Shooting star
David and Edie Griffiths reflect on nearly two decades in the biodynamic yogurt business

By Laura Sayre

April 4, 2004: Seven Stars Farm is two places, cheek by jowl. On the front of the main building are two doors: one leading into the milking parlor, the other into the yogurt-making facility. You can choose, from the outside, which world to enter; or, once inside—if you sanitize your boots—you can move directly from one place to the other, from the dusty barn with its two long rows of regal cows and the sweet smell of haylage to the clean stainless-steel surfaces and clatter of the yogurt processing line. And that's the way the people who work here like it.

"We were in the same world as Stonyfield [Farms, now owned by Danone] at one time," notes David Griffiths, who manages Seven Stars Farm with his wife Edie (pronounced 'E-dee'). There is no envy in his voice. Since they started the business in 1987, the Griffiths have expanded slowly but steadily. Today, Seven Stars processes about 1.25 million pounds of milk per year (about three-quarters of which is produced on-farm), makes 175 to 200 quarts of yogurt a day six days a week, and employs 15 people year-round. Those numbers put them in agriculture's middle ground, in between small-scale growers and processors who can do all their marketing direct and the big companies like Stonyfield who increasingly dominate the wholesale trade.

"Do you want to expand the processing side of the business and leave the farm behind?" David asks rhetorically. "That's just not who we are." Or, as Edie puts it, "It's much more fun to have the cows here."

Making milk

When you enter the barn, you have to agree with her. Seven Stars is home to an 80-cow herd of mixed Jersey, Guernsey, and Holstein crosses. They all have names as well as numbers, and they all get to keep their horns (except for Cerveza, the bull), which gives them an individuality and even a majesty you don't realize is missing in de-horned animals.

Milking takes place twice a day, at 4 a.m. and 4 p.m., two milkers working their way toward each other from opposite ends of the barn. Each cow gets two months off around calving time. "They're really hard-working, these little Jerseys," says Edie, who takes her own share of barn shifts; at least two a week. "They'll milk the fat right off their backs if you ask them to."

The barn itself Edie identifies as a 1950s Jamesway kit-set, rusty and rattling, one among a huddle of low, Quonset-style structures that define the farmyard, a challenge rather than an advantage of the site. "We have an inefficient farm," Edie explains cheerfully. "We inherited a labor-intensive tie-stall barn," David later elaborates. In winter, the cows go outside for at least a couple of hours in the morning; when the pastures are green, they're outside most of the day. Even so, that means a lot of barn cleaning.

Over the years the Griffiths have struggled to perfect a feeding system compatible with this infrastructure, moving from small square bales, to big round bales, to big round bale haylage for the roughage portion of their feed supply. Now they are in the process of converting to a TMR (total mixed ration) system based on round bale silage, Sudan grass and hay—a shiny new tub grinder sits waiting out behind the barn. Currently, they buy in organic corn and soymeal, and their hope is that the TMR system will enable them to cut back on this. "The goal is to maximize the quality of the forage and minimize the amount of corn protein," explains David. One of their two organic vets, Hugh Karreman, has gotten them interested in pre-antibiotic veterinary expertise and the use of rations minutely tailored to the cows' varying needs; in this regard, TMR may have potential as a blending of old skills and new technologies.

The farm as a whole is about 350 acres, with 200 acres arable, 75 acres pasture, and the balance in woods. Although from the beginning of their tenure here the Griffiths have maintained separate arable and pasture rotations, David says that recently the two cycles have been growing more similar, with the arable rotation (organized around small grains and Sudan grass) incorporating two years of hay, and the pasture regularly broken into arable.

A simple product line, a delicate product

The Seven Stars processing facility is remarkably simple: One room holds the milk tanks, another serves as an incubator, a third is a cooler, a fourth is storage and an informal shop front (you can buy direct here, but only by the case). In between, a large room holds the machine that makes and packages the yogurt: bringing the milk down to the correct temperature after pasteurization, adding the live yogurt cultures, pumping it into the 32-ounce containers and sealing, capping, and date-stamping them.

To preserve this simplicity, they have kept their product line strictly minimalist, selling just three flavors of whole milk yogurt (plain, maple, and vanilla) and two of lowfat (plain and maple), all and only in one-quart containers. "If you do cups, you need to have a whole range of flavors to fill out the shelf," Edie points out. They’re just not interested in that sort of complication.

Instead, they've established a loyal customer base devoted to their distinctive product. This is pure yogurt, just milk and culture, with no stabilizers, thickeners, or other additives. (The maple yogurt also contains pure organic maple syrup; the vanilla, organic vanilla.) "It makes for a more fragile product," David admits. "If it gets dropped, or left on a loading dock, it will suffer." Edie likens it to the difference between a commercial tomato, which can take all the abuse of a cross-country journey, and an heirloom tomato, which can only travel a short distance without risk of getting bruised.

If the fan mail is any indication, Seven Stars customers understand and appreciate that difference. A representative letter is pinned to a bulletin board by the door: "Your yogurt is the best food that I know of," it reads. That kind of following has allowed the Griffiths to expand the business steadily over the past 15 years while relying almost entirely on advertising by word of mouth. They run an occasional ad, Edie says, "more just to support some local publications than anything else."

