Smaller doesn’t always mean simpler. Consider Cella Langer and Emmet Fisher’s foray into being a Grade A micro-dairy — one that produces, processes, packages, markets, and sells pasteurized milk and yogurt. In a state that has lost 40,000 dairy farms in the past four decades, they are a tiny push in the opposite direction. How tiny? This year, Langer and Fisher are milking three Ayrshire cows on a seasonal basis in a small parlor on their 35-acre farm in western Wisconsin’s Pierce County. Their bulk tank could fit into a walk-in closet, and the creamery is designed to handle 50 gallons of milk a week; a typical 100-cow dairy can churn out roughly 4,900 gallons of milk weekly.
But when it comes to marketing milk and yogurt straight off the farm, complexities remain, whether it involves three cows, or 3,000. Langer and Fisher’s Oxheart Farm even has a milk haulers license, even though the distance between the cows and the processing plant is measured in footsteps, not road miles.
“I need to learn to drive a truck,” Langer says with a laugh while sitting in the March sun near the processing plant and milking parlor.
It hasn’t only been the milking enterprise that has made for some complications. Besides the dairy, this farm is now home to a 75-member vegetable CSA as well as a direct marketing egg and meat business.
During the past five years, Langer and Fisher have been able to cut through the complexity thanks to the business planning and goal setting foundation they received through the Land Stewardship Project’s Farm Beginnings and Journeyperson courses. Do the farmers, who are in their early 30s, have plans to add more enterprises?
“No,” Langer says without hesitation. “I think Farm Beginnings was the first place we realized we literally couldn’t do everything.”
A Whole Picture Approach
The couple could be forgiven for taking on a bushel basket of enterprises. After graduating with environmental education degrees from North Carolina’s Warren Wilson College, they set out to gain as much hands-on farming experience as possible, and during that time they saw how small operations were making a living utilizing a variety of enterprises, including vegetable and dairy production. Both had a good base to work from: Langer grew up on a farmstead where her mother grew a big garden, milked goats, kept chickens, and raised fruit. Fisher’s parents own and operate A-Z Produce and Bakery, a vegetable CSA in Stockholm, Wis. Besides raising vegetables, A-Z has a “pizza night” where the food served is made from numerous ingredients produced right on the farm, including the flour and meat.
While working on farms on the East Coast and in the Midwest, Langer and Fisher became enamored of the idea of providing eaters a “whole diet CSA” experience. That sparked their interest in producing not just vegetables for subscribers, but products like milk, meat, and eggs.
“ ‘Whoa — what if we grew everything on the farm?’ ” Langer recalls thinking when they started seriously considering farming as a career. “It was tempting,” adds Fisher.
Fortunately, during the winter of 2012-2013, the young couple took LSP’s Farm Beginnings course, which was being offered in Roberts, Wis. Farm Beginnings is a 12-month training session that helps students clarify their goals and strengths, establish a strong enterprise plan, and start building their operation. The course uses a mix of farmer-led classroom sessions, on-farm tours, and an extensive farmer network.
During their time in Farm Beginnings, as well as the follow-up course, Journeyperson, Langer and Fisher learned not only how to manage their financials better, but how to set up a five-year plan of where they wanted to be and how they were going to get there. That planning allowed them to take into consideration the importance of attaining a good work-life balance and the role sustainable goal-setting plays in that.
“Five years sounded like such a long time when we were 22, you know?” says Fisher, adding that their own timeline eventually included goals that covered not only financial and production milestones, but family life desires.
“If we quit farming and went into another career, I’d say 80% of it is very helpful in another line of work,” he says of the Farm Beginnings training. “And half of the Journeyperson course is like marital counseling. It’s life skills.”
The Journeyperson course, which is for farmers who have a few years of experience under their belt, emphasizes the use of Holistic Management, which focuses on “big picture” decision-making and goal setting processes. Holistic Management helps farmers work on achieving a “triple bottom line” of sustainable economic, environmental, and social benefits. In a Holistic Management system, a farmer’s quality of life is put on the same level as the health of the soil or the operation’s economic viability. Holistic Management relies on constantly monitoring whether a particular enterprise or use of a tool on the farm is helping meet long-term overall goals, or is a distraction.
