Soap maker finds calling on family dairy
Fourth generation returns to Plamann Farms
Mary Jo and Larry Plamann (back, right) along with their daughter, Abby Hopfensperger, and her sons, Rennin (left) and Ruxin, milk 70 cows and farm 430 acres near Appleton, Wisconsin. Abby returned to the family farm in 2019 after an 18-year career in the credit union industry. Not pictured is Larry’s brother, Keith Plamann. PHOTO BY STACEY SMART
APPLETON, Wis. – Larry and Mary Jo Plamann were grateful when their daughter, Abby, decided to return home to the family farm after an 18-year career in the credit union industry.
Farming alongside her parents and her uncle, Keith, this marketing guru brought a much-needed pair of hardworking hands to the dairy in November 2019.
The Plamanns milk 70 registered Holsteins and farm 430 acres of soybeans, corn and alfalfa near Appleton. Abby is the fourth generation at Plamann Farms, which was established by her great-grandfather, Arthur Plamann, in the 1920s. Her grandfather, Merlin, took over the farm in 1949 when he got out of the army and farmed with his sons, Larry and Keith, for decades. Larry and Keith’s brother, David, is involved with the farm as well, helping with fieldwork and odd jobs.
“I was ready for a change, and the farm was calling me home,” Abby said.
Cows at Plamann Farms are housed in tiestalls but milked in a parlor – a housing/milking setup that is located under the same roof. The farm’s 78-stall tiestall barn has seen an evolution of milking systems – from buckets to a dumping station, to a pipeline and finally to a parlor. In 2009, the family took out the pipeline and put in a swing-8 milking parlor within the tiestall barn.
“This is easier on my body,” said Larry, who had both knees replaced prior to adding the parlor.
The milking parlor was previously a calf barn. To make room for the parlor, the Plamanns converted a portion of their heifer barn into a calf barn, and calves were transferred to the new location where they are raised from birth through freshening.
“We worked with what we had,” said Abby, who milks in the mornings and one night per week. “We gutted the calf area and put in a parlor and holding pen.”
Three years ago, Abby took her love for cows and poured it into a new business venture when she began making and marketing soaps. Abby is the farmhand behind Farmhand’s Finest – a line of signature and seasonal soaps made with milk from the farm.
“I like to make things, and I was looking for ways to use the products we have on our farm,” Abby said. “Making soap is a mix of art and science. It lets me be creative.”
Abby’s artisan soaps are handcrafted in small batches. Her best seller is Wildflower, a pink soap bursting with aromas of orchid, pear nectar and amber. Milkmaid, Belle of the Barn, Sunday Social, Winter’s Blush and Cocoa & Cream are the names some of her other soaps are known by. Another favorite is Sugar Shack, which resembles a slab of fudge and smells like maple, vanilla and buttered rum. The 4-ounce bars are sold in burlap bags. Abby is also working on rolling out a liquid soap for Mother’s Day.
“Farmhand’s Finest is good-smelling soap that makes your skin feel nice,” Abby said. “It works hard and looks pretty, which is what I like.”
Abby has a love for the natural and believes in using simple, quality ingredients. Her soaps are free of preservatives and contain between five and eight ingredients including raw milk and oils.
“I try to use milk from fresh cows because it has more milk fat,” Abby said. “All of our cows have names and personalities, and sometimes people ask which cow the milk came from. Once the soap is made, it has to cure for four weeks. It’s a process, but I try to stay ahead of the game. I have some wholesale accounts, so I’ve been making more soap lately.”
Abby sells her soaps at local businesses as well as online through her website and Facebook. She provides free doorstep delivery around the Fox Cities area.
“It’s been fun,” Abby said. “The business is taking off; I just wish I had more time to devote to it.”
Abby’s husband, Eric Hopfensperger, is a banker by day and a farmer by night, lending a hand at Plamann Farms whenever he has the chance. The couple’s boys – Ruxin, 7, and Rennin, 5 – also love helping on the farm.
“When my boys were born, I started paying more attention to ingredients and buying more simply made products,” Abby said. “This fed into my desire to make my own soap.”
Abby’s brother, Casey, who works for the United States Department of Agriculture and is also in the military, helps on the farm when he can. He and his wife, Bridget, have two kids – Calen, 13, and Kyler, 9.
The Plamanns are trying to cut back on cows and have started breeding to Angus. Mary Jo does the raising of beef calves right now. Abby will market the beef and work with Keith (who manages breeding) to establish a cow/calf operation.
Many people in the community know of Plamann Farms. The family is active in 4-H, and for more than 26 years, the Plamanns hosted Adventures in Dairyland tours, welcoming approximately 10,000 students to their farm.
“Some of those kids are 4-H parents now,” said Mary Jo, who continues to provide tours to interested people. “I’ve been a 4-H leader forever, working with dog, horse and dairy projects, and I’ve seen multiple generations come through here.”
Plamann Farms is the host of their county’s 4-H dog project. People bring their dogs to the farm to work on obedience training, agility training and showmanship with Mary Jo and other trainers.
“We have 40 kids signed up for the dog project this year,” Mary Jo said.
Although she has worked with dogs for 44 years, Mary Jo attends private lessons, classes and clinics to stay sharp on the best training techniques.
“I’m doing a scent class right now with an old dog of mine and trying to get him into a utility class,” Mary Jo said. “Eventually, you could get into search and rescue if a dog kept going down this path of training.”
Mary Jo has a gift for communicating with canines and owns three dogs. Hercules and Rio are Belgium Schipperkes, a breed originating from Belgium, which she uses for agility and obedience, and Nala is a 3-month-old black Labrador. The Plamanns also have three horses and a pony, including an unbroke 2-year-old that Mary Jo and her grandson, Calen, plan to train this year to become a 4-H horse.
From making soap to 4-H projects, the interests on Plamann Farms are diverse and keep everyone busy on and off the farm.
Having a change of heart when it came to her career, Abby’s return was a decision that helped ensure the continuation of this family farm. This cow lover and soap maker yearns to preserve the farming lifestyle for her children and future generations. Therefore, when the farm called her home, Abby said yes.