The founder of Maple Hill Creamery talks about organic, grass-fed dairy products and being a pioneer in regenerative agriculture
“We had a dream of a farm, so I drove all over New York State to find a suitable area. For the price of the house we were living in near the Hudson Valley, we bought a 250-acre farm with barns. We had two boys at the time, which eventually turned into five Kids and we just wanted to raise them in that environment.
Maple Hill Creamery began as a traditional dairy, feeding grain to cows with some seasonal grazing. But the rising price of organic milk convinced the team that the switch was viable. “We switched to organic because the price of conventional milk was at one of those very low levels. We were so close to running organic that it didn’t make sense not to do it and get a higher price.
“But because the price of conventional milk was so low, it was a very bad time to transition, and then having to use organic inputs while getting that low price made it even more difficult. That’s what forced us to take the next step and we went organic and grass-fed.” At the same time.
While they told them they couldn’t produce enough milk to survive on feeding the cows “grass only,” Joseph said the benefits to the herd’s health were clear from the start. “We were about 60 cows, and the vet would come every month for a herd health visit – which was actually more of a ‘sick herd’ visit because out of 50-60 cows, you always had five or six cows that had a chronic metabolic problem or a metabolic problem.” Foot. Hoof and leg problems are the most common reason a dairy cow leaves the herd. This is probably the most impactful thing from a health standpoint. Our cows’ hooves have become so hard – like rocks – from not being fed corn silage anymore, that the hoof trimmer said Her: “You don’t need me anymore.” So going grass-fed eliminated a big problem that all dairy farmers generally have. And that was very powerful. Grazing is what cows were really meant to do.
Over the years, Maple Hill Creamery has grown from a single 65-head farm to 135 farms, each with about 50 head — “very small in the grand scheme of dairying,” Joseph said, but a model that has proven resilient in terms of providing price stability to farmers . “After we started bringing in more farms, I realized that organic, grass-fed products represented a more stable market for what I would call family-scale farms,” he explained. “I’m not discounting big farms — but that’s a different scale than most modern dairying. And it’s a lifestyle that a lot of people find important in rural America.
“But I think what’s happened with organic, even though it’s still probably a better opportunity than conventional for small and medium-sized dairy companies in particular, organic is starting to become commoditized as well.
“We’re seeing bigger and bigger entries and bigger and bigger and bigger farms all over the country. This may not meet the expectations of what organic consumers think they’re buying, but it’s there. And it’s very difficult for a 50- or 100-cow dairy to compete against.”
At the same time, this “management-focused” type of farming has attracted more young farmers into farming, Joseph claimed, and not just into dairying. “On a grass-fed farm, there’s no day like today. It’s hot, it’s cold, it’s wet, it’s dry; the grass is growing or it’s not.” “It’s really a thinking person’s farm above all else, and that’s not for everyone. It’s not that grain-based farming doesn’t focus on management, but being able to feed a scoop of grain covers a lot of sins, doesn’t it?
The average age of a farmer in Maple Hill “is probably still in the mid-40s, which is about 20 years younger than for agriculture in general and dairy on top of it,” he said.
“My greatest fear is that we get a definition of renewal that is fun and easy.”
On top of being grass-fed and organic, Maple Hill is also committed to regenerative farming practices. Going back to the beginning, the shift to regenerative was born of necessity, as Joseph explains: “When we started doing this, regenerative wasn’t even a word yet. I always say that Maple Hill farmers were regenerative before regenerative was a thing, because to do this kind of farming You have to be fresh.
“But we were on our own in this, so we had a grassroots culture from the bottom up and we just figured it out — how to graze differently, how to manage these cows.
“If you want to produce milk from grass consistently for many years, you have to do it in a regenerative way – by constantly improving the land and the grass, by using that solar energy and making the land and the cows work together so that you can leave more nutrients in the soil than they were.” When I started.
This is called a flywheel. “For most Maple Hill farmers who join us, this renewal process takes 3 to 5 years. From leaving the old system, and taking advantage of the knowledge that we have now about how to graze and how to manage cows, that renewal begins and then eventually in the third year to Fifth, the flywheel starts turning. Your soil is able to hold more water, and the grass becomes richer in sugar, which helps the cows produce more milk.
“We didn’t know we were doing it at the time, but we had to do it to survive. We couldn’t afford to use those organic inputs, so a renewable species came to us.”
But as the debate over what constitutes regenerative heats up today more than ever, Joseph said he is concerned that this type of agriculture is not being defined. “Renewal means 50 different things to 50 different people, especially in the business world.
“What bothers me a little is that everyone is ‘renewed’ when I know very well what that actually means. Renewal by spreadsheet is not what we do. It’s the real deal. I hope we figure out how to better communicate what that means so it becomes more meaningful.” .
When asked to elaborate, he said that much of what is happening currently is “redefining what has already been done versus making the big changes that need to happen for that to be the case.” “At the farmer level, in order to do regeneration, farmers are putting their livelihoods at risk,” he said.
“It’s not fair to make a blanket statement, but I’ve been doing this long enough and seen enough to know in my heart that this is the case. Especially in the vegan movement. I just feel like there’s a lot of greenwashing going on and there’s a lot of consumers who think they’re buying a product Better for them or better for our planet, when we’re really honest about it, plant-based agriculture is how we got here. These are the crops, right? What’s different about taking this plant and grinding it up and putting it in a cardboard box today than yesterday?
“Regenerative washing is a big problem and I don’t really know how to solve it. We’re happy to say we’re renewable and that’s the truth. Grass-fed foods, especially dairy and beef, resonate with people, and maybe some of that is because of ‘renewal.’ But I do.” I fear that renewal is going in a direction that is inconsistent with the way we do things and what we think it means.
The Maple Hill founder believes that creating an overly prescriptive definition would be “the worst thing you can do, because everyone’s context is so different.” “My biggest fear is that we get a definition of renewal that is fun and easy for the entire industry to adopt, because then it would be completely meaningless if it wasn’t already,” he explained, adding that any definition should be linked to outcomes.
Pay for progress
In April 2023, Maple Hill Creamery secured $20 million in funding from the USDA Partnerships for Climate Smart Commodities program to grow markets for sustainable, renewable, grass-fed organic dairy products. “The grant intersected with many things we always wanted to do, but with our meager resources as a small business, were unable to,” Joseph said. “We’ve always wanted to incentivize our farmers to achieve the positive results they are achieving, but we didn’t have the financing – we pay one of the highest dairy prices in the US, for example. We call it ‘paying for progress’ and now we’re able to put some fuel on the fire and incentivize People improve their pasture cover, which brings a whole host of other positives. Improving your results over time improves your finances forever.
The grant will also enable the dairy to improve the visibility of its organic, grass-fed and renewable credentials. When asked if he thought consumers understood the word “renewal,” Joseph said, “I don’t think most of them even know the word, and certainly don’t know what it means.”
“We’re all in this industry together and we talk about it all the time, but for the most part, my experience with consumers and a lot of the research I’ve seen is that it’s too early to use the word ‘renewal.’ That’s the point behind climate smart scholarship — it’s making progress.” On the ground but also in the market. And maybe one day, people will start to understand what that means and gravitate toward those products.
“Our main focus is grass-fed and organic – and we happen to be renewable too, so that’s our consumer, and they’re along the ‘renewable’ road, whether they know it or not! We’ve been a leader there and I think consumers know we’re special and maybe they’ll understand that one day because “The system it’s built on and the fact that it’s renewable, but most of them are very happy that they’re able to buy grass-fed. Grass-fed animals are a strength right now.”
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