I first heard of the Yegerlehner’s dairy farm and shop when I was in high school. Dad came home from work one night with small blocks of cheese and told me excitedly that there was a farm just outside of Clay City that sold milk and cheese made from their own cows in their own shop.
Ten years later, I attended the Southern Indiana Grazing Conference and heard Kate Yegerlehner speak on the family’s business model and philosophy on raising livestock. There were times during her presentation when I wanted to stand up and shout, “Yes, yes!” Her presentation contained much I had needed to hear.
After the conference, I decided to spend more time with Kate and learn from her farming operation. So in May, we sat in the Yegerlehner’s farm office next to their shop and talked about business philosophies and farming. During our conversation, customers drove up the gravel, clattered down the steps into the store and browsed the inventory. Kate’s father, Alan, who processes the milk into products such as cheese, butter, milk, cottage cheese, buttermilk and whey, assisted them.
Before we dive into the story, Kate is going to introduce herself so that readers who, so far, may have been pronouncing the name in their heads as “YAY-grrr-liner” (as I did for the last ten years) may discover the proper way to pronounce the name.
It’s Swiss, as Kate’s relatives came to the United States from Switzerland in the 1850s. They settled in Clay County in 1862. Of the current 200-acre farm, around 100 acres has been in the family from the beginning.
And Switzerland was the inspiration for the family’s on-farm shop. The farm’s products had been sold on the commercial market for many years, but during a trip to Switzerland, the family saw that many villages there had local businesses, including cheeseries, butcher shops and bread makers. That trip, Kate said, “ignited and fueled a passion in Dad’s heart” to produce food in a similar way.
A History of Implementing New Ideas
Kate’s grandmother and grandfather established the dairy farm in the 1950s. Their son Alan attended Purdue University in the 1970s. At that time, the predominant philosophy was known as, “farm fence row to fence row.” However, Alan decided to try something different. His father was open to trying new ideas, so they implemented several different sustainable crop farming practices.
Changes were soon to come to the cattle operation, as well. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Alan read articles from New Farm, published by the Rodale Institute, on seasonal dairying (the cows are only milked during certain times of the year) and rotational grazing (animals are moved from pasture to pasture so the grass maintains an ideal condition). At the time, the Yegerlehners’ cows were still fed a Total Mixed Ration (a feed in which all of the ingredients, including grain, hay and minerals, are mixed together for a nutritionally balanced meal), and cattle time in the pasture was limited. Alan liked the ideas presented by the New Farm magazine, and the farm began seasonal dairying and rotational grazing in the early 1990s.
At first, the cows calved in the fall, so that they could be dry (no milk would flow) in the summer, fitting well with the pattern of taking family vacations in the summer. However, the family realized this pattern wasn’t the best fit as high quality stored feeds were necessary to feed the cows well throughout the winter. So they delayed the cows’ breeding time by six months, and in the spring of 1994, the cows calved again. Every year since then, the Yegerlehner farm has been a spring seasonal dairy with rotational grazing.
As the family continued to analyze the management of their operation differently, they quit grain farming in the fall of 1999, remodeled part of the existing barn to include a processing room and bought dairy processing equipment from a man in southern Indiana who had been making cheese for 40 years. Since then, the family has been producing and selling their own products. At first, the name, The Swiss Connection, reflected the farm’s heritage, but the addition of neighbors to help with the farm’s operation lent to a name change, as well, to The Farm Connection.
For the first two or three years of this new venture, the excess milk was picked up by the milk cooperative. However, the cooperative eventually said it wanted all of the milk or none of it. The Yegerlehners then adapted to process all of the milk from their cows.
“We have a passion for trying to improve the land and the soil and produce quality food for people that will enhance their health and their overall lives.”
From Grass to Cheese
Kate explained how the food in their store goes from grass to cheese, and why they only milk one time each day. Their once-a-day milking is a rarity for the dairy industry, as many farms milk their cows two or three times per day.
Running a Business
The family built a farm store because customers were asking the Yegerlehners about their products. Customers also can find the Yegerlehner’s grass-fed beef in the shop, alongside several products from other area farms and restaurants.
Kate thought the line from Field of Dreams, “If you build it, he will come,” would apply to building a farm store.
“It doesn’t always work like that,” she said. Marketing is needed.
