Posted October 14, 2004: It was in the spring
of 1974, over thirty years ago, that Dave Minar had a life-altering
close call with herbicides. He doesn’t remember which
herbicide was involved; he’d like to forget the entire
episode. But he and his wife Florence will never forget its
The accident exposed Dave to a large quantity of the chemical.
The result was a nervous system reaction that left him reeling.
One such incident was enough for the Minars. They decided
it would be their last go-round with chemicals on their farm.
Although they did not become certified organic until recently,
when they did it was more or less just a formality for the
couple’s farm. David’s accident, it turned out,
wouldn’t be the only life-changing event for the Minar
After years of managing their dairy as a traditional, small-scale
confinement operation, in the early 1990s the Minars decided
to switch to grazing. To begin the switch, they sold all their
cows and kept only their young stock. In the years since,
they’ve expanded mostly internally, selectively breeding
Holstein crosses with breeds better suited to grazing as they
began to expand and transition to organic production.
Around the same time, Florence began doing research into
the lack of omega-3 fatty acids in the typical American diet.
Basically, she says, “our bodies are starved for them.”
She learned that grazed beef and dairy products contain lots
of beneficial omega-3s, whereas milk and meat from animals
reared in confinement, on grain-based rations, hardly have
any. Confinement-raised meat and dairy products do contain
plenty of omega-6 fatty acids, which are also beneficial but
only when their levels are balanced with omega-3 levels. Most
Americans get twenty times as much omega-6 in meat and dairy
as omega-3. Finally, Florence read about research linking
omega-3 deficiencies with diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
Initially, the Minars were selling grass-fed beef and chickens
from their farm—but they weren’t marketing or
labeling them as “grass-fed.” Before long, they
began to understand that they had a special product: animal
and dairy products raised on pasture. “I realized that
we were sending it into the commodity dairy market where it
was pooled with all the other milk from typical dairy farms,”
says Florence. “It wasn’t doing anybody any good.”
That had to change, she decided. In addition, she and David
also realized that their 60-cow farm was fast becoming a relic.
Small farms with tie-stall milking parlors were once ubiquitous
in the upper Midwest. But after watching their parents toil
and ruin their knees from milking in these facilities, fewer
and fewer members of the next generation are choosing to stay
in the dairy business.
Facing facts—as a family
The couple understood that they and their children had some
decisions to make. They needed to remodel their milking parlor
to create a more ergonomic equipment set-up for the people
doing the milking. Plus, they knew they had a quality product,
and they wanted to get it directly to consumers. Both changes
would require significant investment.
Dave and Florence knew they needed to do their own marketing—and
that to do so would likely mean they'd also have to do some
of their own processing. A farm-based processing business
would allow them to capitalize on their superior product.
Such a venture would mean adding an entirely new business
to the farm. Michael Sparby of Minnesota's non-profit Agriculture
Utilization and Research Institute (AURI) helps farmers design
and market their own added-value products. He cautions that
the time and money involved in such a venture is considerable.
The Minars decided that they couldn’t make the shift
to on-farm processing without knowing that the farm would
continue in the family. So in 1997, they held a family meeting
with their five children. “We told them the farm would
be theirs, so if they didn’t want it, they needed to
tell us,” Florence remembers. The couple explained that
the farm needed to change to keep going, but that they wouldn’t
make the change unless the whole family was on board and the
children were committed to taking over the farm at some point
in the future.
The meeting concluded with the family united against the
prospect of selling the farm. The children said they were
ready to step in and be a part of the dairy. The children's
commitment made Dave and Florence even more determined to
develop a market for their farm’s products.
Creating a distinctive product
Remodeling the milking barn, from a tie-stall to a parallel-pit
parlor arrangement, was the easy part. Marketing would be
the Minars' greatest challenge. They began researching their
ideas, attending seminars and talking to the folks at AURI.
They learned that to be successful, they needed to make their
product line distinctive—to emphasize what was unique
about their products. They decided that all their dairy products
would be grass-based, raised and produced in an environmentally
sound manner. In addition, the milk would be un-homogenized,
Dave and Florence began with a list of 600 potential customers,
including food service departments, co-ops, natural and health
food stores, grocery stores and restaurants. They approached
these businesses and individuals and asked if they would be
interested in stocking and serving their products.
In the meantime, the Minars learned that the county where
their farm is located, Scott County in south-central Minnesota,
wouldn't allow them to advertise or post road signs. The on-farm
store’s sign had to be limited to a certain size. Sales
would have to be to neighbors or through word of mouth. These
limits seemed to threaten the success of the family’s
on-farm store, but they plunged ahead.
|Farm at a
and David Minar
Cedar Summit Farm
New Prague, MN, about 30 miles SW of
and direct marketing since:
200 acres owned; 270 acres rented; 170
cows; herd average of 13,000 lbs of milk/year
milk, cream, yogurt, sour cream, ice cream
The Minars got help designing labels for their new Cedar
Summit Farm products from the Agricultural Utilization Research
Institute. Since 1989, AURI has provided free technical assistance
to Minnesota farmers, producers, and entrepreneurs—anyone
who is adding value to agricultural commodities.
