She screams (sometimes)
Sue Huber, the owner of Sibby’s Premium Organic Ice Cream, shares the highs and lows of pursuing a dream

By Cara Hungerford
June 2, 2005

When my grandmother took my brother, sister and I for ice cream when I was a kid, she used to recite the rhyme, “I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream!” Excited for ice cream, I chanted along, but I have to admit I had no idea what ice cream and screaming had to do with one another until I met Sue Sebion “Sibby” Huber, owner of Sibby’s Premium Organic Ice Cream.

Huber is a blonde of average height and constant motion—if stories could be told in movement as well as in words, your computer screen would begin to rattle right now, from her fast gait to her enthusiastic hand motions to conversations that hop from topic to topic. Her stories are as much theater productions as mere conversation. “Sibby’s is a food without discrimination—without borders,” she says passionately at one point, describing her desire that all mothers be able to feed her ice cream to their children. Her whole being vibrates with the excitement of pursuing a dream. As she leads the short tour through her ice cream plant--you can almost see her mind cramming more into an already tight schedule. It’s hard to believe that for the better part of the last two decades she worked as a UPS driver.

Already living on what was once her great-grandparents' homestead, Huber turned in her brown-and-gold uniform and the security of a weekly pay check to return to her dairy roots.

A hundred acres of roller coaster hills in Wisconsin’s dairy land, the property was once home to a full dairy herd but now hosts just a few heifers and some alfalfa. Huber purchased the land 15 years ago, from an uncle, after resigning herself to the fact that her own parents’ land would be passed to the men in the family. Without Huber’s intervention, the land would have met an almost certain fate. “For every one farm standing there are twenty gone,” she says with a mixture of sadness and disgust.

Not content with the ordinary, Huber, who designed her family’s two-story farmhouse using moldings, windows, doors and cabinets salvaged along the back roads of her former UPS route, decided to put her own twist on the family business--cool, sweet, organic ice cream.

“The cosmos were with me.”

The pint-size container of Sibby’s is a vibrant mix of primary hues. Blue swerves around the lid just above a bright red "Sibby’s" while a smiling golden bee hovers over the "i", all on a white background. Huber, who designed the bold label herself, was no less shy in her business style. “It went extremely quickly once I decided what I wanted to do,” Huber reports. “I came up with the idea and in six months I had the product on the shelf.”

It was an amazing feat considering Huber had to track down organic suppliers for all her ingredients. She relied heavily on Robert Bradley, a retired University of Wisconsin-Madison dairy science professor whom she refers to as her mentor. Together they concocted a straight-forward five-ingredient formula: cream, nonfat dried milk, cane sugar, egg yolks and chocolate or vanilla. She also credits determination, long days and luck.

It also doesn’t hurt to have a source of organic cream figuratively, if not literally, in your backyard. The Chaseburg Creamery is less than 15 miles from the Sebion homestead. In 1999, the then-defunct Chaseburg fixture was purchased by CROPP to meet exploding demand for its Organic Valley label and converted to an all-organic operation. (Click here for that story.) Once every two weeks, ten cans of cream are dropped off at the Sibby’s factory, a newly built warehouse situated less than 100 yards from the Huber home.

The whole ice cream operation is housed in that large rectangular warehouse. The ingredients are mixed, pasteurized, homogenized, cooled, frozen, packaged and hardened all right outside her back door. Each morning she walks to her office and every afternoon she is there when her children get home from school.

She talks passionately about her kids and how much continuing with the status quo would have cost. “I’ve been out of UPS for seven years now and as I think back, I would have missed so much,” she says choking up a little.

Her sons, now 10 and 12, get to share in her life too. “I do most of it myself,” Huber says, “but I do use the kids when I need some help with the heavy lifting.”

In the beginning, Huber would load 200 pints at a time into a freezer tucked in the back of her pick-up, then haul them to retailers--one month to Madison, the next to Milwaukee. She now produces 4,400 pints of ice cream a month and distributes to locations all over the Midwest, Colorado and Tennessee. Having outgrown her pick-up, she now relies on the commercial services of distributors, including United Natural Foods and Whole Foods, who place her product in various retail outlets.

