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
"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."
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
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
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.