Success Stories: The Farmer's Cow
You've got to get up pretty early in the morning to get one past the farmers of The Farmer's Cow.
It was just milk, the ultimate featureless commodity, collected by tanker trucks from dairy farms across the region, processed and bottled under names like Hood or Guida or Garelick, or supermarket brands like Stop & Shop or Whole Foods. Then in 2005, a new brand showed up in dairy cases, The Farmer’s Cow. “Fresh Connecticut Milk,” said a tagline under the name.
One side of the cartons carried a story about why the milk was unique. “The First Milk of the Day” from six Connecticut farms, it said. A picture of the farmers and the farm names was splashed across another side. Most striking of all was the new product’s eye-catching branding image—an artist’s charming rendition of a Holstein against a backdrop of pastoral rolling green hills and a stone wall—drawn from photos taken on a Lebanon farm.
In short order, The Farmer’s Cow has become a symbol of how creativity and ingenuity can pump new life into Connecticut’s agricultural economy, often said to be in demise. If it’s a stretch to suggest the brand has become a household name, it isn’t one to say its milk and other products sell across the state, and even in parts of New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, both in retail and wholesale markets.
Structured as a privately held partnership, the company won’t divulge sales or revenue numbers, but Robin Chesmer, one of the farmers and the company’s managing member, says growth continues at an estimated 20 percent annually.
One reason for that has been the steady release of new products, often in partnership with other local farmers or family-run businesses. After milk, the company added half-and-half and heavy cream. Then eggs, ice cream, apple cider and a line of summer drinks, including iced tea and lemonade. A year ago, it began marketing coffee—regular and “de-calf.”
Last summer, the group opened its first café, featuring all its own products and many other locally sourced ones such as Beltane Farm goat cheese and Chabaso ciabatta. It’s called—what else?—The Farmer’s Cow Calfé & Creamery. Its planned “soft” opening one August morning near the popular East Brook Mall in Mansfield attracted a long line out the door from before noon until nearly 11 p.m., when manager Justeen Bligh finally closed the shop. Normally, it’s open daily from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Besides selling what Farmer’s Cow farmers say are wholesome, natural, local and fresh products, Chesmer says they’re also selling two intangibles: authenticity and a sense of place.
“We’re real farmers. You can actually come out to the farms and visit the farmers and visit the cows that make the milk,” he says from his office above a barn on Graywall Farms in Lebanon. He owns the farm with his son, Lincoln. “Everything we do, we can point to how we do it and why we do it. It’s that pride in Connecticut, pride in New England. That’s what we think about.”
To be sure, their success also has benefited from timing, entering the market just as the locavore movement was gaining popularity among consumers. To exploit that local connection, The Farmer’s Cow stands pop up around Connecticut during the year, offering free ice cream or cider at events, including farmer’s markets, says Kathy Smith, who runs events and sales. Her three brothers and uncle own Cushman Farms in Lebanon and Franklin, one of the six Farmer’s Cow farms, and one of the largest in the state, now in the family’s sixth generation.
Last summer, the company partnered with the Hartford-based Max Restaurant Group for its first farm-to-table dinner for 100 guests, a benefit for the Connecticut Farmland Trust. Next month on Presidents’ Day, Graywall Farms will host its annual farm tour. (If there’s snow on the ground, they’ll offer sleigh rides.) Each summer, Cushman Farms hosts a sweet-corn roast the first Saturday of August. The other four farms, which also run tours and host events, include Fairvue Farms in Woodstock, Fort Hill Farms in Thompson, Hytone Farm in Coventry and Mapleleaf Farm in Hebron.
Timing also played into the company’s favor with regard to the state’s farmland preservation program, which allows farmers to sell away development rights to the state in order to continue farming land that otherwise would be prohibitively expensive given land values in Connecticut. Much of the 12,000 acres of farmland among the six dairy farms is protected under the state program.
In fact, if it weren’t for farmland preservation, there might never have been a Farmer’s Cow, or even a farmer’s cow. In the 1980s, farmers were doing everything they could to persuade state lawmakers to protect agriculture from demise. One key step: Farmers banded together to form a political-action committee called Very Alive. They organized bus tours to bring legislators to farms, showing them what Kathy Smith calls “the treasure in Connecticut.”
To underscore that point and show the economic impact farms offered, anyone who did business with them was invited to show up with their trucks at an event at Graywall Farms. Among them were grain dealers, tire salesmen, mechanics, bankers, insurers, milk truck haulers, hoof-trimmers, a bovine podiatrist, veterinarians, carpenters and welders. “We wanted to show that farmland preservation was an investment for the future of the state,” recalls Chesmer.
