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Focusing on What’s Important at North Country Creamery

By: Kat McCarthy & Dan Welch

Ashlee Kleinhammer became involved with Clover Mead Farm in 2012, when she approached its then owner, Sam Hendren, about buying the business. In 2013, a third-party foundation purchased the farm from Sam and established a 5-year lease-purchase agreement for Kleinhammer, who recently closed on the property. In reflection, Ashlee points out that Sam set-up both the infrastructure and the markets for local grass-fed cheeses in this area and paved the way for many local farmers. He not only started Clover Mead Farm, but was also a catalyst for the Ausable Valley Grange Farmers Market Association. During the first year establishing her farmstead creamery, North Country Creamery, Ashlee was able to hire Hendren as a mentor through NOFA’s Journeyperson program.

Five years later, Ashlee is looking to expand. She has a long-term goal of building a new milking parlor, fostering farm community, and enhancing quality of life along with business viability. Since taking over the business, the line of products has grown to include yogurt and raw milk, and the onsite Clover Mead Café and Farm Store has been reinstated. Along the way, she has focused on strategies to increase efficiency and enhance food safety compliance.

Cows at North Country Creamery

Profit Team Project Review

Another farmer first suggested Ashlee apply for the profit team project in 2016. At the time, the farm’s cheesemaker began to ask questions about production techniques that were beyond Ashlee’s knowledge. “We value our employees; we try to think of them as our best assets,” Kleinhammer notes. This helped Ashlee identify a need to work with a consultant who could help address the cheesemaker’s questions while growing the operation’s knowledge of food safety and milk quality processing. As a result, Kleinhammer applied for the profit team project to work with consultant Shannon Rice-Nichols. By bringing in a consultant, North Country Creamery developed a HACCP plan over time, answering periodic “homework” assignments that gathered approximately 50 pages of data. The resulting recommendations from this consultant included tips and techniques that improved cheese quality and processing, from suggestions about pressing and flipping cheese, to brining and batching, to yogurt container filling.

In developing the HACCP plan, the farm focused on improving standard operating procedures (SOPs) and standard sanitation procedures. Before the project, procedures were informally organized. Now, written SOPs are coupled with forms for daily recordkeeping. Establishing these protocols helped Ashlee identify that her cheesemaker was assigned too many tasks and therefore didn’t have enough time to focus on working in the cheese cave. Through simple strategies like developing a job description or writing out the cheese making process, both owner and staff could better understand business operations, work flow and needs. Ashlee notes “we made so many changes and improvements” while working with a consultant on this project, which will have short- and long-term impacts.

As a result of the project, the business has reduced its risk, improved efficiency, and enhanced product quality. In turn, North Country Creamery is selling more yogurt, which now also has a longer shelf life. Additionally, farmer’s market sales are improving over time. From a quality of life standpoint, Ashlee notes that becoming more comfortable with food safety requirements and procedures has helped her be more at ease. These strategies have poised the business to be ready for scaling up and positioned North Country Creamery to be in compliance with upcoming regulations as a result of the Food Safety Modernization Act. Furthermore, formalizing SOPs and staff training has allowed Ashlee to delegate more recordkeeping and creamery management duties. She can now focus more time on cows and herd health, her true passion. With the additional free time, she is currently working with mentors to focus on herd health and is already seeing improvements. Looking ahead, Ashlee hopes to review data like labor costs and yields as well as financials associated with processing to assess the profitability of various cheeses.

 

Finding the Right Consultant

A strong focus of the farm’s profit team project stemmed from a goal of improving the cheese making process and supporting the farm’s cheesemaker to learn about ways to enhance existing procedures. To do this Ashlee needed an outside consultant who could assist in developing processes that would increase the efficiency of the creamery. Additionally, a consultant could help North Country Creamery develop a Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCAP) plan. By establishing written procedures and improving process control, the cheesemaker’s time is now used more efficiently. An unexpected benefit from this project was that Ashlee now also has more time to work with the cows as well.

Farmers can sometimes be reluctant to hire an outside consultant due to costs or not knowing where to find someone with the necessary expertise. Two things made it clear that North County Creamery needed a consultant with expertise in dairy processing and food safety. One was that their cheesemaker began asking technical questions that the farm management could not answer. The second was the need for the farm to be ready for the new regulations that are being developed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to implement the Food Safety Modernization Act. By working with a consultant, the farm was able to access additional knowledge and experience that could be applied to improving their operation.

While there is some cost to hiring a consultant, the cost is relatively low when compared with the cost of not proactively addressing risks to the farm business. In the case of North Country Creamery, having written Standard Operating Procedures and a HACCP plan will help the farm minimize risks of a foodborne illness outbreak, which has the potential to put a farm out of business. While Ashley plans to do more financial analysis, she expects that implementing process improvements will lead to reduced costs and higher sales, which could significantly improve profitability in the long-run.

Working with a consultant can bring many benefits to a farm. Consider the following tips when planning to work with a farm consultant. This advice can be applied for many different types of consultants, ranging from business experts to financial advisors to those providing technical assistance.

  • Ask for references and follow-up with them to learn about the experiences other businesses had in working with the consultant.
  • Meet with a perspective consultant before signing an agreement to see if they are a good fit for your farm and project.
  • Make your expectations for the project clear from the initial point of contact.
  • Receive a written scope of work or project outline.
  • Keep in contact with the service provider throughout the project time frame.
  • Ask questions and do your homework to stay informed throughout the process.
  • Don’t be afraid to change providers if you’re not satisfied with the work completed.

Strategies for Success

Ashlee’s strategies can be readily applied to other farm businesses.

  • Plan in stages and keep a focus on your true passion and goals. For Ashlee, her passion is working with cows. In reflection, Ashlee said “sometimes, I wake up in the morning, or at the end of the day [and] I’m like, I do all this because I like milking cows…so much of what I do has nothing to do with milking cows.” Her role as a farmer is diverse and requires her to complete numerous tasks, many of which contribute to her ability to work with cows, but are not directly related. By keeping an eye on the big picture, North Country Creamery has identified steps towards increasing business viability while scaling up. Though establishing set procedures and improving efficiencies in the business, Ashlee has been able to make more time to focus on working with the cows.
  • Be aware of your own risk tolerance and comfort levels. In acknowledging a certain level of risk aversion, Ashlee chose to work with a third party foundation on a lease-purchase agreement. This avoided undue stress and enabled her to focus on business operations and improvements.
  • Understand the value of employees. Ashlee and her partner both feel that employees are one of their best assets. As a result, they have offered opportunities for staff to incubate new businesses onsite, providing space for individuals to start beekeeping, raising goats, and growing a market garden. They also encourage the development of an environment in which staff learn from one another. By fostering opportunities for peer-to-peer learning, staff enhance skillsets, while contributing to the cultivation of a strong and resilient farm community. This in turn establishes a dedicated, knowledgeable core of staff who understand the farm operations.

 

This project was a collaboration of the Cornell Small Farms Program, NY Farm Viability Institute, and NY FarmNet, and made possible with funding from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture, under award number 2015-70017-22882.

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