese, they had been making some and I was eating it and really enjoying it and thought, the more I thought about it the more I was interested in the cheese and it's one subject where there is so much to learn."
A two-car garage on the farm became the cheese-kitchen, recipes for five kinds of cheeses were refined and put into use, and all the appropriate licenses were applied for and received. With everything in place the first Northern Prairie Chevre' products were made available for sale in September of 2000.
The product line includes herb flavored Chevre', feta, Cheddar, and Parmesan. Through careful planning and production, Northern Prairie is able to always have a supply of cheese and milk on hand.
Larsen, Mickle, and Lawrance trade off duties in the cheese kitchen alternately cooking, cutting and packaging.
To date, the trio has invested $30-thousand. Their single largest investment required a $10-thousand loan to purchase a bulk tank and a pasteurizer.
During the planning stages they all knew that just making cheese would not enough to guarantee sales. They knew they would have to go out and find places to sell their product.
Kathy Larson, Northern Prairie Chevre' :"...it's fun, you've got the goats and they're fun and they're wonderful and adorable...but if you get into it hot and heavy and don't have any place to market your milk or market your cheese then you've made a big investment and you just can't make it with that."
Their first sales venue was the Down Town Farmers market in Iowa's capitol city Des Moines. On any given Saturday morning from May to October 10-thousand people come to the market. After a few weekends, Larson, Mickle and Lawrance knew their product, and their company, had a chance. Even so, they were well aware that selling at one farmers market would not be enough to sustain a business.
With this in mind, Lawrance had already begun to take samples to local restaurants and organic grocery stores. When she got samples to the Hotel Pattee, Chef David North, whose last job was cooking at the exclusive Green Briar Resort in West Virginia, was excited. Not only did the product conform to his high standards, but it had the added bonus of being produced locally. Chef David so highly regards the cheese it can always be found on the hotels menu.
David North, Executive Chef, Hotel Pattee: "I'm really into getting things locally because it brings the community into the hotel and it's one thing that I can focus on and I've kept it on my menu."
Twenty miles away in Ames, Iowa, Northern Prairie Chevre can also be found on the shelves of Wheatsfield, a member-owned natural food store. Northern Prairie is one of the 5000 different products offered for sale. Here the product commands a premium price ranging from $9 to $17 per pound.
The match between Wheatsfield and Northern Prairie was a perfect fit. Wheatsfield believes in buying locally produced foods and Northern Prairie wants to avoid chain-style supermarkets by positioning itself in smaller grocery stores.
Linda Johnson is Wheatsfield' general manager.
Linda Johnson, General Manager, Wheatsfield:"...first of all it's local and we focus on supporting our local producers. But for Northern Prairie there aren't a lot of products like that on the market that we can get at hand and it's very good, very good cheese."
Since sales began income has been split evenly between retail at the Downtown Farmers Market and wholesale at grocery stores and several area restaurants. Larson, Mickle, and Lawrance have even made enough to pay themselves a few times. Even so, the group readily admits they do not want their business to begin growing out of control.
Wendy Mickle, Northern Prairie Chevre': "It's been a learning experience and I think one of the things, to our benefit, is not getting too big right from the get go."
In February of 2002, finally admitting there weren't enough hours in the day to get all the work done, Larson quit her day job to concentrate all her efforts on Northern Prairie Chevre'.
Kathy Larson, Northern Prairie Chevre': "You have to love this lifestyle and love the animals or it's not going to work for you. The animals are labor intensive, the cheese making is labor intensive, it's very long days but I can honestly say there's not anything I would change about it. We really, really like it."
For Market to Market, I'm David Miller