‘Enough is Good Enough’: Hawley’s SideHill Farm Happy to Keep Yogurt-Making Small
The Recorder, September 8th, 2015, by Richie Davis
Second in series
SideHill Farm yogurt is pretty simple, just like its purple-sky, green-pasture, brown-cow logo.
And the idea, when Paul Lacinski and Amy Klippenstein came up with it a decade ago on the Ashfield farm where they were living, was simple as well. Their three Canadienne cows were feeding Lacinski’s quart-at-a-sitting appetite for homemade yogurt, and eventually Klippenstein’s as well.
“We kind of always wanted a cow, and if you have one cow, you can’t ever go anywhere, so you might as well have 30,” Lacinski told The Recorder back in the summer of 2007, as he prepared 16 test quarts of yogurt in the kitchen of the straw-bale house he’d built on Beldingville Road. Already selling vegetables and raw milk from their herd of 20 mostly Normands, the couple — both Amherst College alums — were in the startup phase of what seemed an outlandish business, considering how many farmers were leaving dairying.
“I like yogurt a lot, and nobody’s making yogurt in Massachusetts on a farm scale,” said Lacinski.
Lacinski, who grew up on Long Island helping his grandfather farm each summer, explains that their plan sprang from the realization that they faced long odds in running a vegetable farm that would compete with Valley farmers who had richer soil.
“With dairy, we’ll figure out what our market area is — Springfield to Brattleboro? Charlemont to somewhere? Then keep adding more things rather than driving all around the planet wasting fuel and wasting time.”
Gary Hirshberg was making Stonyfield organic yogurt on a grand scale in Wilton, N.H., and Columbo, the Methuen-based brand started in 1929 by an Armenian immigrant family, had recently been bought by General Mills and was about to be discontinued in favor of its Yoplait brand. But Lacinski had his eyes set on Butterworks Farm, the then 30-year-old Westfield, Vt., organic brand that had a loyal following among Vermonters.
“The product in Vermont is very strong, and we thought, huh, nobody in Massachusetts is in that position. Why don’t we do that?” said Lacinski. He acknowledges that Vermont has a powerful state loyalty, but noted that a similar consumer following has been developing in Western Massachusetts.
With lots of advice and help from Butterworks, grazing land from neighbors, and a former bread truck outfitted as a milkhouse with tanks and a truck trailer as its factory, SideHill got rolling in 2007 in the organic yogurt business. At first, they limited milking and yogurt production to the period between April and November.
Today they make more than 1,500 gallons of yogurt a week from their 40 Normand and Jersey milking cows, which graze about 125 acres of a former organic potato field in Hawley, to which they moved in 2012. (While the fields and supplemental feed for the cows is all organic, Klippenstein says, SideHill yogurt can’t be labeled as certified organic only because the bedding is not.)
And while grazing remains seasonal, they soon realized that just making yogurt three months a year wasn’t realistic.
“People want it all the time,” said Klippenstein, “and when we started getting to the point where we were getting shelf space in stores like Whole Foods, they don’t pull products and put it back again. … If (consumers) have a yogurt they like and all of a sudden can’t get it for three months, they’re lost, frustrated and will switch brands.”
And if those customers have digestive sensitivities, as many yogurt aficionados explain in great detail to Lacinski at the Amherst Farmers Market each Saturday, they notice the change.
Starting a yogurt business is no easy task, since there are many variables, starting with the type of diet (grass here) and cows (milk from Normands and Jerseys produce high-protein, high butterfat milk) and moving onto cultures and flavors.
Those beneficial bacteria — five subspecies in the case of SideHill — have different effects on the process and, thus, the final product.
“Some will grow at different pH levels, and different temperatures, and different temperatures for different durations,” says Klippenstein, “so you can favor different cultures by favoring what you’re doing with different conditions.”
Among their first, most frustrating, lessons, was that the five-gallon batches of yogurt they were turning out in their kitchen was very different from the 50-gallon batches they were producing in the processing plant.