Huber has situated herself nicely on the cusp of a market wave. Organic dairy sales are surging and organic ice cream is the darling of the group, growing a category-high 33 percent from 2002 to 2003, according to the Organic Trade Association’s 2004 Manufacturers Survey. Analysts predict organic ice cream will experience what Holly Givens, OTA’s Communications Director, describes as “steady, strong growth” of 16.7 percent for each of the next four years.

While growth rates are promising, organic ice cream’s $14 million in sales for 2003 represents just one percent of the organic dairy industry overall. Too small to even warrant a question on the ice cream industry’s surveys. Marci Cleary, spokesperson for the International Ice Cream Association, reported the organization had no official data on organic producers but she said anecdotally the market seemed to show strong growth.

“We’re not going to lose the farm.”

This was supposed to be a once-and-done story—one interview, short profile, happy glow. But life is more complicated than that. Words and actions can often be read in several ways. A slight lift in the voice at the end of a sentence changes statement to question. Manic schedules and fast talk can one day suggest utter excitement, the next reveal absolute fear. If three months ago, when we originally spoke, Huber conveyed her dream with confidence, today she sounds more like she's trying to convince herself that Sibby’s is really going to happen.

“We’re not going to lose the farm,” Huber reports when I ask if there are any new developments. In February there was no indication this was ever a concern. But as is so often down-played or flat-out ignored, the American Dream is not a guaranteed proposition. According to a Small Business Administration report, 62 percent of small businesses will close within the first six years. And the ice cream world is no less forgiving. The International Ice Cream Association estimates there are currently 88 processors vying for limited retail freezer space--and most of that space is hogged by market leaders Dreyer’s and Unilever, who together represent Dreyer’s, Edy’s, Haagen-Dazs, Nestle, Breyer’s, Ben & Jerry’s, Starbucks and Skinny Cow, or 45 percent of the $20 billion-a-year industry.

It is hard not to note Huber’s frustration at having to play David in a Goliath world. “They're huge,” she says of her competition. “Not little people trying to penetrate [the market] like me and for good reason.” Dreyer’s is a $1.59 billion corporation. Sibby’s is just happy to still be operating.

Consolidation concerns her too. Horizon is owned by Dean Foods. Stonyfield sold to Danone. Ben and Jerry’s, once the indy label of the ice cream world, is the property of Unilever, the world's fifth largest food corporation. Huber is considering bringing dairy cows back to the farm. She estimates ten is all it would take. “Ten cans is really not that much,” she says, referring to the amount of milk the creamery drops off every other week. “What if CROPP sell out to Philip Morris?” she proposes. “I’d be out of business.” The fears are unsubstantiated, but it makes you realize just how fragile her world is. “I want to be in control of my own future.”

That’s really what it's all about. That is why she continues what she calls her guerilla marketing campaign, doggedly visiting retail shops and scooping out samples. “People are real surprised when they see an owner of a company scooping their own stuff out,” Huber says, probably reflecting more her own disbelief than that of the customers. Despite the menial nature of the labor, it gives Huber the invaluable opportunity to tell her story.

And while she may not have a huge marketing budget or unfettered access to ingredients, (the organic vanilla market, she says, is particularly volatile; and while she'd like to expand her range of flavors, sourcing other ingredients, like strawberries, will be a challenge) or a spot, yet, in the nation’s largest grocery stores, she does have a story. And it’s a good story--from her years as a UPS driver to wooing a rival FedEx man (when their relationship culminated in marriage they purchased vanity plates declaring "FedUPS") to risking everything to spend more time with her children and save the family farm. If quality organic ingredients and a “spoon-soft” formula keep buyers coming back, it is Sibby's face that sets her 6,600 gallons apart from the 1.6 billion gallons consumed by Americans annually.

According to Marci Cleary, spokesperson for the International Ice Cream Association, small producers succeed by finding their individuality and "tapping into regional flavors." Ten years ago, Haagen-Dazs melted the ice cream world with its dulce de leche, a caramel ice cream originating in South Africa. Southern Wisconsin may not have a more appealing flavor than Sibby herself.

Cara Hungerford is assistant editor for NewFarm.org.