by Tamara Scully
Western Pennsylvania’s Windy Ridge Dairy is, in many ways, a typical small dairy farm. But in just as many ways, it isn’t. Lindsay Fischer, along with her mother Chris Fischer, milk 40 head of registered Jersey cows at the family’s dairy, just north of Pittsburgh. Her father Steve, along with her brother Matt, both work full-time off of the farm, but do all of the field work. The family is busy both on-farm and off.
The family farmstead consists of 123 acres, with 20 in pasture and 50 in woods. The remaining acreage, along with another rented 50 acres, is used for growing all of the feed needed by the herd. The herd includes 30 replacement heifers and the dairy steers they are raising for meat.
“We have no hired help, but it all gets down somehow!” Lindsay said. “We are all Jersey, and breed all of our cows A.I. We breed all year long and have calves all year long. We have about 50 calves per year. All the feed is grown on the farm. Corn is trucked out to be stored, and then brought back as grain mix. Cows are fed corn silage, haylage, dry hay, grain mix, and occasional pasture grass.”
The cows are kept and milked in the tie-stall barn, bedded with sawdust and recycled newspapers. The cows are milked twice each day, at 5 a.m. and 5 p.m. They have a separate heifer barn and a calf barn with individual pens. They’ve installed a gravity flow manure transport system, and constructed manure storage areas, fencing and transport pipes with Natural Resource Conservation Services assistance and guidance. They no-till the fields harvested for corn silage, plant winter cover crops, and harvest the no-till grains in the spring, to use as wet bales for the young stock.
The family processes some of its own milk, and has built a farm store with many other items to complement milk sales. They began selling their own pasteurized milk in November 2010 and have built a value-added enterprise which continues to grow.
“The idea of processing our own milk had been kicked around for years,” Lindsay said. “But one day an opportunity came up to buy a small processing plant from another farmer who decided not to process anymore. We started looking for loans and financing, which took a lot of time. We secured financing from the State through the Department of Agriculture.”
The money was used to construct the processing plant, the store, and to refurbish the processing equipment.
“Almost all of our milk is homogenized, but we also do some creamline,” Lindsay explained. “We are processing milk once each week. We pasteurize everything we make, even our teas are pasteurized. There is a huge market out there for raw milk, but it’s not for us.”
They primarily sell milk in reuseable glass bottles, but offer a small selection in plastic bottles. In addition to bottled milk sales, the farm store also offers fresh ricotta on “special occasions,” primarily during the farmers’ market season. Another special is flavored milk. While chocolate is a mainstay, the farm also offers strawberry, pumpkin, root beer, eggnog and other flavors seasonally.
While direct-from-the-farm milk sales are in demand as the desire for local foods increases, the farm offers other products to complement the bottled milk sales. Their dairy steers are raised for ground meat, which is sold in the store. They also offer all-natural teas and lemonade in a variety of flavors. These are made from dry mixes and flavor essences, sourced from a small company, which are reconstituted in the processing plant and bottled as needed for sales.
The family has made cheeses other than ricotta, and has had good success selling them. However, time is the limiting factor, and it is not something they are able to pursue. Instead, they offer cheeses and deli meats, sourced from within Pennsylvania and Ohio.
“We try to purchase from smaller companies. Most of our deli meat comes from Erie. Our bacon, sausage, beef sticks and jerky all come from a local butcher, who also processes our ground meat,”Lindsay said.
A less time consuming and very successful alternative to making their own cheeses has been their venture into ice cream production. The family does not use its own milk. They purchase ice cream mix from a local supplier, mixing the final product in their processing plant.
“This process isn’t labor-intensive, just time consuming,” Lindsay said. “One person can easily keep up with our small batch freezer. It takes about 10-15 minutes to make six gallons of ice cream.”
The ice cream is stored in three gallon tubes, and transported to the farm store. At the store, the ice cream is hand-scooped. Flavors are the choice of the ice cream maker, but customers do give lots of input. Black raspberry is the most popular flavor, and typically sells out within a few days.
It does no good to offer direct-from-the-dairy milk if no one knows about it. The family initially had a difficult time spreading the word of their store. They weren’t allowed to put up large signs due to a highway beautification law, and newspaper and radio ads weren’t bringing in customers, despite their considerable cost.
But they hit upon the proper marketing channels — Facebook, primarily — and haven’t looked back. Along with the more traditional word of mouth, social media has been a major factor in the success of their on-farm store. They also have a web site.
“Our customers have been wonderful, spreading the word of our existence,” Lindsay said. “A lot of our customers use this social media to keep up with what’s new at the store. We post ice cream flavors weekly, sales, and everyone’s favorite: baby calf pictures!”
The farm also markets at area events, including farmers markets. They began hosting one major event, held annually on the farm. Milkfest has been held since 2012 and features hayrides from the store to the farm’s dairy barn and processing plant, farm tours, a milk chugging contest, a giant ice cream sundae and an on-site local farmers market. Chloe, a giant fiberglass Jersey milking cow, is a big attraction for children of all ages, and a corn box for the little ones is always popular. In 2014, the event will expand from a one day affair to two days, June 21-22.
by Tamara Scully