As a teenager, Laurie Cuevas fell in love with Brown Swiss cows, raising, selling, and showing her Brown Swiss at local fairs and competitions including the Eastern States Exposition in Springfield, MA. It was at a Big E Brown Swiss convention where she met her business partner Bruce Jenks. Their friendship and mutual love for Brown Swiss evolved into their business Maple Valley Ice Cream and Signature Swiss, with a herd of 20.
Four years later, using milk and cream from Mapleline Farm in Hadley and High Lawn Farm in Lee, they have product in stores, farm stands, colleges and universities from the Berkshires to Boston, and 16 Whole Foods Markets statewide.
“If you work hard, make a good product and stand behind it, people respond to that. We really enjoy working directly with the stores and our customers. They like that we’re farmers. We milk cows in the morning, deliver across the state all day and go back and milk cows. Our love for the cows and the kids we work with drives us every day.”
The cows are housed at Fort River Farm in Hadley, owned by Gordon and Terry Smith. The cows are exceedingly friendly. A recent visitor from Whole Foods Market happily endured having her camera licked and clothing tugged while shooting a video.
Weekdays, after milking, Cuevas commutes two hours to and from her day job. “Bruce does it full time with the ice cream and farm; double time,” she said, delivering ice cream and samples. Ice cream is packed in boxes for distribution at a South Deerfield warehouse, near their recently purchased church rectory residence.
“We meet at the warehouse to pack ice cream made that day. If he’s not back from deliveries, I get the cows milked and everybody fed. My kids are involved. It’s a team effort.”
Cuevas grew up intending to be a farmer, following in her father’s footsteps at her parent’s dairy, the Balawender Farm in Cheshire, MA raising Holsteins. She was 13 when her father brought home a few Brown Swiss raised by a former 4-Her. “I was just beside myself. This was it, I’m telling you; their personality, everything, I loved these guys more than my horses. I was so in love with them. They’re goofy, always in trouble, curious. It struck a nerve, made sense.”
Then, when she was 17, the 80s recession hit. “In the 80s farms were going under at an alarming rate. If you ever look back, it’s astonishing. My parents fought it so hard.”
Unfortunately, her parents lost their farm and 100 cows despite their heroic efforts. At the dispersal sale, Cuevas spent all her savings to buy back her first, favorite Brown Swiss, Korey, who lived to be 17. Allowed to keep the 20 to 25 Brown Swiss registered in her name, she housed them elsewhere, putting herself through college and buying a car from proceeds of their subsequent sales and prize money.
“I was so bitter at the time, I vowed I would not allow myself to ever go through that pain again and steered away from the farm life I had always envisioned for myself.”
Then, at 20, she entered and won Maryland’s National Brown Swiss Miss America Competition. “I was so determined; I was on it. I was on a mission. When I called my parents to tell them I won, they were really proud of me.”
Jenks identified with Cuevas losing her family farm. When purchasing their first cows together, he told her, “This time you can choose if you want to sell them, they won’t ever be taken away from you.” He sends her pictures of their cows while she’s at work.
“They’re really part of us. Farmers are under tremendous pressure from the public eye. We want you to come and meet the cows. We want you to put your hands on them and feel them, enjoy them like we do, find some peace with them.”
Prior to Cuevas/Jenks’ Brown Swiss, no cows had been milked at Fort River Farm since 1965. The farm’s animals are Animal Welfare Approved, “making a statement to people that we care about the animals, regardless if they’re beef or milk cows, that they are healthy and well cared for, above and beyond what’s expected.”
Is Cuevas surprised at their success? She credits Jenks as their visionary. “He thinks big. He thinks, ‘we can do this.’”
A $50,000 Farm Viability Enhancement grant allowed them to construct a farm store-in-process, called Mill Valley Milk Company, with a gambrel style roof, emulating the barn, attached to the old milk room, with plans for pipeline installation to send milk from the milking area into a bulk tank so visitors view the milking process firsthand. Aiming for a spring opening, they are fine-tuning a Kickstarter site to raise funds for finishing touches, on a mission to finish the project, and keep farming alive.