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
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
“We’re not going to lose the
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
“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.