It took nearly two months of full production before they made yogurt with the taste and texture they wanted, donating the rejected product to food pantries, or compost piles.
After experimenting with flavors, including raspberry, strawberry, blackberry and elderberry, and starting to make their yogurt in 2007, some “subtly sweet,” they discovered a glitch.
Or actually, it was their office manager, who suggested holding onto the batches for a month and a half to test their quality over time.
“Without exception, they were disgusting,” remembered Lacinski. “It looked like someone had opened the container and vomited in it. Or like a volcano of grossness had gone on in there.”
A Canadian organic jam maker knew exactly what the problem was and even had a name — “eruptions” — for the chemical and biological reaction that results in using a low-sugar fruit base without a chemical stabilizer.
“We decided it was not our mission to produce a yogurt that tasted exactly like everybody else’s yogurt, and so sugary,” said Klippenstein. “That’s just not interesting to us.”
So they came up with a solution: three flavors — plain, vanilla and maple — that don’t risk unhappy reactions inside the containers.
The couple also refused to add pectin to their yogurt, which would have altered the chemistry and given it what Lacinski calls a “Jello-y” texture. They take pride that their yogurt doesn’t contain the kind of corn starch or other stabilizers that some commercial yogurts do.
“When you take a spoon of our yogurt,” says Lacinski, “the whey will fill that little channel. What you’ve done is cut into this matrix of protein that’s holding everything in, and whey weeps out. Corn starch binds up that liquid whey and also makes it lot more stable for transport.”
Instead, their farm’s distribution workers get instructed on how to handle the cases of yogurt so they don’t get shaken up.
Now, in addition to selling their yogurt at Amherst Farmers Market — where Lacinski also makes and sells SideHill smoothies — and of course at their Hawley farm store, the couple sells at Foster’s Supermarket in Greenfield, three Big Y supermarkets, co-ops, health-food stores and farm stands around the state.
Sales are biggest at Whole Foods and Northampton’s River Valley Market, and between the Greenfield, Amherst and Northampton Big Ys, the chain sells about 100 cases a week of SideHill.
Although SideHill delivers as far as the North Leverett co-op, Williamstown and Easthampton, a distributor handles about 20 Whole Foods in eastern Massachusetts as well as other markets in that part of the state.
“We never intended to ship out of Massachusetts, and we don’t,” says Lacinski, explaining that aside from requiring a bigger operation than they care to run, it would mean dealing with more costly U.S. Department of Agriculture inspections.
What we’re seeing is that the interest in what we’re doing is moving beyond the co-ops, and the Whole Foods,” with people who stop at neighborhood grocers like Foster’s and Serio’s Market in Northampton.
When it came time for SideHill to seriously consider requests for individual-serving yogurt cups, despite concerns about adding to the world’s plastic pollution and believing that people could simply scoop out smaller portions into reusable plastic containers, they found an alternative that uses less plastic.
What they discovered is that they could limit individual 6-ounce cups to eastern Mass., where people are less inclined to divide their big containers into lunch-size cups, and to coffeehouses, and they found that colorful packaging is important to kids, who don’t want to seem uncool when all of their friends have their favorite cartoon characters on containers.
“That’s a big deal,” said Lacinski.
With solar panels on its production facility and “the next big thing” trying to improve its pasture land for the cows, this yogurt company knows its appeal.
“We’re farm fresh, and we’re local,” said Klippenstein. “People can identify with us as a real farm, with real cows, and people can come here if they want to, so integrity and quality are the centerpiece here, people can really feel good about it. It’s about really knowing exactly what’s in your food and where it comes from.”
With sales growth at 20 to 30 percent a year, Lacinski adds, “We’re lucky, because there are enough people for whom that’s what they’re looking for. We don’t feel any compulsion to be the next Stonyfield, none whatsoever. Enough is good enough.”
On the Web: www.sidehillfarm.net
You can reach Richie Davis at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-772-0261, ext. 269