Guernsey Cattle-Focused Naturally Golden Family Farms Cooperative

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A Guernsey cow peering through a fence. (Farm and dairy file photo)

When Vickie Baker started in 4-H around 35 years ago, her parents told her and her three siblings to each choose a breed of dairy cow to show off. The family dairy farm already owned Holsteins. Baker’s parents wanted their children to choose different breeds of cows so they didn’t have to show off against each other.

“In the infinite wisdom of 6 and 7 year olds… I chose Guernsey, because my 4-H neighbors had them,” Baker explained.

This innocent decision was perhaps the first step towards where Baker now stands. She is passionate about the cattle of Guernsey. She has been involved with industry groups, such as the Pennsylvania Guernsey Breeders’ Association and the American Guernsey Association.

About 15 years ago, she and her husband, Mike, bought Guernsey cows from her parents and started Maple Bottom Farm, renting space on her parents’ farm. Five years ago, they bought their own dairy farm in Dawson, PA and moved their cows there. Four years ago, Baker was elected to the board of directors of the American Guernsey Association and then became their treasurer.

“I eat, sleep and kind of breathe Guernsey right now,” Baker said.

Today, Maple Bottom Farm is one of two farms of the new Naturally Golden Family Farms, a cooperative focused on selling dairy products from Guernsey. Although there are only two farms involved so far, they plan to grow and market Guernsey dairy products across Pennsylvania and eventually the country.

“It’s gratifying to know that you are milking cows today and tomorrow… you can eat cheese from the milk you harvested today,” Baker said. “But, in the meantime, a lot of things come into play to make that happen.”

Cooperative

There aren’t many dairies in Guernsey, said Baker, who is the cooperative’s chairman.

“We believe that marketing our milk as American table milk… is one way for us to remain viable in the future,” she said.

The co-op began forming in 2018, with support from the American Guernsey Association, said Cara Itle, of Trotacre Farms, the co-op’s other farm.

Itle, who grew up on the fourth generation dairy farm in Enon Valley, Pa., Was working for the association at this time. The idea was to create a brand and connections with processors for Guernsey dairies.

“We trained him because of our Guernsey cows… and our love for the breed,” she said.

Guernsey milk contains higher percentages of protein, cream, vitamin D and calcium. The milk is golden in color due to the higher amounts of beta-carotene.

Working together allows farms to share responsibilities and bring in people with different expertise. The farms have opted for a cooperative model in order to be able to integrate other farms more easily in the future.

“On the farm, time is the most precious resource,” Baker said. “Some people would say money, but I don’t agree. If I had more time, I could earn more money.

While the cooperative began to be formed in 2018, it only launched its first products at the end of 2020.

“It takes a long time to put into something like that, when you don’t really know exactly where you’re going,” Itle said.

Passionate

Baker worked off the farm for a while in the dairy industry, but after 22 years her job was cut in 2020. Now she works full time on the farm and at the co-op.

“I can honestly say that I miss my clients and what I’ve done, but… I spend all day milking and looking after the cows… and I love it,” she said.

That’s not to say it’s not hard work. Farmers still have other jobs, on or off the farm, in addition to the cooperative. It’s a lot to follow. But it is enriching.

“With niche products, bringing them to market and establishing your own brand, it’s going slower than we’d like,” Baker said.

Pandemic

The pandemic has also upset the plans of the cooperative. They planned to start with milk as a first product by spring or summer 2020.

“We really thought it was a realistic goal, before March [2020]”said Boulanger.

When markets changed and the dairy industry faced transformation challenges, it became clear that this was no longer realistic. The cooperative does not yet bottle milk. But it was able to launch its first cheese products in 2020.

The cooperative had always planned to explore the manufacture and sale of cheese. Guernsey milk tends to have high cheese yields, which makes it a good option for the product. The cooperative signed a letter of intent with Pleasant Lane Creamery for the processing of cheese some time ago. The pandemic has just put this product in the spotlight earlier than expected.

“The good thing about cheese is that it helps us grow the milk market,” Baker said. “This allows us to market in a different way than we thought we had, before the pandemic.”

The cheese makes the cooperative’s brand known. The cooperative mainly sells direct to consumers through online orders, but also works with a few retail outlets.

Itle said the cooperative has enjoyed a lot of community support since its launch, following the general trend of local food support from the pandemic.

“Consumers want to know where their products are coming from and they want to support the local people,” she said.

Collaborate

There are already enough dairy processors in Pennsylvania that it makes sense for the cooperative to work with existing processors instead of starting their own dairy, Itle said.

“It is expensive to go into transformation,” she said. “We wanted to collaborate and work with these processors that have something established.”

Before the pandemic, the cooperative hoped to bring 12 more herds of cattle from Pennsylvania over the next five years. The pandemic caused them to set back that timeline, Baker said. But once the co-op grows with 12 more herds, Baker believes it will be ready to start moving to other states as well.

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