Pitching farm life: Brenda Hastings takes dairy industry in an all new direction

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BURTON, Ohio — Brenda Hastings pulls no punches on the subject of being a dairy farmer.

“I’m very proud that my family was dairy farmers and I wanted to carry that on,” she said. “And I always wanted to marry a dairy farmer.”

The co-owner of Hastings Dairy in Geauga County, Ohio, has had both wishes fulfilled on the way to becoming one of the industry’s most active advocates.

Growing up

Hastings, 43, grew up in Tulare, California, in the nation’s largest milk-producing county, home to an estimated half million milk cows generating more than $1.6 billion in annual milk production.

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After earning her undergraduate degree in agricultural business from Fresno State, Hastings completed graduate work at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo and started working for Worldwide Sires. Then, while at the World Dairy Expo in Madison, Wisconsin, she met her future husband Lad, who had studied animal science at Ohio State University.

The couple soon found they shared a passion not only for agriculture, but farm life itself.

“We always had the idea that some day we would raise our kids on a farm.”

Family farm

Hastings Dairy is operated on 104 acres, with an additional 600 rented acres, in Geauga County, where the Hastings family and 11 employees milk 560 to 570 Holsteins housed in three freestall barns.

The couple bought the farm in 2004, renovating the spacious entrance to the milking room into an area for hosting many of its agritourism events.

The Hastings’ two sons, Garrett, 12, and Jack, 9, both help on the farm and Garrett is active in 4-H.

“And the majority of kids in the Geneva Dairymen 4-H club borrow animals from us,” Hastings added.

Selling the life

“We wanted to expand our reach,” Hastings said of the dairy’s May through October group, school and day camp agritourism events such as “Cow Tales Adventures” and the “Milk From Cow to Bottle Tour.”

“We started the agritourism not knowing what we were doing,” Hastings admitted. “We saw other farms in the area doing corn mazes and pumpkin patches and began to think ‘maybe people would enjoy visiting a farm.’

“But we wanted to bring it one step closer to the consumer — they can see the cows milking and buy the milk right from the cow.”

Still, Hastings said, “The (milking) side has to support that side.”

On the horizon

The next logical step, it seemed, was to open a creamery on the farm.

“We wanted to tie in more with the farm when people were asking ‘where can we find your product?’,” Hastings said. “Milk is harder that way — it can’t be picked.”

After more than a year of research, Hastings said, Rowdy Cow Creamery was born last month.

“I visited dairy farms and the Ohio Department of Agriculture helped a lot,” she said. ”We are not used to doing retail, so it’s a whole new ballgame for us.”

The Hastings invested in equipment ranging from a bottler, the guts of which are from a 1950s-era unit, to a brand-new, 250-gallon vat pasteurizer. They currently bottle half gallons and pints.

Meanwhile, Brenda, Lad, and the boys officially became the Rowdy Cow marketing department.

“The goal is to make three batches next week, start to make sales calls, and deliver within five mile radius to smaller grocers, restaurants and several really good farmers markets,” she said.

Over the past decade, such diversification has become a focus at Hastings Dairy. They’ve used the concept of vertical integration — staying competitive by keeping every aspect of raising, producing and distributing product in-house — to branch out into raising crops, agritourism, and the ventures like the creamery, Hastings said.

“Obviously, we are not a big milk plant here — I was putting labels on today by hand,” she said. “It is a niche.
“But Geauga County is a great place to be. There is disposable income, three or four year-round thriving farm markets nearby, and it is close to Cleveland and Lake County. When people come here, they are doing business directly with us.”

She added that they also wanted to diversify for their sons. “If they want to come back when they are grown, we wanted them to have a lot of opportunity.”

Getting involved

Creating and taking advantage of opportunity has always been part of Hastings’ makeup.

She has served as the only female member of the Ohio Dairy Producers Association board of directors and is currently one of only two women on the 15-member board of the American Dairy Association Mideast, the National Dairy Council’s Ohio and West Virginia affiliate.

“Women have worked in dairy for generations, but more in the background,” Hastings said. “Women can offer a unique perspective, but I always think it comes down to the person rather than the gender.

“My husband and I complement each other; I am always looking at industry trends around the world, and If there is a meeting in Columbus about some policy matter, or a county Farm Bureau board meeting, that is something I enjoy. Lad does not.”

Education and advocacy

Hastings said she also enjoys the education opportunity that agritourism provides, but she feels that she has a responsibility to the larger dairy community as well.

“The industry has had a fair amount of bashing,” Hastings said. “And it is kind of scary that you can have people, like so-called ‘animal rights’ people, showing something and saying ‘hey, dairy farmer, you should farm this way because I think you should’ — and they have never been on a farm.

“That can influence legislation greatly when you have consumers demanding it at the ballot box. So there is a fear in the industry, but we have more of a voice now. I think it’s vital (to use it).”

Hastings herself has not shied away from being such a clarion for dairy farmers.

“I have dedicated my life to this,” she said. “So you do put yourself out there, but we want to explain the health and well being of our cows; our cows are well taken care of and we want to show people how happy they are.”

Future for women

Hastings said it is increasingly important for women in particular to take on leadership roles in the industry. And not simply because of their gender.

“I’m not interested in the quota. To me, the best person should fill the role,” she said. “We all have strengths and weaknesses.”

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