WISCONSIN DELLS, Wis. – Shrinking or non-existent profit margins have made many small dairy farmers think outside of the box when it comes to finding ways to increase their viability. Justin and Darci Daniels did just that when they decided to begin marketing value-added products on their Garden Valley Farmstead in Hixton, Wis.
    Darci Daniels shared with those in attendance at the Compeer Financial Resilient Farms Conference Dec. 11 in Wisconsin Dells, Wis., how they were using farmstead products to increase profitability on their 50-cow, 120-acre dairy farm.
    “We knew that if we wanted to stay a small, family-operated dairy farm, this was the avenue we would need to go,” Daniels said.
    In May, the Daniels family opened their own store right on the farm, selling their own cheese, butter, beef and eggs. They also sell locally produced foods, such as pork and honey.
    “The whole idea of doing something with our own milk and products from our farm had been stirring for some time,” Daniels said. “We went into this with the motto of ‘Progress, not perfection.’ It was just what can we do to get started, to get our feet wet in it, and keep our investment and risk as low as possible.”
    Daniels and Justin are first-generation on their farm and are both under 35 years old, and are lacking a large equity base for borrowing money.
    “This is a great place to start for anyone who is considering direct-marketing their own products,” Daniels said. “Everyone has their own unique story and how they got to where they are in agriculture. People want to know those stories, and they want to connect with you.”
    According to Daniels, sharing your past careers and experiences with your customers is what will help create momentum and build sales in a small-scale more intimate farmstead business.
    “Our passion is taking care of the cows and working on the farm every day,” Daniels said. “That’s where we want to spend a lot of our time.”
    With that focus in mind, the Daniels family made the decision to send their raw product off-farm to be processed into a mild cheddar cheese which they age about 60 days for increased flavor, and butter. They process approximately 6 percent of the milk produced on their farm and market the rest to a commercial creamery.
    “We also focus on a second motto: ‘Do what you can, where you are, with what you have,’” Daniels said.
    Today, they are utilizing area farmer’s markets, their on-line store and their on-farm retail store to market their products, but started testing the waters over a year ago by employing their second motto.
    “We’re located about two miles from an established apple and blueberry orchard, but it’s two miles in the wrong direction for most of the traffic,” Daniels said. “With my background, I knew that orchards and cheese in Wisconsin are a big touristy thing and tie together well. In the idea of doing what you can, we had a pop-up tent as a roadside stand and put up signs. The orchard let us give out samples while people waited in line to pay. We did that for three Saturdays, and we sold 650 pounds of cheese curds from our creamery. It was a small drop in the bucket, but it gave us a little confidence to get started.”
    Daniels said they gained a lot of insight into what consumers are looking for while selling from the roadside stand.
    “Almost every single person that stopped asked if the cheese curds came from our cows,” Daniels said. “They wanted them to be from our cows. We could definitely tell there was going to be an advantage having a product that was made just from our milk.”
    After experimenting with farmstead sales, the Daniels family went back to the drawing board to begin looking at how to begin marketing farmstead products from their farm in earnest.
    “We sent the first load of milk without having a store, without having anything but this idea that we were going to try it,” Daniels said. “I thought if nothing else, we’d just have 500 pounds of cheese we’d need to eat eventually.”
    The first dedicated load of milk to make Garden Valley Farmstead cheese went to the creamery in March, and they began selling product in May.
    “We have to hire a private milk hauler to haul our milk on the days that we send milk to the creamery to make our products,” Daniels said.
    Daniels estimates that in the six months since they began selling their products, they have sold about 3,500 pounds of cheese.
    Farmstead marketing on a small dairy farm is a labor-intensive endeavor on top of daily chores and farm operations, according to Daniels. She spends a great deal of time each week taking orders and lining up inventory for the farmers markets and the on-farm store each week.
    In addition to the dairy products, she also coordinates the processing of their beef for the store. On Thursdays, she prepares and organizes to attend the local farmers market from 2-6 p.m. Fridays are spent operating the on-farm retail store and preparing for Saturday’s farmers market. The Daniels family hire help for childcare and chores to accommodate Daniels’ time spent at the farmers markets.
    While they were beneficial to making a presence in the community, Daniels is not sure they will continue their presence at the farmers markets or if they will focus their efforts on having more hours at the on-farm store.
    The Daniels family have held events at their farm.
    “One of the things I’ve learned is that the entertainment and the experience are important,” Daniels said. “People want to connect with your family, but they want to connect with your farm, too.”
    The Daniels family hosted several sessions of cow yoga on their farm over the summer, having yoga classes near the pasture the cows were grazing in. This fall, they hosted Fall Fest on the Farm with about 350 people attending. They sold pumpkins grown on the farm, had a photographer on-site, and had free ice cream and grilled cheese sandwiches. They hosted a larger Christmas on the Farm event which they estimate over 500 people attended.
    “If I were to give advice to someone considering this, I’d just tell them to keep our motto in mind to do what you can, where you are, with what you have,” Daniels said. “It’s worked pretty well for us so far.