When Vickie Baker started in 4-H about 35 years ago, her parents told her and her three siblings to each pick a breed of dairy cow to show. The family dairy farm already had Holsteins. Baker’s parents wanted their children to pick different breeds of cows so they didn’t have to show against each other.
“In the infinite wisdom of 6- and 7-year-olds … I picked Guernseys, because my neighbors in 4-H had them,” Baker explained.
That innocent decision was possibly the first step down the road to where Baker is now. She became passionate about Guernsey cattle. She got involved in industry groups, like the Pennsylvania Guernsey Breeders’ Association and the American Guernsey Association.
About 15 years ago, she and her husband, Mike, bought Guernsey cows from her parents and started Maple Bottom Farm, renting space on her parents’ farm. Five years ago, they bought their own dairy farm, in Dawson, Pennsylvania, and moved their cows there. Four years ago, Baker was elected to the board of directors for the American Guernsey Association, and then became their treasurer.
“I kind of eat, sleep and breathe Guernseys right now,” Baker said.
Now, Maple Bottom Farm is one of two farms in the new Naturally Golden Family Farms, a cooperative focused on selling Guernsey milk products. Though there are only two farms involved so far, they have plans to grow and market Guernsey milk products across Pennsylvania, and eventually, the country.
“It’s rewarding to know that you milked cows today and by tomorrow … you can be eating cheese from the milk that you harvested today,” Baker said. “But, in the mean time, a lot of things go into making that happen.”
There aren’t a lot of Guernsey dairies around, said Baker, who is the president of the cooperative.
“We think marketing our milk as America’s table milk … is a way for us to remain viable in the future,” she said.
The cooperative started forming in 2018, with support from the American Guernsey Association, said Cara Itle, of Trotacre Farms, the other farm in the cooperative.
Itle, who grew up on the fourth generation dairy farm, in Enon Valley, Pennsylvania, was working at the association at that time. The idea was to create a brand and connections with processors for Guernsey dairies.
“We formed it because of our Guernsey cows … and our love for the breed,” she said.
Guernsey milk has higher percentages of things like protein, cream, vitamin D and calcium. The milk is golden in color because of higher amounts of beta carotene.
Working together allows the farms to split up responsibilities and bring in people with different areas of expertise. The farms decided on a cooperative model so they could more easily bring in other farms in the future.
“On the farm, time is the most valuable resource,” Baker said. “Some people would say money, but I disagree. If I had more time, I could make more money.”
While the cooperative began to come together in 2018, it didn’t launch its first products until late 2020.
“It takes a lot of time to put into something like this, when you don’t really know exactly where you’re going,” Itle said.
Baker worked off the farm for a while in the dairy industry, but after 22 years, her job was eliminated in 2020. Now, she works full time at the farm and cooperative.
“I can honestly say that I miss my customers and what I did, but … I spend the day milking and taking care of cows … and I love it,” she said.
That doesn’t mean it’s not hard work. The farmers still have other jobs, whether on or off the farm, in addition to the cooperative. It’s a lot to keep up with. But it’s rewarding.
“With niche products, bringing them to market and establishing your own brand, it moves slower than any of us want it to,” Baker said.
The pandemic also turned the cooperative’s plans on their heads. They were planning to start out with milk as their first product by spring or summer in 2020.
“We really thought that was a realistic goal, prior to March ,” Baker said.
When the markets changed and the dairy industry ran into processing challenges, it was clear that was no longer realistic. The cooperative still isn’t bottling milk yet. But it was able to launch its first cheese products in 2020.
The cooperative had always planned to explore making and selling cheese. Guernsey milk tends to have high cheese yields, making it a good option for the product. The cooperative signed a letter of intent with Pleasant Lane Creamery for processing cheese a while back. The pandemic just shifted that product into the spotlight sooner than expected.
“The great thing about the cheese is that it is helping us build the milk market,” Baker said. “It allows us to market in a different way than we thought we would have, pre-pandemic.”
The cheese is getting people familiar with the cooperative’s brand. The cooperative has mainly been selling direct to consumers through online orders, but also works with a few retail outlets.
Itle said the cooperative has seen a lot of community support since it launched, following the general trend of local food support that came out of the pandemic.
“Consumer want to know where their products are coming from, and they want to support the local people,” she said.
There are enough dairy processors in Pennsylvania already that it made sense for the cooperative to work with existing processors instead of starting their own creamery, Itle said.
“It’s expensive to get into processing,” she said. “We wanted to collaborate and work with those processors who have something established.”
Before the pandemic, the cooperative was hoping to bring in another 12 herds of cattle from Pennsylvania over the next five years. The pandemic has caused them to shift that timeline back, Baker said. But once the cooperative does expand with another 12 herds, Baker believes it will be ready to start moving into other states, as well.
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