Greek Yogurt Is Fiddle Creek Dairy’s Niche

7/20/2013 7:00 AM
By Anne Harnish Food and Family Features Editor

QUARRYVILLE, Pa. — Driving up the southern Lancaster County hills to find Fiddle Creek Dairy on a rainy day makes the surrounding fields and woodsy overgrowth appear wet and jungle-thick. A tiny lane at the crest of a ridge leads down again, past a small farmhouse, with a view that opens out into a sloping valley nestling the array of big and small outbuildings that makes up the farm property. Amidst it all, are showing the results of the hard work of dairy farmer Tim Crowhill Sauder and his fiddler wife, Frances.

Having purchased the farm just two years ago, the couple already has their Greek yogurt business in full swing. They cleaned up the property; fenced in pastures for rotational grazing of their small herd of Jersey cows; put a tie-stall barn in working order, cut and wrapped 50 large bales of hay and 1,000 small bales; expanded the milkhouse and built a Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture-permitted processing facility for making the Greek and Swiss-style yogurt they wholesale to more than 16 stores throughout the county.

“We just had to jump in,” Frances said, acknowledging that their 10-year-plan had turned into a 2-year plan.

It all happened fast and furiously. Though they attended the same high school in Lancaster, Pa., 36-year-old Tim and 37-year-old Frances both traveled and lived in other places until they met again 3 years ago. They married and during a delayed honeymoon backpacking through Europe, talked about what kind of farming options would make sense for them.

Tim underwent surgery and treatment for thyroid cancer after it was discovered in the fall of 2010. He is recovered and healthy again, but admits, “It seems like I should have more energy than I do.”

Frances plays the fiddle and is a professional musician, but because of her music and teaching schedule isn’t always available to help on the farm. They also had a son, Eli, last November.

As they made a business plan, the couple knew that with their limitations, if Tim was to fulfill his love of working with cows, they would need to find a niche product that he liked which would allow him to manage the work himself.

“A value-added product made sense for us,” Frances said.

And, though they considered buying a farm in Virginia where they were living at the time, they ended up returning to their roots in Lancaster County to buy the 50-acre farm nearly 2 years ago. Excluding the woods and buildings, 33 acres of the land is grazeable.

“Nobody had made a good living on this farm in decades,” Tim acknowledged.

The couple discussed a variety of options in their business plan. They wanted a sustainable farm which matched their values. They considered making cheese, but realized nobody was making Greek yogurt. It was also a product which was doable time-wise and work-wise.

“Yogurt worked in our business plan,” Tim said.

The farmhouse needed significant repair before they could move in, so the couple lived in a trailer and while they fixed up the house. At the same time, they also worked with the PDA, figuring out what they had to do and what equipment they needed to start their yogurt business.

“There were all kinds of things we never thought of,” Frances said. Between enlarging the milkhouse and purchasing equipment, etc., the couple estimates they spent about $50,000 to get their processing facility up to speed and properly permitted.

“It’s been really fun to get the operation up and running,” Tim said.

They also appreciate the help from friends, family and Amish neighbors, who have come to help with big jobs at the farm such as cutting hay.

The couple are both familiar with farming (and traveling). Tim’s dairying experience began in his early 20s, when he worked at a Manor Township dairy farm on and off from 2004 to 2009 while he traveled and took college courses. His travels took him to follow the wheat harvest as well as to Alaska, France and Germany. In Germany, where he learned many of his farming skills, he attended a school for agriculture for 2 years. As part of his studies, he worked on a beef farm and a dairy there.

For her part, Frances had worked on several different vegetable farms during her 20s and studied permaculture. She lived in California and Kenya and also spent time traveling.

Back at the farm, the couple trained themselves to make yogurt.

“We did a lot of research on (yogurt) cultures. We tried a lot of different ones out before we got our PDA permit,” Frances said. “We gave lots of free yogurt samples away and asked people to fill out questionaires to get feedback.”

The results were very helpful, the couple said. People liked certain flavors more than others.

“The questionaires built anticipation from customers, before we could even sell it,” Frances said.

Fiddle Creek Dairy’s Greek yogurt is more expensive, Tim said, because it takes twice as much milk to make it. Wholesaled by the case, the Greek yogurt comes in a glass pint jar and is priced at $3.50, while the thinner Swiss-style yogurt is in quarts and costs $3.

Sales have steadily been increasing, and they plan to add four more cows in the near future as well as fence in more pastureland.

“We want to balance (the number of) cows with the land area, to keep the health of the land,” Tim said.

Tim milks the herd — mostly Jersey and including some New Zealand Jersey bloodlines — just once a day. He was planning to milk twice per day, he said, but was impressed with the low SCC counts of another dairy which milked once a day. It works well for his operation and schedule, he said.

He gets 120 gallons a week from 11 cows, of which two-thirds to three-fourths is made into thick and creamy Greek yogurt. The remainder is a thinner, stirred yogurt, referred to as Swiss-style.

The milk is pasteurized, then incubated in the pasteurizer.

The Greek yogurt is put in bags to strain out the whey over a 24-hour period. The resulting whey goes into the manure pit for disposal.

“At our scale of production, with our land base, it’s okay,” Tim said.

The cows spend all their time out on grass pasture, except for at milking time and if it gets too hot. Then the cows come into the barn to cool down. Tim would like to keep the cows completely grassfed, but said he’d be willing to feed some grain if their condition requires it.

“I wouldn’t feed grain just for production,” Tim said. “We’re managing it so we could be organic certified if we decided to go that route.”

“I wasn’t always organic,” he said, but admitted that since his cancer scare that he’s become more wary of “the ’cides,” meaning insecticides, pesticides and herbicides.

“Do they really just work the way we think they do?” he asked.

He said his cancer has made him more interested in organic systems.

“I am more in awe of how little things can make a big difference in a system. ... like the creek here, or, our bodies.”

The couple said they owe a lot to big yogurt companies like Fage and Chobani for popularizing Greek yogurt, but feel that they are offering a different, fresh, local version of yogurt with their own grassfed operation.

“We’re never going to put Fage out of business,” Tim laughed.

People desire Greek yogurt because “it’s a hearty food that is healthy,” Frances said. “It’s also considered a healthy substitute for many things.”

For more information, Fiddle Creek Dairy can be reached at 717-682-7262.

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