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
“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 just 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 Foodsand Whole Foods, who place her product in various
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.” Dryer’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.