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Farm diversification: Three dairy farmers share how they’re branching out

Progressive Dairyman Editor Emily Gwin Published on 13 December 2016
farm diversification panel

The 2016 Women in Dairy Conference, held Nov. 2 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, closed out with a panel discussion on the topic of farm diversification. The panel featured three female dairy farmers who opened up about how they have diversified their family operations.

Carissa Itle Westrick is part of the ongoing legacy at Vale Wood Farms in Loretto, Pennsylvania. She serves as the director of business development.

“I’m either part of the sixth generation of the farm or the fourth generation of the dairy, depending on where you want to start counting,” she said. “I’m not only the milkman’s daughter, I’m also the milkman’s granddaughter.”

Vale Wood processes its own milk as well as milk from area farms, making it the smallest milk dealer in the state. It’s one of the few processors still providing home deliveries. In addition to producing a full line of dairy products, Vale Wood also has an extensive agritourism offering, including a school tour program that reaches about 5,000 children each year and a fall pumpkin patch and hayride.

Itle Westrick’s long list of responsibilities include dealing with inspectors, addressing home delivery concerns, figuring out credit card processing mix-ups and managing the school tours and other agritourism ventures, including their annual “Farm to Fork” dinner.

Vale Wood has a dairy store on-site, but it accounts for just 2 percent of sales. The vast majority of sales happen off the farm.

Joanna Shipp of Bowmont Dairy also runs an agritourism operation. She and her family live in Boones Mill, Virginia. They milk 200 cows and farm about 1,000 acres. Shipp is in a partnership with her father, Laird Bowman. “Thee Red Barn” began as a reception venue for Shipp’s wedding in 2006. After all the work that went into fixing up this old barn, Shipp and her mother, Sarah Ann, were adamant that it not be returned back to its original purpose of hay and equipment storage.

October 2007 was the family’s opening season. They offered a corn maze, hayrides and animals to see and pet. Shipp’s mother worked with a local teacher to make sure questions and talking points at the barn aligned with Virginia’s standards of learning.

Each year, the family has added activities, changed tactics and adapted to fit the needs and interests of attendees. Their 2015 season welcomed 2,600 people to Thee Red Barn. Shipp says her mother is the heart and soul of the agritourism business, while she and her father “swoop in” during October to help carry out her mother’s ideas. She even cuts out the corn maze each year with a lawnmower.

Bethany Coursen owns and operates Valley Wide Farm in Spring Mills, Pennsylvania, with her husband, Adam. In 2015, the Coursen family put in a robotic milker for their herd of 60 registered Holsteins, which allowed them to devote more attention to their direct marketing venture with meat that started about 10 years ago.

“Frankly, I am not doing anything all that different than what some of you do, maybe just a slightly different component, perhaps,” Coursen told attendees. “You hang on to a few Holstein steers and sell half or a quarter of a steer to a neighbor or a friend.”

Through word of mouth, Coursen’s direct marketing grew, and she decided to add some beef breeds to the farm. She purchased Black Angus cattle from a Penn State professor and developed the herd to 20 cow-calf pairs. She received an NRCS grant and convinced her husband to turn 16 acres of the farm’s most unproductive cropland into pasture. Coursen said that by raising and finishing everything on the farm, they consider themselves “vertically integrated.”

At the local processing plant, the Coursens connected with a man out of Brooklyn, New York, who works with several chefs in the city. Coursen sells the beef to this man, and he divvies up the cuts to the chefs and provides them with their requests. He also brings the chefs to Coursens’ farm so they’re able to see the animals and ask questions.

This arrangement has been a learning process – both for the Coursens and the chefs who end up with the product.

“Their final product is not your final product,” Coursen said. “Sometimes there’s a disconnect between their requests and our ability to meet those requests.”

One such example was a chef who agreed to take Coursen’s cull cows but only if they spent nine months on pasture before they were processed. He wouldn’t have been able to afford that cull cow, she said.

Still, the success with beef has inspired the family to branch out into hogs. They purchased hogs to finish out last year, and this year, they bought sows, “so, we’re vertically integrated there too,” she said.

Though she doesn’t direct market her milk, the chefs’ visits to the farm often allow her to educate them about the dairy industry too. She said she usually ends up spending more time in the dairy barn and discussing cows and milk than with the other animals.

Following a brief presentation from each of the panelists, audience members posed several questions to the farmers:

Q. What was your biggest challenge? What was unexpected?

SHIPP: The biggest challenge I feel for us is the time it takes away from our dairy business. Another business is another business. So you have to figure out if you have enough time or hired people to help you work it. And we have done that. [We’ve] hired family friends; we even offer to local youth groups to come and help us work. So that’s probably been one of the biggest things – making it fit in with our dairy business.

COURSEN: I think for me the biggest challenge would be just taking the plunge. You’re already very busy. [It’s] taking that step of, “OK, once the pasture’s in, you’ve got to use it.” Committing to and actually taking the step to actually do it and making sure you’re trying to estimate what your client base is going to look like. How many animals do you need? How many pigs do you need to process? There’s a lot of unknown there that you have to be flexible with, I guess. What happens if you have a half a beef and no one to go with it? Go buy a freezer because you’re going to have to sit on it for a while. That initial plunge I think for me was kind of challenging.

