Apple Valley Creamery Makes Most of Small Farm

6/1/2013 7:00 AM
By Charlene M. Shupp Espenshade Special Sections Editor

EAST BERLIN, Pa. — Larry Stoner always dreamed of adding a processing plant to his dairy farm but did not have the time.

Don Everett was looking for a career change, something more than public accounting. He had grown up around farms and wanted to pursue something with farming.

And one fateful discussion between the pair about their long-term goals started them on the path to establishing Apple Valley Creamery.

They formed the partnership in 2005 and opened the creamery in December 2006.

“When we got started, we hoped to have the farm store and see if that would work,” Everett said.

The farm sells milk, butter, ice cream, ice tea and lemonade under the Apple Valley Creamery banner. It is also licensed to sell raw milk, has a home milk delivery service and sells its products at nearly 30 retail locations.

Everett said the farm store allows customers to visit the farm, but often convenience is more important to them.

“We’ve hit a market where we say, if you want to buy at the farm, that’s fine. And if you don’t, we will drop it at your doorstep,” Everett said.

The operation is described as four businesses in one location — the dairy farm, the processing plant, the home delivery service and the farm store.

“It’s a lot to manage,” Everett said, and in the early days, wives Sharon Stoner and Cindy Everett helped in the creamery until additional employees could be hired.

The partnership has Everett managing the creamery while Stoner manages the dairy herd.

The farm has an 80-cow dairy herd with 14 employees working in the different entities. Cows are milked twice a day, and the rolling herd average is 21,000, according to Stoner.

The farm was founded by the Stoner family in 1928. Management has changed since opening the creamery. The cows are now in an intensive grazing system, heading out to pasture in late March or April, depending on grazing conditions, and remaining there until November.

In the winter months, the cows are housed full time in their freestall barn.

In addition to growing corn, Stoner said, the farm is double-cropping to increase its feed production. There are 110 acres in crop production and an additional 60 in pasture.

The other change is the milking herd. The farm has moved from a purebred Holstein herd to a Holstein and Holstein/Jersey-crossbred herd.

Apple Valley uses 60 to 70 percent of its dairy production at its on-farm processing plant. The rest is shipped to Land O’Lakes cooperative.

The milk is sold in glass bottles as whole, 1.5 percent, chocolate and cream line, or non-homogenized, options.

A seasonal flavored milk is also offered as well as bottled raw milk, butter and ice cream.

Raw milk was not part of Apple Valley’s original plan, but with growing interest, it was added and now makes up about 20 percent of milk sales.

Caputo Brothers Creamery also purchases Apple Valley’s milk and processes Italian-style cheeses on site.

Mark Severn, Caputo Brothers’ director of sales and operations, said the Caputos moved their cheese-making operation to Apple Valley last summer because demand exceeded their original creamery’s capabilities.

The Caputos use Apple Valley’s milk to make fresh Italian-style cheeses, and their ricotta cheese was featured at the 2013 Preakness during a farm-to-table event ahead of race day.

“The primary customer is high-end restaurants,” Severn said.

Most of the cheese is sold in New York City, New Jersey, Philadelphia and Maryland.

Caputo Brothers also sells frozen mozzarella curd, which preserves its integrity until chefs give the cheese its final stretch before serving.

The challenge with fresh mozzarella, Severn said, is its short shelf life.

To price Apply Valley’s milk products, Everett said he looks at both organic and conventional milk, and settles between those two prices.

“Most of our customers care about what they are drinking,” he said. “They are not purchasing milk as a commodity.”

Last year, the farm started planting non-GMO corn to address customer concerns. This spring, it received its Animal Welfare Approved certification to validate its humane animal handling procedures.

The majority of sales happen off-farm, but the farm store is like the “flagship store” of the creamery. It’s a place for people to see cows and the plant.

The dairy plant, store and milking parlor are all in the farm’s original tie-stall barn. Windows have been installed in the farm store for customers to look into the dairy plant.

Walking down the hallway from the farm store toward the milking parlor, customers can look through the windows into the milk house.

As a creamery owner, Everett said he feels fortunate to be a first mover for glass-bottled milk and home delivery.

Now, several larger retail outlets are also looking into the home delivery model.

At a recent milk delivery conference, Everett said, several farmers indicated they were worried to discover that Amazon Fresh, a division of Amazon.com Inc., had begun home milk delivery.

Everett also said several box stores are ramping up “fresh, local” promotion campaigns and advertising.

Starting a creamery is not an easy venture, and the overhead is high because of the required investment in equipment for the dairy plant.

“With the way government regulations are, you can’t just start in your kitchen. You have to start in a legally approved plant,” Everett said. “There was pressure on us to make it work.”

Last year was the first profitable year for the creamery — a trend Everett and Stoner are committed to continuing.

“I am trying as much as possible to pull away from the day to day and take a bird’s eye view of the operation,” Everett said.

The farm has an advisory team that meets quarterly. It includes the president of Agri-Services because of his experience with on-farm processors, a real estate agent, a Farm Services Agency loan officer and several Penn State representatives.

The goal is to continue as a small farm.

Two of Stoner’s children, Laura and Tyler, are now working on the farm, and his father has come back to work in the dairy.

And Everett’s parents are moving to Pennsylvania from New York State to also work at the dairy.

To learn more about Apple Valley Creamery, visit http://www.applevalleycreamery.com. To learn more about Caputo Brothers Creamery, visit http://www.caputobrotherscreamery.com.


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