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.
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“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.”