by Courtney Llewellyn
HOOSICK, NY — Over a series of serpentine country roads and up in the hills of Rensselaer County, one will find High Meadows Farm, which proudly displays a Stonyfield Organic sign over its barn door, noting it was established in 2018. Gary Hirshberg, co-founder of Stonyfield Organic, said he can’t wait for 2058, when this farm’s re-establishment as a certified organic dairy seems a little more historic.
Hirshberg recently visited High Meadows, owned by Sam Cottrell and Eric Ziehm, to welcome them as one of the newest certified organic dairy farms joining the Stonyfield family, which is already 1,270 farms strong. Their nascent partnership is part of the Stonyfield Direct Milk Supply program, which works with about 250 farms. Stonyfield produces about 130 different organic products, plus milk, with 80 percent of the milk coming from cooperatives. The remaining 20 percent comes directly from farms such as High Meadows.
But, in an economic climate where the phrase “dairy crisis” is all too often heard, it may seem unimaginable that someone would want to start a new business milking cows.
“When Sam and I saw this farm we fell in love,” Ziehm announced during an informal conversation during Hirshberg’s visit. The property, which has about 300 acres and was formerly known as Hy-Acres Farm, stopped serving as a dairy in the mid-1990s. “We wanted to buy this farm for a while, and we were looking for creative ways to get this new dairy up and running,” he said.
Ziehm, whose family still works a conventional dairy in nearby Buskirk, NY, said he approached his partner, contractor Cottrell of Hos-Cot Builders, with this “dilemma” of making a dairy profitable in New York State. “We knew whatever direction we took we could work through it,” Ziehm said.
They explained they spent a lot of time making plans before they made any moves. They were looking for a sustainable milk market, not one that would boom and then bust, or never grow at all. “Once I had kids I started paying more attention to where our food was coming from,” Ziehm said. He had graduated from college and come home to work on the family farm again, but in purchasing his own land, he was inspired to make his business an organic one.
According to Hirshberg, about 5 percent of total dairy production is certified organic, so there is a lot of room to grow in that section of the industry. Despite all the red tape and paperwork, that is the route Cottrell and Ziehm decided to pursue.
High Meadows officially began milking June 1, having already partnered with Stonyfield Organic to be their only buyer. The partnership came about through Ziehm’s friendship with Kyle Thygesen, who serves as the director of Milk Sourcing and Procurement for Stonyfield. The two were in 4-H together, and when Thygesen learned Ziehm’s new dairy would be fully organic, in the pasture and in the barn, it seemed like kismet.
The mixed herd of approximately 80 Holsteins, Jerseys, Ayrshires and Montbéliardes currently produce about 3,500 pounds of milk a day, all of which is processed at Stonyfield’s plant in Londonderry, NH. Ziehm said he has a goal of having 200 head of cattle by the end of the year, with summer calving bringing them that much closer.
Another goal was to have a new Dairymaster milking parlor, being shipped from Ireland, installed as soon as possible. Contractors were diligently working on finishing that area of business during a tour of the barn.
Cottrell ensured a new 200-stall barn was built for High Meadows, but he and Ziehm chose to keep the farm’s original barn as well. “That was important to us,” Cottrell noted.
Unfortunately, the old barn, built seven decades ago, isn’t the only vintage part of the farm. High Meadows was attempting to work with only 200 amps of electricity to power their business, which Ziehm said is equal to about the same amount of power a new house receives. When National Grid provided them with a prohibitively expensive estimate to upgrade the service to the farm, Ziehm and Cottrell opted to purchase a generator the size of truck instead.
“We need utilities to support all small farms,” Ziehm stated.
Hirshberg whole-heartedly agreed. “This is the kind of thing that’s going to save farming in the Northeast,” he said, gesturing toward the expanse of High Meadows around him. “We have entrepreneurs like Eric and Sam who love their land and love their animals. An organic farm can make money with only 25 cows. It’s possible. We are turning around something that could be dying. Farming is tough, but it would be easier with the proper support.
“We’re trying to collectively solve the ‘problem’ of dairy farming,” he continued. “Organic is the future. It’s a healthy business, but we need to keep prices competitive. That includes utility prices as well as milk prices.”
Hirshberg pointed out that millennial consumers are much like Ziehm in that they are much more conscious of where their food comes from and how it is produced. “We work for the consumers,” he stated, “and if we can increase what we sell by one product, that’s one more farm who can work with us.” He noted that to truly make it in today’s market, a business has to always be innovating and growing.
Frank Ziehm, Eric’s father, agreed. “We just can’t farm the way used to,” he said. “We have to be better every day.”
Stonyfield Organic has been pursuing that mission since its founding in 1983, when they began selling yogurt made from a seven-cow farm. Today, the company offers yogurts, smoothies, soy yogurts, frozen yogurts, milk and cream in stores across the country. Stonyfield’s goods come from thousands of organic cows and over 200,000 organic acres.
Ziehm said his goal for High Meadows over the next few years will be to focus on the development of more organic grasslands, maintaining pasture production and growth. It will be all about sustaining an efficient, profitable dairy.
“Being here and talking to Sam and Eric helps bring hope to a world that’s not really hopeful about dairy farming,” Hirshberg said. Admiring the new barn and the idyllic views through its open walls, he added, “The only hope is the next generation — it’s places like this.”