The USDA Value-Added Producer Grant (VAPG) program was created to help ag producers enter value-added activities to generate new products, create and expand marketing opportunities, and increase producer income. In selecting awardees, the USDA focuses on beginning and/or socially-disadvantaged farmers, small and medium sized farms, ranches structured as family farms and farm and ranch cooperatives.

In Otisville, NY, Stephanie Bishop, farm store manager of Freedom Hill Farm, spoke about the business and its recently awarded VAPG grant.

Freedom Hill Farm has been operated by the Vreeland family since the early 1900s in the same location on Grange Road in Otisville as it is today. Rick and Julie Vreeland, the current owners and operators, took over the farm in 2004 and renamed it Freedom Hill Farm. They began selling raw milk in 2007 after many requests from neighbors, friends and community members. From there, the farm expanded into home-style yogurt, followed shortly thereafter by kefir. In 2019, buttermilk was added to the farm’s product line. After several years of operating on site, Rick’s son Chris formed a distribution business that took their yogurt and kefir to several stores in the Hudson Valley. Today, Freedom Hill sells their products in over 70 stores going as far north as Albany and as far south as the Bronx.

“Rick takes care of the cows, the grounds and keeps the operation running day to day. Julie can be found in the barn every morning with Rick, but primarily oversees the calf rearing program, employees, supply management and customer orders and interface,” Bishop explained. “Overall, we milk about 30 purebred Jersey cows, which are known for producing high fat and protein milk. Our farm is about 51 acres; however, we are able to utilize another 170 acres in the town for additional dry cow and heifer pasture.” Freedom Hill has one full-time employee and seven part-time employees.

The biggest change for the business came in 2019 when they built a small farm store where they collect and sell a variety of other local food and craft items for their community to enjoy.

Grant provides freedom to expand at Freedom Hill Farm

A value-added grant from the USDA has allowed Freedom Hill Farm, of Otisville, NY, to expand its market radius to the edges of the Hudson Valley and beyond. Photo courtesy of Freedom Hill Farm

The farm is New York State certified to sell raw milk, which they sell by pre-order to ensure everyone who buys raw milk takes it home “super fresh,” according to Bishop. The state requires them to sell milk only on the farm, so this product can’t be found in any of their other retail outlets.

Their kefir, which historically is a Northeastern European food similar to yogurt, is a cultured milk that’s slightly more fluid and has an extra tangy taste. With a large local population that sticks close to its European roots, Freedom Hill has a lot of customers who love this product, as it reminds them of home.

Bishop said they sought a value-added grant because they were approached by another distributor who wanted to sell their products in the greater New York City metropolitan area, but Freedom Hill was not able to meet the kind of volume that they were expecting, especially with the recent increase in prices of packaging and transportation supplies. “We applied for the grant in the hopes that it would help us to increase our output volume of packaged products ready to sell in New York City without going into debt or jeopardizing our home farm operations,” she said.

The grant has allowed them to expand their production of kefir, yogurt and buttermilk by matching their expenses toward product production and packaging. “So while we provide the milk and pay for the labor and transportation, the grant has allowed us to have extra yogurt cups, boxes and labels on hand,” Bishop said. “This is just as important because, especially with dairy, proper labeling and timely distribution are key in providing customers with fresh, great tasting products that they will want to purchase again.”

She added, “We would like to continue doing what we are doing and helping provide people with high-quality local food, but as a Christian business we try to stay open minded and follow the path that God sets before us.”

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by Enrico Villamaino