ITLE WESTRICK: I think to echo a bit, the biggest challenge is just that you’re one person with a lot of different jobs across a lot of different business segments. So if I go home and [find that] one of our biggest customers has a problem, then that’s my problem. It stops everything else I’m doing until I address that customer’s problem. Maybe the flip side of that, “What’s been the nicest surprise?” is that we have customers. That’s fantastic that people chose our milk. It’s flattering every time I see someone in a store picking our jug off a shelf. But their needs trump everything that we do.

Q. For the agritourism panelists, how do you charge for what you offer? Do you charge for school tours?

SHIPP: We do charge for school tours. Our rates have been $9 for a child and $6 for their parents. And with us, school children are getting a hayride, corn maze, barrel train ride, a dairy story and a cup of ice cream. Plus they get to play on all the other equipment that we have. That’s what a field trip for us entails. On the weekends when we are open to the public, we charge for a corn maze and a hayride. Plus we have a concession stand. And then most of our other things are free to the public. So, technically, you could come to Thee Red Barn and pay us absolutely nothing. You could come and just play. And we do have people that do that. They spend no money with us whatsoever. But we do have more people that are actually spending money. And then we have repeat customers that come back year after year.

ITLE WESTRICK: Do we charge? The answer is yes. For all of it. The school tours we charge. We staff extra people, and we have a consolidated effort in the spring to do that hands-on tour. In the fall, same deal. The kids get a hayride. We have separate mazes and things like that. We charge per person. We’ve tried having a person stand at the maze and collecting a dollar and a person standing here and collecting a dollar, and honestly, our staff time is better spent if there’s one person at the gate collecting. We charge $5 per person admission with ages 2 and under free, is typically how we do it. We do have some people who are upset that they have to pay anything. And then I smile and explain that we have staff that we pay to set up the maze and the pumpkins and the hayride. And then usually they can understand why they’re paying admission. But we do charge, in order to provide that extra staff. We absolutely do.

Q. What kind of liability and insurance do you have? And have there been any major problems?

SHIPP: In the state of Virginia, there is a law that says that agritourism is an inherent risk. So we have official signs up that let you know that if you are hurt on our facilities, there is a law that says you have been warned and you technically can’t sue us. Now we have talked to lawyers that said, “People will probably sue you because that’s what people do.” But there is at least a Virginia state precedent saying the law is on our side. With that being said, we do have insurance. Up until this point, we have had no issues. I should probably not even been saying that. [Knocking on the wood table.] We have not had any issues whatsoever, and I really hope to keep it that way.

ITLE WESTRICK: We do have insurance policies. I don’t believe we’re exempt. We have a rider on our regular insurance – actually an agri-tainment policy that we add to our normal insurance in order to protect us from people who come out to the farm. I’m the point person if anything [like that] happens. What do we do to people-proof our property? We have a play area that’s adjacent to a cow fence because people like to see the cows. And that fence is electric because there are cows in the fence. And that is problematic. We have signs all over the place that say the fence is electric, but still. The last hour of the last day that we were open in October, a mom came to me, very distraught, holding her child, who was maybe 8-ish? And this little boy had run into the electric fence and was shocked, and I said, “Sorry, buddy, you’re going to be OK.” And the mom was near tears and saying, “I just need to know if I need to take him to the hospital.” But that’s a very real concern. People think you can die from touching an electric fence. We do everything in our power [to people-proof], but we just can’t anticipate the problems that people literally run into, no pun intended.

SHIPP: For us, it worked out really well that we had this location that is not actually part of our dairy farm. We don’t have any cows right there. It is kind of a self-contained environment. We take animals over there into pens. So that’s how we protect ourselves. We gave it a different name, so we’re not calling it Bowmont Dairy Farm; we’re calling it something else. So, if you were not very smart, you might not understand that Thee Red Barn is also owned by those people that you drove by their farm sign down the road. That’s what’s worked out well for us, is giving them some agriculture but not giving them access to our full business.

Q. What does the future hold for your business?

COURSEN: For us, I guess it’s growth. At this point, my biggest hold up is that I’m running out of room for stuff. I probably sell as much product as I have room for. So as things pick up with the pork, I would imagine we’ll have to invest some time and energy into establishing some more permanent facilities there. I’m kind of excited about continuing forward and continuing to direct market what we’ve got.

SHIPP: This is a difficult question. Up until this point in time, my parents have spearheaded this project. And just this year my father had a heart attack, and my mother needs a knee replacement. And so I have to really examine. I’m trying to run a dairy farm. I’m trying to run an agri-tainment business. Is there time to do all those things? My husband, who is a high school band director, thinks that we should take it so much further and make it this whole event center. And I look at him and say, “And when are you going to quit your job so that you can run this extra business?” So at this point, I don’t know what’s going to happen with us. I would like to keep going, but if I don’t have the support I’ve had in the last 10 years, I’m going to have to really examine if I can hire somebody to actually run this section of my business.

ITLE WESTRICK: We’re lucky in that our business is diverse enough that the future is where the margin is, truthfully. So there are portions of the business that are more or less profitable than others, and that’s good because it spreads our risk across different business segments. But it forces some tough decisions about some of those business segments.  end mark

Emily Gwin
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PHOTO: Farm diversification panelists were (left to right): Carissa Itle Westrick, part of Vale Wood Farms in Loretto, Pennsylvania; Bethany Coursen, co-owner of Valley Wide Farm in Spring Mills, Pennsylvania; and Joanna Shipp, owner of Thee Red Barn and Bowmont Dairy in Boones Mill, Virginia. Photo by Emily Gwin.

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