Plus, the prices they needed to place on the products were a little higher than what the surrounding area would like to see. “Offering a niche product that’s sold at a higher level, starting out, we quickly saw that local sales were not going to keep us afloat.”
So the family began going to local farmer’s markets to sell their products. For a while, they traveled to three or four farmers’ markets a week. Kate said it was a good way to network and establish a solid clientele base, as the Yegerlehners make sure to collect email addresses wherever they go so that they can keep in touch with their customers to let them know about current products or venue changes.
One of the challenges of going to farmers’ markets has been the time commitment. For example, the Bloomington farmers’ market is five hours long. By the time they drive there, set up, participate in the farmers’ market, pack up and travel home, it’s a full day, and there isn’t much time to work on the farm.
But the opportunities at farmers’ markets can be great. The venues don’t only open doors with customers, Kate said. They can open doors to other farmers’ markets as well. When the Yegerlehners sold products at the Indianapolis farmers’ market, they met people who eventually opened up their own farmers’ markets. The Yegerlehners would then sell their products at these new venues.
“Contacts and networking is a big deal,” Kate said. “In a lot of ways, people tend to have a comaraderie and feeling like they’re on the same team. That’s been a really neat aspect of changing directions in the last 20 years here, just that, those relationships that you form with other farmers and also with the people you have buying your products.”
For the last couple of years, the farm also has used drop-off locations to deliver to their customers. Their customer list allows the Yegerlehners to send out a weekly email so that they can tell their customers where they will be each week so they can pick up their purchases.
Working with Family
Working with family on the farm can provide unique challenges, as well as interesting opportunities. Kate provided some insight on what it’s like to work with her mom and dad on a daily basis.
Adding value to the farm
When Kate was making plans to return to the farm after her graduation from Purdue University, the Yegerlehners had to ask, “Do we grow and expand? Or do we get more for what we’re producing?” They needed room for Kate to come in and work on the farm.
So the Yegerlehners decided to pursue value-added products, which, just like it sounds, is a way to add value to what is produced on the farm. Kate said that the family began on-farm processing because of her.
“So, no pressure, Kate, no pressure!” she laughed.
Mass production allows producers and markets to keep prices for consumers low. However, part of the value-added product secret is “doing something that’s hard to duplicate on a mass scale,” Kate noted. “Anything that requires a little extra something will be something that’s probably not going to be duplicated on a mass scale, which will keep your price-tier up a little bit.”
For example, when the family first started making cheese, their equipment was tailored to make 40-pound blocks and age in plastic. They decided to make smaller blocks with a breathable wax coating rather than plastic, but in recent years, have even stopped using the wax. Instead, they use a salt water solution in an aerobic process (rather than an anaerobic process) to control mold growth on the outside of the cheese. The additional labor makes a more unique product, Kate said, as the flavors are different.
“The cheese can breathe!” she exclaimed. Another aspect that contributes to the unique flavors of the farm is seasonality, as Kate explains:
“Every farm is unique, and every farm’s soil is unique, which makes the grasses unique. All those minerals and different forages contribute to the flavors in the milk, so it’s going to be pretty tough to duplicate something from one farm to another based on all those variations….That’s kind of a nice thing, you become known for something: flavors that come from your farm.”
The Driving Force
None of this could have happened without the passion, spirit and purpose shown by the Yegerlehners. Passion may be an overused word these days, but there is a reason for that, according to Kate.
“Passion will keep you going when money is not a driving force,” she emphasized. “If I was in this for the money, I would have been out a long time ago. ”
Kate said her passion for livestock and improving grazing and genetics is something she looks forward to every year. Alan’s passion for creating new cheese and improving the flavor is evident in his work in the farm store and the enthusiasm with which he greeted me during my farm visit.
And the Yegerlehners doesn’t call their customers simply customers: they know them as co-producers.
“We’re a team with our co-producers. We can’t do it without people that purchase our products, and they can’t purchase them without us producing. Knowing that we’re all interconnected, I think that’s pretty crucial.”
“If you’re just hired to do a job because you need a paycheck to pay bills, if the money ran out of that, then that wasn’t going to keep you going, right? And so, I guess that’s why we’re still here, we haven’t given up yet because we have a passion for what we’re doing.”