The Kimberton community

Another thing that makes Seven Stars Farm unique is its strong ties to the local anthroposophical community. (Anthroposophy, like biodynamic farming, is based on the teachings of German philosopher Rudolph Steiner.) The land on which Seven Stars operates belongs to the Kimberton Waldorf School just across the road; next door is the Kimberton CSA, another biodynamic farm; while nearby there are three Camphill villages, nonprofit communities where special-needs adults and children live, learn, and work side-by side with able-bodied co-workers. This corner of Chester County, Pennsylvania is one of a handful of places across the United States where the diverse, interdisciplinary teachings of Rudolf Steiner are put in practice side by side.

(In fact, as David points out, "This farm occupies a small footnote in organic history." Before World War II, a Swedish-born businessman named Alarik Myrin purchased 1,000 acres here and then enlisted the help of Steiner disciple Ehrenfried Pfeiffer—who emigrated from Europe around the same time, eventually establishing a research center at Spring Valley, New York—to start an agricultural school. The Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association, now based in Junction City, Oregon, was based here from 1988 to 1997.)

In the early 1980s, the farm that is now Seven Stars was managed by the school; but when the Griffiths came they negotiated a 29-year lease. This gives them independence and security of tenure while removing the element of land speculation that can so strongly influence agricultural life, for better or worse. The school has sold the development rights on most of the acreage and retains the option of future expansion on a few fields. Otherwise, says Edie, "They've let us do pretty much what we've wanted over the years."

But the relationship is clearly stronger than some landlord-tenant links. The school's sports teams are called the Kimberton Cows, and kids come over to the farm regularly for activities in their third- and ninth-grade years. (Recently the third graders had a sleepover at one of the farm houses and got up for the morning milking.) "I think we do help shape the flavor of the community," Edie laughs. "I'm always surprised at how the kids really connect to the cows, even if they don't come over here that much," she goes on. "And there always seem to be a few kids at high school age who take a real interest in the farm and get more involved."

Marketing on a medium scale

The Griffiths say they field at least half a dozen requests a year from farmers interested in emulating Seven Stars. "They fall into two categories," says David: those who are genuinely interested, and those who are fed up with low returns and are thinking about value-added as a last-ditch effort to make their dairies profitable.

To make it work, he says, you have to be in the first category. "We entered the market early," he cautions, "and so we were able to get into certain retail and distribution channels that are not that easy to get to anymore." They made a jump in sales, for instance, when they were picked up by the national natural foods distributor Tree of Life.

Their restricted product line also gives them somewhat limited flexibility. They've discovered that demand for 32-ounce yogurt is seasonal, with slow periods around Christmas and the summer holidays; a schedule that doesn't mesh particularly well with peak milk production, in May and June. One diversification strategy they have considered is to sell butter, especially since they currently sell their spare cream (from making lowfat yogurt) back to the organic dairy cooperative from which they get their extra milk.

On the other hand, when they started buying milk in about eight years ago to meet the rising demand for their yogurt, they had to shift from the Demeter Association's Stellar biodynamic label (which demands that 95-percent of the end product be raised on-farm) to Demeter's Aurora certified-organic label, which meets National Organic Program standards.

Costs, too, have slowly crept up. In the early years, Edie says, organic vanilla was $25 a gallon; today it's $200 a gallon, and there are rumors that it may soon climb as high as $250. (One gallon of organic vanilla goes into each 600-gallon batch of Seven Stars vanilla yogurt.) The price they pay for their 32-ounce plastic containers tracks the price of oil, so lately it's been on the rise as well.

A unique perspective on organics

Balancing these diverse demands is part of what David calls "the unique configuration of management" required to be a successful farmer-processor. It may be that perspective, too, which makes him relatively sympathetic towards the National Organic Program (NOP). "The NOP needs our prayers right now," he declares. "After 50 years of organic farming and just two years of the NOP, look how far we've come. The great thing about the NOP is that [processors] are being forced to source more and more organic product as it becomes available. Before, you had no way of knowing what your options were for, say, vitamin C. Now, if the NOP determines that [an ingredient] is available organic, you have to use it."

Now approaching their early 50s, the Griffiths affectionately class themselves among "the old farts of organic." Although neither grew up farming, both were drawn to it in their late teens and held fast. David attended the University of California at Santa Cruz in the 1970s, when the legendary Alan Chadwick was developing the student farm and garden there. "I was a better farmer than a student at that stage," David comments (though he eventually earned an undergraduate degree in soil science). Edie says she knew from a young age that she wanted to be a farmer. At age 19, she went to work at Hawthorne Valley (a biodynamic farm in mid-upstate New York) and stayed almost 10 years, making cheese and selling at the Union Square Greenmarket in the early years. Later, she worked on farms in Norway.

The two met on a biodynamic farming course at Emerson College in East Sussex, England, and grew together in their view of biodynamics as the most sophisticated, mature version of organic agriculture. From her first years as an apprentice at Hawthorne Valley, Edie says, biodynamic principles "just felt right." Pointing to the recent, rapid spread of biodynamic management among winemakers around the world, the Griffiths suggest that "Maybe humans can only perceive the more subtle aspects of farming techniques when they are distilled," such as into wine.

Historically, biodynamics has had an enormous influence on organics, David points out. Moreover, "Biodynamics places an emphasis on the mysteries of life and the mysteries of agriculture; of what we're doing. That's something I try to keep alive as a farmer, to savor that awe—to step back and ask, ‘What is the largest picture we can see here?’"

Laura Sayre is senior writer for The New Farm.