Lindsay Harris and her husband Evan Reiss never shied away from a conversation about their finances. The couple soon learned that they could broadcast their status on the web in a very productive way.
When they discovered some extra, unanticipated projects needed to be completed in order to start a dairy and grass-fed butter business on their newly-acquired, rough-at-the-edges Vermont hill farm, they soon realized they would need help. Friends and family suggested they turn to crowdfunding. A relatively new source of money, crowdfunding is the practice of soliciting online financial contributions, usually in small amounts, from a large number of people. Among the largest crowdfunding sites are Gofundme, Kickstarter and Indiegogo. “Asking for funding was a very difficult thing for us to do,” Harris said. “We work hard and we’re proud people. It was tough for us to ask. But we were desperate.”
Both Harris and Reiss had lifelong dreams of farming and raising children on a farm. Neither comes from a farming family. Both hold degrees in environmental sciences. When they met in 2008, Harris was a year into selling raw milk from the three cows she kept on leased land in Hinesburg, Vermont. But she and Reiss wanted their own farm. In November 2013 they sold their raw milk business, borrowed $450,000, and used savings to purchase the 191 acres in Tunbridge, Vermont, that they named Mountain Home Farm. With a business plan in hand and the goal of producing grass-fed artisan butter, the two set about renovating their 1797 farm. Joining them were daughters Heron, then 2, and baby Hayden. The family’s only income that first winter came from proceeds of the sale of their raw milk business and from two rental units on the property.
Although Harris and Reiss have since split romantically, they know it takes the labor and special skills of at least two people to operate a farm business the size of Mountain Home. To that end, Harris and Reiss continue to work together to implement their joint vision for the farm and to raise their children. Reiss, “a great builder,” Harris said, is erecting a cabin for himself on the property.
The first cow Harris ever purchased, the one with which she established her raw milk business, was a small Guernsey named Polly. Polly’s fine temperament and rich milk led to Harris’ decision to build her herd on Guernseys. Now, seven years later, the herd (which still includes Polly) has grown to 10 milkers – Guernseys and a few Guernsey/Jersey mixes – that produce between 35 and 50 pounds a day, depending on the season.
In summer, the herd is on pasture and moved every 12 hours, part of a rotational intensive grazing plan. When fields are snow covered, the cows are fed organic hay. Minerals, salt, kelp meal and organic alfalfa pellets supplement their all-grass diet. About half the herd’s hay is cut from part of the 60 open acres on Mountain Home Farm. Mowing, tedding and baling are all contracted out. “Cows are meant to eat grass,” Harris said, “and our super low vet bills are one of the best parts of feeding grass.”
At Mountain Home Farm, cows are milked twice a day using a surge bucket milker, a popular milking system manufactured between 1923 and 1999. In this system, a strap goes around the middle of the cow and clips to the top of the milking can. The cow cannot step over the milk can and the system has no long hoses so it’s easy to clean. Harris is proud of the herd’s low bacteria counts, almost always under 2,500. Although Harris and Reiss had initially planned to be certified organic, they found both the paperwork and expense prohibitive.
Choosing butter, buttermilk and ricotta
In Vermont, sale of raw milk is limited to direct sales to the consumer. When Harris and Reiss planned their move from a central location in Hinesburg to a farm in Tunbridge far off the beaten path, direct sales of raw milk were not feasible. But butter was. Having churned her grass-fed Guernseys’ milk, Harris knew it made fantastic butter, and in an extensive 2013 online search Harris turned up no one in the whole world making butter exclusively from the milk of grass-fed cows. Mountain Home Farm’s “single-source artisan dairy products from 100 percent grass-fed pastured cows” was born. The butter, commonly referred to as European style, is churned from crme fraiche (also called cultured cream). The butter is a very yellow color and has a slight tang.
Mountain Home Farm milk is processed twice a week. Milk is held at or below 40 degrees Fahrenheit in a 205-gallon bulk tank in which cream is passively separated. After cream rises to the top, partially skimmed milk is drawn off, and the process of making ricotta begins. (When cream is passively separated – rather than centrifuged – the remaining skimmed milk is richer in fat than usual skim milk.) Thirty gallons of skim milk are put into a vat and heated to 178 degrees Fahrenheit. As paddles in the vat slowly turn, a very small amount of organic white vinegar is added to the hot milk. The vinegar causes curds to form. Celtic sea salt is added to the curds before they are scooped from the vat, drained and packed in 16-ounce containers. Thirty gallons of partially skimmed milk make about 70 pounds of ricotta cheese. In March 2015, Mountain Home Farm Handmade Ricotta Cheese from Pastured Cows wholesaled at $3.25 and retailed for $4.50 a pound.
