NEW CASTLE, Pa. — Many dairy producers who Adam Dean knows found their secret to success at 40 or 50 years old. He found his at 25.
Dean is a fifth generation dairy farmer and relies on the help of his father, Philip, to help manage a 130-cow herd and 500 acres in Lawrence County, Pa.
About three years ago, Dean realized he had no control over the price of the product he produced on his small dairy farm. That’s when he decided to start marketing on his own.
“For the most part, the dairy industry is focused 100 percent on production and zero percent on marketing,” Dean said.
“I wanted to give my milk a shelf-life and figure out a way to have control over the market.”
He obtained a raw milk license and started direct marketing his milk, a way of developing a market without major equipment expenses.
When he decided he wanted to sell raw milk cheese, he knew he needed to do some more homework.
Dean’s interest in developing a new business led him to Jonathan Laughner, Beaver County interim extension director who is involved with Penn State University’s Agricultural Entrepreneurship program.
Through the program, Laughner helped Dean connect with cheesemakers throughout Pennsylvania, so Dean could experience the business firsthand.
Laughner also worked with Dean to research the market potential, develop a feasibility study and begin a business plan.
In addition to Dean’s cheese and raw milk business, Laughner has helped a number of agricultural producers in western Pennsylvania, ranging from vegetable growers to wild game hunting preserves.
Laughner said many of the farmers he connects with have traditionally raised commodity crops but wanted to find a niche market to become more profitable.
The reason these types of programs succeed, agree Laughner and Dean, is because of consumers’ enthusiastic support.
Even in today’s economic tough times, consumers are still willing to pay a higher price for local products from farmers they know.
“It makes them appreciate their food more,” Dean said.
Extension educators like Laughner are helping producers like Dean become more marketable to these consumers.
In addition to networking services and workshops, the entrepreneurship program offers online resources for business planning.
The Web site, http://farmbusiness.psu.edu, features documents and webinars about value-added marketing, budgeting and risk management.
Extension agents like Laughner also help to identify possible grants for farm businesses and help the producers through the process of applying for those grants.
Dean even had the opportunity to speak to a group at Penn State about how he, as a young entrepreneur, was making things work.
The speaking engagement was part of a Penn State initiative to develop curriculum in the College of Agricultural Sciences related to entrepreneurship.
Recently, Penn State asked Dean to be a part of a video, developed for legislators to show the importance of cooperative extension and its programs.
In both the speaking engagement and video feature, Dean shared how beginning his business was made a little easier with the help of Laughner and the extension program.
After taking cheesemaking courses and developing a business model, Dean said it was time to take a risk and shell out some savings.
He hired Eldore Hanni, a third-generation cheesemaker, who spent about a week teaching Dean how to make cheese.
As he was developing his product line, Dean quickly learned some tricks of the trade when it came to marketing.
“Consumers want to know the people behind the product,” he said.
“As I was passing out samples at a store, I could say, ‘I milked my cows this morning, made a batch of cheese to age, and came here. After I’m done, I’ll go home and milk the cows again.’”
In addition to raw milk sold in glass half-gallon jars, Dean’s products also include Cheddar, Sharp Cheddar, Colby, Baby Swiss, Jack, Pepper Jack, MOO-zarella and Havarti cheeses.
Laughner, Dean and Dean’s father Philip, who is heavily involved in the farm, are quick to agree that starting a farm business isn’t for everyone.
“You have to have the drive and the ambition to keep going day after day,” Philip said.
Laughner believes that producers need a strong network of people in a variety of enterprises who can provide support.
For Dean, that network is a mix of cheesemakers, other niche and value-added marketing businesspeople, and the dairy farmers he works with through his cow hauling business.
Some may worry that producers like Dean, who are trying to do it all — producing, marketing and selling a product — may simply become overworked and want out.
“Right now, I have to be burned out,” Dean said in response. “If I work hard now, I can sit back and enjoy the fruits of my labor later.”
Maybe as a 40- or 50-something dairy farmer, cheesemaker and marketer, Dean will take the time to relax.