Holidays Rise to Top for Farm Creameries

12/1/2012 7:00 AM
By Charlene M. Shupp Espenshade Special Sections Editor

Direct Marketers See Seasonal Sales Bump

Last weekend kicked off the holiday shopping season and like their city shop cousins, dairy farmers who have retail operations are seeing holiday returns.

Don Everett of Apple Valley Creamery in East Berlin, Pa., said his fourth-quarter sales are by far his largest.

Roberta Rotelle of September Farm in Honey Brook, Pa., said her farmily’s farm does 25 percent of its business in December.

The holiday push offsets the slow months of January, February and March, Emily Montgomery of Calkins Creamery in Honesdale, Pa., said.

And for Jim Mitchell, a dairy farmer turned ice cream maker at Woodside Creamery in Hockessin, Del., holiday products extend the ice cream season.

Customers are purchasing holiday eggnog, ice creams, butters and cheeses at the farm stores, online and through retail outlets. Gift boxes and baskets are also strong sellers.

Everett said the change is not in the type of customer at his farm, “but they just seem to purchase more for the holidays.”

The farm’s butter sales increase as families purchase for holiday baking, he said.

Apple Valley also offers home delivery of its milk products. The farm’s main dairy focus is milk and butter. In addition to traditional pasteurized milk, it also does what it calls a “whole cream line” of milk or pasteurized, nonhomogenized milk. It also starts producing eggnog around Halloween.

Apple Valley Creamery is a partnership between the Stoner and Everett families of Adams County. It has been selling milk since 2006, followed later by home delivery in south-central Pennsylvania. The creamery uses about 2,000 pounds of milk per week from the farm’s dairy herd.

“We have become a holiday tradition for many of our families,” Everett said.

Through the holiday season, customers will bring sons, daughters and others to the store when they purchase their milk and dairy products. Or they will bring them for a farm tour. In many ways, the shopping trip provides a chance for family members to see a working farm.

The Rotelles offer a wide variety of cheeses and cheese curds made right at the farm. Because of the location, there is a large volume of traffic to the store to purchase cheeses, Rotelle said. The farm also sells gift packs, featuring its cheeses and related items such as b ologna and mustard.

Holiday production gears up for the Rotelles in the summer because of their longer-aged cheeses, such as cheddars, which take months to cure. They also have shorter-aged cheeses as well as fresh cheeses in the mix.

Rotelle said it’s a nice blend of products. More than half of the farm’s milk goes to cheese production.

“The holidays’ are very important to a business like ours,” she said. Cheese is “an entertaining food and people like to talk about it.”

She said the conversation will be similar to a wine tasting as they talk about where the cheese comes from, its flavors and taste.

With the tighter economy over the past few years, there is greater interest in giving something “consumable” as a gift, Rotelle said, whether it’s people buying cheese bars to include in homemade gift baskets or purchasing pre-made gift boxes.

She said the farm has several corporate customers who order cheese boxes to give as gifts to their employees or clients.

The Rotelles have done holiday flavors in the past, but the response was so strong, the flavors were simply added to the regular line-up.

Seasonal top sellers include apple cinnamon cheddar, cranberry orange jack and a cranberry honey cheese ball.

Calkins Creamery in the Upper Delaware Valley in Wayne County, sells most of its cheese off-site. The farm’s focus is on artisan cheeses, including 14 raw milk and six pasteurized cheese varieties.

“The artisan cheese movement continues to grow,” Montgomery said. “A lot of our clientele base love the fact they can buy a high-quality food gift that everyone will love.”

Holiday sales are important because there will be a slowdown through the winter months and a good “boost to our normal sales helps us feel more secure,” she said.

Most of Calkins’ cheese sales are through food service and retail outlets in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Maryland and Virginia. The creamery also sells cheese in a small farm store and online. Last year, it sold more than 300 gift boxes, and Montgomery said the business continues to see growth every year.

The creamery uses about 35 percent of the farm’s milk production. And with its location away from population centers, marketing is important.

“Social media and word of mouth is priceless,” Montgomery said. “We utilize Constant Contact (marketing) website, Twitter and Facebook.”

Montgomery oversees the cheese business based at the Bryant family’s dairy farm just outside Honesdale. Her husband, Jay, helps in the creamery. Her father, Bill Bryant, and brother, Zach, manage the dairy herd.

In addition to their regular lineup of cheeses, they have done seasonal flavors from time to time. Last year, they had a hot salami havarti cheese that a retailer requested. This year, the creamery held an employee contest to develop a new quark, or curd, cheese flavor. At an open house, customers selected a sundried tomato basil flavor.

Ice cream is most often associated with summer, but the Mitchells of Hockessin, Del., have found ways to extend their Woodside Creamery’s sales season.

This year, Woodside remained open until Thanksgiving instead of shutting down at Halloween, thanks to holiday sales. It also will have limited hours in the week before Christmas.

The farm makes ice cream in a variety of flavors sold at an ice cream stand on the farm as well as through retail outlets, restaurants and scoop shops. The family also make ice cream pies.

“It’s a nice thing at the end of season. Between the two holidays, we sell about 600 pies,” Mitchell said.

Ice cream pies are something Mitchell and his wife, Janet, discovered while attending a National Ice Cream Retailers convention. They decided it was worth experimenting with flavor combinations to see how it would sell.

Top sellers include their pumpkin and vanilla pie in a graham cracker crust for Thanksgiving. At Christmas, it is a peppermint chip and chocolate in an Oreo cookie crust.

The farm has been in Delaware for more than 200 years and, as Jim says, none of the family wants to quit farming. His parents, Joe and Kathy Mitchell, own the dairy farm. He and Janet own the ice cream business. Sister Debbie is also involved in the dairy farm.

The addition of the ice cream business has helped the farm’s profitability. On average, about 25 percent of its milk goes to ice cream each year. The other niche is the family’s ability to develop unique flavors for dip shops. The History Channel visited the farm this week as part of a feature on one of its retail clients.

The retail client base is made up of their neighbors Mitchell said.

“When people come out here, they feel like they’re still in the country,” he said. “That’s our niche. They can see the cows. When people visit, they plan on spending time here with the family. We have good ice cream, but the farm is as much of the draw as the product.”

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