Farmers, too, were learning how they could better garner support from the public. On one crucial tour of larger dairy farms in New York and Wisconsin, the group who would later become The Farmer’s Cow realized they had an opportunity in a densely populated market between New York and Boston. “We realized that milk was a faceless product, but we could get the farmer’s story out with farm tours, events and word of mouth,” Smith remembers.
One resident, who read an article in The Day of New London about their effort and their burgeoning milk company, asked her Stop & Shop market to carry the new local milk. Soon the chain was carrying it in all 90 of its Connecticut stores. Other markets followed, including Big Y, ShopRite, Whole Foods and IGA.
Growth continued naturally. After Chesmer made a presentation about The Farmer’s Cow to legislators in Hartford, a Stop & Shop buyer approached him. “Can you do an apple cider?” he asked. The farmers thought about it. They didn’t grow apples, but they saw an opportunity to expand their brand beyond the dairy case into produce sections. An arrangement was worked out with Buell’s Orchard in Eastford.
Later, another buyer asked if The Farmer’s Cow could do a line of summer beverages including lemonade and iced tea. Again, the farmers considered it. “It doesn’t have anything to do with milk,” Chesmer remembers saying. “We can’t grow lemons in Connecticut, but in the fields on hot summer days, we’d love a glass of lemonade, a good farm drink.” Smith says growing up, her grandmother would send her out into the fields in the summer to give the men iced tea or lemonade. And so a new line called The Farmer’s Daughters was introduced, all bottled locally at Maple Lane Farm in Preston.
Similar ventures developed with eggs and ice cream, partnering with local poultry farmers, or in the case of the ice cream, with Royal Ice Cream Co. of Manchester, which now makes 11 flavors for grocery-store freezers, and 20 for the café. A contest was held, inviting the public to name the flavors as they were introduced, with winners receiving 60 free pints.
Coffee was added a year ago after Chesmer was approached by Nicholas Bokron, who represents the fourth generation of Omar Coffee Co., founded in Hartford in 1937 and now based in Newington. If the farmers were going into the coffee business, Chesmer says, they wanted to hew to their principles, so they found a group of Rainforest Alliance-certified farmers whose beans Omar would roast locally. It was branching out from their core products, but as the story on the back of the coffee cans says, “We like starting the day with a hearty breakfast of our own eggs and a good cup of hot coffee with our fresh milk or half-and-half.” Says Chesmer, “It’s a coffee worthy to go with our cream.”
The company’s growth has been accomplished with little advertising, relying on events, farm tours, Facebook, Twitter and email blasts.
Joseph Pancras, a professor of marketing at the University of Connecticut’s business school, says The Farmer’s Cow success stems from several factors, including what economists call “forward vertical integration,” the same thing Apple does with its computers, smart phones and iPads, i.e., controlling the entire brand experience from product management to a consistent story line that runs through everything.
The Farmer’s Cow products may not be organic, but Pancras says “they’re definitely fresh and healthy, which taps into the health-and-organic food movement.” Moreover, he says, the company meets consumers’ increasing demand for authenticity—“What can be more authentic than the farmer’s cow?”
State Agriculture Commissioner Steven Reviczky commends The Farmer’s Cow for developing what he says is “a new model, branding their milk and their products,” which traditionally had left farms in bulk with no real connection between farm and consumer.
“It seemed like a stretch quite frankly, what they were trying to do,” says Reviczky, who knows all the company’s farmers. “So what they’ve accomplished in a fairly short period of time is amazing.”
Chesmer says he and his fellow farmers never had a strategic plan, allowing things to grow naturally like the hay and corn on their farms. Even their logo and branding came about through trial and error. “We knew what we didn’t like,” he says, recalling artists’ presentations in the early days. Then one artist brought them posters from long-ago agricultural fairs and something clicked. “The way it was lettered—we said, ‘This is what we’d like to do,’” says Chesmer. A stay-at-home mom/graphic designer in nearby Brooklyn does their graphic work these days from her attic studio.
Chesmer says he’s not sure what comes next. The café was designed to be a prototype for more restaurants, but the group has no specific locations or plans for the future. Its milk and cream are gaining a foothold in wholesale markets, including Yale, UConn Health Center, public and private schools, hospitals and other institutional dining services. “Our goal is to get into more schools,” says Smith, who notes the company sells milk in half pints, or “calf pints.”
But as the farmers will tell you, challenges remain, especially in an industry where the price of milk is fixed, yet costs are out of their control. Corn peaked at $8 a bushel, up from $5.50 earlier last year, noted Lincoln Chesmer one day recently while walking through his dairy barn, the smell of manure, cows and silage filling the air. “And the price of fertilizer has almost doubled,” he added.
But his father, Robin, says despite those challenges, he’s optimistic. “We want our farms to stay in business.” With a new generation on the six farms already showing an interest in farming, Chesmer adds, “We view this as an opportunity for the long term to help our businesses and other local businesses.”