After skim milk has been drawn from the bulk tank, cream is removed and placed in a vat where it is pasteurized, cooled and cultured overnight. The resulting cultured cream (crme fraiche) is then churned to make butter. It takes the ? to 1 gallon of cream or 2 to 2-1/2 gallons of milk to make 1 pound of butter. Sold in one-quarter pound packages, very lightly sea salted Mountain Home Farm butter is hand wrapped in dark hunter green foil. One-quarter pound of Mountain Home Farm butter retails wholesales for $3.75 and retails for $5. Butter always sells out, and demand is increasing.
With butter making comes buttermilk. Mountain Home Farm’s buttermilk is bottled in plastic bottles labeled “Vermont Grade A True Buttermilk from Pastured Cows.” It wholesales at $2 a pint and retails at $2.75. When there is extra buttermilk, the farm’s three or four pigs enjoy it as well as whey left over from ricotta cheese making. (From dairy byproducts and pasture – no grain – Harris and Reiss are able to raise three or four pigs every seven to eight months.)
Mountain Home Farm butter, buttermilk and ricotta were first available for sale in March 2014. All are now sold in eight local markets and are also distributed regionally by Black River Produce. Butter always sells out. To date, ricotta sales are about 50 percent and buttermilk 60 percent.
Farmers markets have not been a productive source of sales for Mountain Home Farm’s dairy products, and Harris now limits them to one or two a season. An organized, well-presented display seems to attract more samplers than buyers. Beef and pork, slaughtered at Vermont Packing House, is available for sale at the farm.
Project funding for the farm is being facilitated through Kickstarter. Although the fundraising site has not yet been widely used for farming projects, that could be changing. To qualify for funding through Kickstarter, projects must create something to share with others, be honest and clearly presented and must not fundraise for charity, offer financial incentives or involve prohibited items. Since it began in 2009, Kickstarter reports that almost 8 million people from around the world have pledged more than $1.5 billion to some 200,000 projects. Harris and Reiss knew of Kickstarter from Vermont Public Radio reports and were encouraged to pursue a request for funding by friends, family and by customers. Having purchased raw milk for some seven years, Harris’ customers, she said, felt a strong connection with her food and her farm. “They knew Evan and I needed help,” Harris said. “In the end, people who believe in what we do had a way to express that through Kickstarter.”
To implement their goals of operating a grass-fed dairy producing butter, buttermilk and ricotta, Harris and Reiss needed about $10,000 more than originally anticipated for start-up. They chose a 30-day funding period, which ran from August 21 to September 20, 2014. Within that period, 130 Mountain Home Farm backers pledged $10,017.
Kickstarter is an all-or-nothing funding source. Had they received pledges of $9,999 rather than the $10,000 they set as their goal, neither Harris and Reiss nor Kickstarter would have received funds. Donors included family, friends, friends of family, customers of their former raw milk business, and total strangers from as far away as California and northern Quebec. About 40 percent of the contributors were Vermonters. Kickstarter released the funds about two weeks after the close of the funding period. Harris and Reiss received $10,017 minus Kickstarter’s 5 percent fee on total funds and minus 3 to 5 percent credit card processing fees.
Harris and Reiss began their Kickstarter campaign by writing about their plan to make butter from the milk of their grass-fed cows. They also submitted photos (taken by a professional photographer in return for farm products) and a video Reiss made. The video introduced Reiss and Harris, their cows and their project.
Kickstarter requires donors receive a reward. Rewards are often samples of the created project, and 25 backers who contributed $100 to Mountain Home Farm each received one-half pound of butter. Donors of lesser amounts ranging from $10 to $50 received rewards ranging from a picture post card to packets of note cards featuring the farm’s cows. A $1,000 donor received 6 pounds of butter, 5 pounds of on-farm-slaughtered and smoked bacon, and a framed photo of “one of our glorious, grass-fed cows.” Had there been a $2,500 backer, he or she could have been hosted for “a full farm experience” including farm tour, butter churning demonstration, “farm supper featuring our incredible nutrient-dense foods and spirited conversation plus many hand-made dairy products, meats and fruits to take home.”
Part of a backer’s joy in contributing to Kickstarter comes in seeing a project to which they contributed progress toward its stated goal. Thus part of donees’ responsibility in accepting Kickstarter funds is to keep donors apprised of progress. Along with their Kickstarter appeal, Harris and Reiss established a Facebook page. Here the two can keep friends and contributors, now numbering about 500, up to date with the farm’s activities.
“We really did not want to have to ask for money, and I was worried about the commitment, the rewards to donors, and the time investment,” Harris said. However, in the end, she found putting together the request took about 20 hours. “Asking for contributions was a very humbling experience – but it worked out great.”
For further information
Mountain Home Farm’s Kickstarter story: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/11805909/mountain-home-farm-grow-an-all-grass-dairy-farm/description
Surge milkers: http://www.surgemilker.com/history.html – Hamby Dairy Supply
Cover Photo by Kathleen Hatt