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From foreclosure to 150 herds: Grass-fed yogurt company succeeds with niche mindset

Kelli Boylen for Progressive Dairyman Published on 24 May 2018
The family who owns and operates Maple Hill Creamery

“It’s not the making of the product; it’s the selling,” says Tim Joseph of Maple Hill Creamery about niche marketing.

Good farmers may or may not also be good marketers, he said, and there are a great many other things to take into consideration if you are considering value-added products or expanding into niche markets.

Today, Maple Hill Creamery of Kinderhook, New York, sources milk from more than 150 small family farms; their specialty is dairy products from 100 percent grass-fed organic cows. They are doing well now, but the company comes from a very humble beginning.

Tim and his wife, Laura, struggled when they started processing their own milk – a lot. They came extremely close to losing everything in 2009 and were barely scraping by to the point they didn’t have grocery money, couldn’t pay for heat and were struggling to feed their cows.

They started dairy farming in 2004 as a conventional operation but were drawn to grass-based organic farming.

The Josephs started making creamline yogurt from their own milk for their kids on their stove top. They opened a small storefront in 2009 and sold their yogurt at farmers’ markets.

Tim quit his full-time job, and they started Maple Hill Creamery just as the recession hit. “With the economy at a low point, it was probably the worst possible time to take a chance on a yogurt company and leave the only steady income we had,” Laura says.

Their situation was desperate.

“Tim’s sister, Julia, and her husband, Pete Meck, decided to quit their dependable, well-paying jobs in New Jersey and join us in order to keep the business alive,” she says.

Things got worse before they got better. Their car was repossessed, and they were facing foreclosure. Pete took over yogurt-making, and Julia sorted out the finances; Tim and Laura focused on the dairy.

Somehow, the four of them working together made things turn around.

Consumers became more aware of grass-fed milk, and the business started to grow. By 2012, the two families sold their herd and their farm and moved to a much larger facility in New York to keep up with demand. They worked on developing their “milkshed” of grass-fed herds to supply the necessary milk.

Maple Hill Creamery’s products now include fluid milk, blended yogurts, Greek yogurts, drinkable yogurt, kefir and raw cheeses.

Maple Hill Creamery product

Tim says one of the most important things to consider when thinking about niche marketing is: “Are there enough consumers interested in your product out there to sustain you?”

He notes there is very little “middle ground” in dairy marketing. “It is some of the most competitive space in the grocery store, and pricing is competitive as well,” he says.

“When thinking about developing a small brand, you need to think about how you are going to sell all your milk via your brand or other outlets, because the milk you can’t sell – that’s what will kill you,” he says.

Tim says it’s important to think like a consumer when considering niche markets. For example, in terms of grass-fed dairy, most consumers have little understanding of the higher Omega 3 and Omega 6 in grass-fed milk the grass-fed industry focuses on. But consumers are actually more focused on the increased animal welfare of grass-fed cows. The consumers’ assumption is: Grass-fed cows are healthier, so the milk must also be better.

Tim Joseph talks about animal welfare

Grass-fed products are the fastest-growing segment of the dairy product industry, increasing at a rate of 30 to 50 percent – but consumers need to understand why they should be willing to pay a premium for a product when in the store.

Yogurt has a better profit margin than other dairy products, but less than 20 percent of Americans eat yogurt. “You need to be thoughtful of product choice when looking at cash flow,” Tim says.

Tim says to be sure what you are doing makes you happy, and you need to be willing to work with consumers and the general public.

After all their financial struggles, the Joseph and Meck families say they are committed to paying a fair price for their milk. “Tim, in particular, is driven to keep grass-fed standards high and true to the movement’s original intent: better for cows, better for farmers, better for the earth and better for you,” Laura says.

“I believe dairy will continue to both consolidate and fragment simultaneously,” Tim says. “As brands develop products to address additional consumer interests and desires, existing brands and more ‘broad-stroke’ claims will struggle to maintain share and will naturally lead to continued consolidation.”

Maple Hill’s plans are to continue to develop and market grass-fed organic dairy products within other areas of the dairy case and grocery store.

“Our mission is to be the gold standard and most trusted grass-fed organic dairy brand in America,” Tim says. “Grass-fed organic dairy is all we do, and we want to be the ‘go-to’ brand for families looking for grass-fed options for their family.”

Niche markets for dairy products do exist and, after 60 years of the pendulum swinging to convenience foods, it is coming back to the “story of the food” and a simple ingredient panel, Tim says.

In tough economic times, one option some producers consider is exploring niche markets. Maple Hill Creamery is proof it can work but, at the same time, they are fully aware of how difficult it can be to be successful. For those considering giving it a try, Tim advises them to be careful. “Try to find ways to test your market (utilize co-packers or food incubator facilities) to test your market and business assumptions before ‘you go all in.’”  end mark

PHOTO 1: The family who owns and operates Maple Hill Creamery includes (left to right): Tim Joseph, Thomas Joseph, Will Joseph, John Joseph, Laura Joseph, Julia Meck, Molly Meck, Petey Meck and Peter Meck.

PHOTO 2: Tim Joseph says the creamery’s mission is to be the “go-to” brand for families looking for grass-fed dairy options.

PHOTO 3: Tim Joseph says while the grass-fed industry focuses on the omega-3 and omega-6 in the milk, consumers are more drawn to the animal welfare aspect of grass-fed. Photos courtesy Maple Hill Creamery.

Kelli Boylen is a freelance writer based in Waterville, Iowa.

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