The children were involved from the beginning, and Florence
and David were determined to make the venture work. “We
brainstormed with friends about what we could do, and what
would be appealing to customers,” says Florence.
Once the family had found enough interested customers, they
connected with Pladot, a company based in Israel that sells
a complete line of small-scale dairy processing equipment.
Next they met with a banker to determine if they could finance
the project. Finally, they worked alongside a contractor,
plumber and electrician to draw up plans for the new facility,
including a store and a creamery. Pladot reviewed the design
to make sure that the plumbing and electrical hookups would
work with the equipment the family planned to purchase.
When the building had been completed, Pladot sent a team
to the Minar farm to install the equipment and train the family
in how to use it to pasteurize the milk and process it into
un-homogenized milk, cream, butter, yogurt, ice cream and
sour cream. The couple and their children got to spend two
weeks with the Pladot reps—learning, asking questions,
and perfecting the recipes they would soon sell from their
Eventually, the family decided to stop making butter because
the ice cream and whipping cream were such a hit with customers.
They also opted to find a custom cheese maker to take their
milk, make cheese for them, and return it to be sold in their
store, at farmers' markets and to restaurants and other outlets.
Their customer base is diverse and growing. More than 60
area grocery stores, co-ops and other markets carry their
products, including the chain groceries Byerly’s, Lund’s
and Econofoods. They also make drops at four sites where local
groups purchase a minimum of $100/week in Cedar Summit products.
They have 13 restaurants who make regular purchases, and Dave
and Florence also sell at three farmers' markets.
Going to farmers' markets has also helped the Minars build
commercial relationships with other farmers in the area. As
a result, the Cedar Summit Farm shop has turned into a community
market, selling organically produced chicken from another
farm nearby, as well as eggs, honey, jams and jellies, seasonings,
and other local products.
Making the most of available resources
Cedar Summit's growth has meant longer hours for David and
Florence as well as plenty of work for their five children.
Everybody pitches in: son Mike manages the processing facility;
his wife Merrisue is part-time office manager. Son Chris is
on the company’s executive committee (intended to be
a detached oversight group), while his wife Linda is the farm's
accountant. Daughter Lisa does graphic design for the company
and hosts a weekly drop-off site at her home. Son Dan is in
charge of sales and marketing. Daughter Laura Ganske helps
in the office and in the store. Her husband programmed and
maintains the company’s computer network.
Like all new companies, Cedar Summit has faced many challenges.
Working with family, Florence notes, is a bit more difficult
than just having employees. “Employees recognize they
have to conform,” she says. Family members don’t
necessarily feel that way. Disagreements take place, but eventually
the business has taught everyone that they need to work together.
Farmers who have a “fire in their belly” are
much more likely to make a project like the Minars’
creamery a success. In many areas, help with on-farm processing
or value-added enterprises is available through state universities
or departments of agriculture. Yet recent budget cuts have
dramatically lowered the amount of staff assistance and grant
dollars available. “The demand is out there,”
says Michael Sparby, project development director with the
AURI office in Crookston. In some cases, however, all AURI
can do is direct farmers to assistance elsewhere, which may
or may not be free.
When the Minars first came to AURI, the organization had
already lost roughly 40 percent of its budget. At that time,
program reductions had been kept to a minimum, with staffing
reductions absorbing most of shortfall. In the last few years,
however, AURI has lost 67 percent of its budget.
The Minars did receive a grant to help with the printing
on their product labels and containers. Such grants are rare,
notes Sparby, and much needed. The overall cost of a facility
like Cedar Summit's can run from $100,000—using some
second-hand equipment—to as much as $800,000 for a completely
new facility. The Minars succeeded because they did a lot
of the work themselves—and managed to do so much of
To keep their product grass-fed, Dave focuses on managing
the pastures and the cows. “I’ve planted a number
of grasses, like brome, timothy, perennial rye and annual
rye, orchard grass and fescue,” he notes. He’s
also seeded pastures with legumes like alfalfa and red and
white clovers. With the help of a few thousand dollars from
the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), he’s
created a series of paddocks ranging from 2 to 5 acres for
rotational grazing. Recently, they attempted to shift to a
completely grain-free diet. Their cows have been healthy as
a result of the grazing, and Dave felt the only reason for
grain was to entice the cows into the parlor. Production dropped,
so they’ve returned a bit of grain. “It’s
less than 2 pounds—a combination of barley, wheat and
hulless oats,” notes Dave.
The creamery is so successful at this point that the Minars
feel ready to hand it over to their children. They are currently
looking for a manager to handle the cows' feeding and care.
Florence now looks at the farm and the store with a sense
that they are secure; that the family farm will stay in the
family. She also looks at her children with pride. “This
is theirs,” she says.
Deborah Hyk is a freelance writer based in central Minnesota.