That’s why Fisher and Langer spend each winter combing through their enterprises, pinpointing weak links, and looking for ways to make them more viable from a financial, family, and environmental standpoint. For example, the couple recently decided to take a break from producing pasture-raised pork for direct sale as their family obligations grew; they have a 3-year-old, Hugo, and in January, Otis was born.
When the young farmers went looking for land, they knew enough from past experience that they needed access to consistent markets as well as some infrastructure. The 35 acres, which is mostly planted to pine trees (a former owner had plans to access the wood market), is a few minutes’ drive from Red Wing, Minn., as well as other markets. As far as infrastructure, it doesn’t have as many outbuildings as they’d like. Besides a house, it has a garage, which was re-purposed into the creamery. Langer and Fisher have added three high tunnels for the vegetables.
They used a USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) Beginning Farmer Loan to finance the purchase of the farm. The FSA process can be lengthy, and in fact, deals on four other farms they attempted to purchase fell through as a result of the drawn out FSA loan period. The farm Oxheart landed on was the result of a long-term relationship developed with the owners, who were willing to not put the land on the market and wait for financing to come through for the young couple.
“They sort of courted us for the summer,” recalls Langer. “They basically said, ‘We’ll wait for you until you’re ready.’ ”
‘Questions for Francis’
While enrolled in Farm Beginnings and Journeyperson, Emmet and Cella learned the value of networking with established farmers who were carrying out the kind of enterprises they wanted to pursue. Through the MOSES (Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service) Farmer-to-Farmer Mentorship Program, they were able to connect with different established farmers and tap them for knowledge. The MOSES program pays the established farmers to be available to field questions from beginners like Emmet and Cella.
Through Journeyperson and MOSES, the couple connected with vegetable producers Kat Becker and Tony Schultz, in north-central Wisconsin. Through that connection, they learned of a micro-dairy in the area that was similar to what they were aspiring to. They were also able to rely on input from other farmers — including Farm Beginnings grads, in the western Wisconsin region.
But when it came time to actually launch the dairy, Langer and Fisher reached a point where the questions were so specific that they needed to find somebody who was doing specifically Grade A on-farm processing of grass-based milk that was being marketed in a relatively rural area.
It cost them around $50,000 to convert the garage into a pasteurization and bottling plant. Some of the equipment they needed was used, but because of their size, much of it was of a specialty type that had to be purchased new. There were endless issues to deal with, down to what kind of containers to market their product in.
“We wanted to do yogurt in glass, but there is no glass container and not only that there’s only one printed plastic container in the U.S. All those yogurt containers by all the different brands are manufactured by one company and they have a 10,000-unit minimum,” says Fisher. “That’s just one example of things like that — there’s a million things.”
One of the MOSES mentors they relied heavily on was Francis Thicke, who operates Radiance Dairy, a small Grade A milking operation and bottling plant in Fairfield, Iowa. Thicke was able to guide them through some of the million little details required to legally and safely produce dairy products on-farm. The Iowa farmer was on Oxheart’s speed dial, and at one point, they had a notebook page titled “Questions for Francis.”
“I’d carry it around with me and whenever something came up I’d write it down and then when we’d have our phone call to check in — I’d just run down the list with him,” says Langer. “Being able to do that without feeling burdensome to somebody was very important.”
Learning the proper way to do drug residue screening was particularly tricky, she recalls; one of the requirements is that Oxheart has its own drug residue screening laboratory.
“We definitely want to do everything by the books,” Langer says. “We want to do it so it’s easy for our inspectors to check us off. Since their systems aren’t set up necessarily for someone our size, we need to figure out how to sort of fit into their box.”
Fine-Tuning What’s There
Oxheart’s dairy was launched in the spring of 2021. Demand for the whole milk and yogurt the farm markets through its CSA and via a few local retail outlets has been strong, creating a revenue stream that complements their 3-acre vegetable enterprise. Currently, cash flow is good enough that neither Cella or Emmet are working off the farm. That’s good news, but they are waiting to see if the current strong demand for local food will taper off once the COVID-19 pandemic is completely in the rearview mirror.
Meanwhile, the farmers will continue to monitor each of their enterprises to make sure they are tracking with their goals.
“We just want to spend the rest of our energy improving all of our farm enterprises and making them more financially viable, more efficient, and more ecologically sound,” says Langer. “Everything the same, but better.”
This article was originally published in the No. 1, 2022, Land Stewardship Letter.