Sidehill owners offering farm, herd, will continue to make yogurt

The Recorder, December 29, 2018, by Richie Davis

The idea of starting a dairy farm now may seem even more improbable than it did 14 years ago, when Amy Klippenstein and Paul Lacinski started out in Ashfield with three Canadienne cows and four Normandes pastured on 23 acres of rented land.

But the couple, who built up their herd and their farm in pursuit of making and selling organic yogurt, is offering what’s now the 225-acre farm they moved Sidehill Farm to six years ago, along with what’s now a 30-cow herd and their farming equipment as part of what they say could be a solution to sustainable dairy farming.

“Certified organic grazing dairy for sale,” reads their $1.4 million offering, which comes with bonus beyond the “big sky country” of the former Donovan organic potato farm: a contract with Sidehill’s creamery, at a price that most dairy farmers might find hard to believe, let alone refuse.

“A light bulb went off in our heads,” Lacinski says, during the panel discussion the couple attended at Amherst Cinema after the 2016 showing of the documentary “Forgotten Farms” about the plight of New England dairy farmers, who for years have been receiving less than the cost of production for their milk.

“There are people who just want to milk cows and produce milk,” he remembers thinking. “They don’t want to have to deal with turning that into salable product. With dairy being in such a hard spot, we could be doing something useful if we could milk from other people.”

He and Klippenstein, who now do all the milking and caring for the herd, admit that they want to be able to focus on yogurt-making and marketing. Lacinski says, “Milking would be fine if we didn’t have other full-time jobs, so it becomes unsustainable doing both for years and years as well as want to (do it).”

But also, he added, it’s good  knowing “there are people out there who want to know about running an organic dairy. They want to milk, but can’t find the situation. We see that as part of creating an opportunity for someone. That’s really an exciting piece of the whole thing.”

Milk prices have been stuck at below production-cost levels for a while, he said, with the price per 12-gallon hundredweight now under $16.50, say the couple, who have begun supplementing their milk supply with organic milk from Leahy Farm in Lee. But organic milk — which is also seeing a slump in prices because of competition from soy, almond and other plant-based products — brings in $35 to $40 per 100 pounds.

Sidehill is offering the farm buyer a contract at $48 per hundredweight  — “a much better price than anybody’s accustomed to getting,” said Lacinski.

What’s more, there would be two other stabilizing income streams for the buyer, from the lease on the creamer, and from sale of products at the self-service farm shop on the farm, which now grosses about $160,000 a year selling the farm’s raw organic milk, yogurt and beef and pork, along with other products. There would also be income from the lease of the creamery.

To get around a key difficulty — making the purchase affordable to young dairy farmers starting out — Lacinski and Klippenstein have turned to Dirt Capital Partners, an agricultural conservation-minded investment firm that provides a vetting process to find qualified farmers who agree to lease a participating farm for 10 years, while they build up equity to purchase it at a pre-set price.

The couple listed the Forget Road farm, which won the state’s 2015 Green Pasture Award for dairy farm management, in mid-October and have heard from two potential buyers, so far.

“We’re not just selling to anybody,” Klippenstein said. “It’s a partnership, where we need to share our values and vision. We want someone who’s cautious and hesitant.”

Sidehill Yogurt, which claims to be the only yogurt made commercially in Massachusetts, is sold throughout the state, at Big Y, Whole Foods and Wild Oats supermarkets, as well as through farm stands, co-ops, cafes and other outlets, mostly through a couple of distributors. It’s sold in six-ounce and quart sizes in just three flavors — plain, vanilla and maple.

The business has seen an average 10 percent annual growth in sales, which now uses the milk of 70 cows.

Unlike the consumption of fluid milk, Klippenstein said, “It doesn’t seem the demand for yogurt is going down,” and the couple haven’t done any marketing for the past two or three years.

That’s something they would hope to do, at least to keep providing a livable income for their eight current yogurt-production employees. Klippenstein said they have a commitment to keeping the business local and using milk from local organic farms.

Still, they recently got federal certification to allow their yogurt to be sold out-of-state, and believe it may be time to begin looking at the Hartford, Conn. market, where there have been requests from Whole Foods.

“We’re not thinking that’s a primary thing, but if they want to distribute outside Massachusetts, we’d do that,” Klippenstein says.

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