VALUE ADDED: Cedar Summit Farm
From conventional dairy to certified organic, grass-based creamery

Thanks to a bit of imagination, entrepreneurship, and lots of hard work, this Minnesota dairy is being passed to the next generation as a thriving, integrated on-farm business

By Deborah Hyk

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 effects.

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 family.

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, 'cream-line' milk.

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 glance

Florence and David Minar
Cedar Summit Farm

www.cedarsummit.com

Established: 1926
Location: New Prague, MN, about 30 miles SW of Minneapolis
Pesticide-free since: 1974
Rotational grazing and direct marketing since: 1994
First certified organic: June 2004
Size: 200 acres owned; 270 acres rented; 170 cows; herd average of 13,000 lbs of milk/year
Products: 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 farm store.

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 it right.

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.