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The Maple Hill Story
In 2003 Tim and I moved to a farm in Little Falls, NY. It was a total life change. The year before, Tim worked for a small software company that was a little over an hour outside of New York City. A larger company came in and bought that small company, offering all the employees the opportunity to keep their jobs, so long as they moved to Atlanta. We were just over thirty years old at the time, with two small boys. We sat on our front porch one afternoon and decided that we wanted a change. We wanted to be farmers. So Tim drove all over New York State, narrowing our choices, until we settled on Little Falls—only two hours from where we lived in Dutchess County—but really a lifetime away in terms of lifestyle.
We began with a handful of pigs and chickens—and then at one point added a slew of sheep (225 to be exact). Tim was offered a job from that same software company, but this time working remotely, which meant that we could try our hand at farming with the safety net of an off-farm job. Although Tim worked from home day to day, he ended up traveling a great deal of time. He wanted nothing more than to be “just” a farmer (I put “just” in quotes, because there is nothing simple or easy about solely being a farmer, for sure). The pork, lamb and eggs brought in income, but not enough to support our family. Tim felt that the only way we could earn enough regular income was to milk cows—and so we did. Having no dairy farming experience at all, we bought 63 cows and received a fast education.
We didn’t know the first thing about milking cows. Or how to feed them. Or how to breed them. Or how to care for them when they are sick—or how to even know that they are sick in the first place. We didn’t know how run a baler or when to cut hay or baleage—or what the difference is. We didn’t know how high the grass should be to have the optimal amount of energy, or how much space to give the cows in order to maximize grazing. But we learned—and thanks to our neighbors and veterinarians and online resources and lots and lots of books—we learned. But we mostly learned, in all honesty, by just doing it.
We began as conventional farmers but transitioned to organic farming three years later. The practices of organic farming were more in line with how we cared for our own children (now three young boys) and the choices we made regarding our own food. Not long after that, we cut the grain completely from our cows’ diet and became, what is known in the industry, as “Grass Farmers.” Of course the focus is still on the cows, through and through, but the goal is to feed the cows the best quality grass and baled grass (either hay or baleage) to maximize the health potential for both cows and people.
Tim still kept that job, but traveled more and more. Sometimes he was away for about half of every month. He began experimenting with making yogurt and cheese on our kitchen stove and in his “spare time” fixed up our neighbor’s old bar-b-que restaurant in order to turn it into a creamery. We wanted to create a product from our own milk—in 2008 it was extremely difficult to find grass-fed dairy products. Grass-fed beef was a little easier to track down, but the term “grass-fed” was in its infancy as far as the mainstream food market. So in 2009, we opened a teeny, tiny creamery. We made yogurt and cheese curd and a few different cheeses. Things seemed to be headed in the right direction, so after all those years, we decided that it was finally the right time for Tim to quit his job. As it turned out, this was probably the worst decision we could have made. The recession hit in earnest, and we began to drown. There are enough details here to fill a book, but suffice it to say, that we had no money. None. We were trying to milk cows, make yogurt and deliver yogurt, now with four young boys in tow. The pictures may show smiling, happy farmers, but it was the darkest most desperate time of our lives.
And this is when Tim’s sister, Julia, and her husband, Pete Meck, decided to join us. Yes—you heard me right. They were fully aware that we were a sinking ship. They quit their nice, dependable jobs in New Jersey and moved to our drafty, falling down farmhouse in sub-zero January 2010. Pete, in fact, lived in our tiny 9’x9’ guest room for a year, while Julia drove back and forth to NJ to settle and end their commitments there. Pete dove into making yogurt every day, all day; Julia worked tirelessly to organize our financial disaster of piled up bills and create our first website. They both did all this while simultaneously helping out on the farm, making family dinners and fixing up that farmhouse so we could all fit.
I don’t want to give the impression of smooth sailing from this point on—because it was not. Before things got better, they got worse--much worse. Our electricity was shut off, our car was re-possessed and at one point our farm was in foreclosure. We were quite literally hanging on by our fingernails. But somehow, we made it through. More and more people wanted our yogurt. We went from our little creamery outlet store to having a handful of health food stores in the Utica area to then high-end stores picking us up in New York City. Good friends of ours also helped to develop markets in Vermont and the coast of New Hampshire. We were at least treading water at this point. We can truly say we love our customers. You kept us alive.
We needed more and more milk to fill our orders. We would never have been able to grow if it were not for the VanAmburgh family who were the first farmers crazy enough to join us in our milk supply in 2010. After that, we were fortunate enough to have more and more small farms in New York State who were both organic and grass-fed, who wanted to be a part of something new. We grew out of that little creamery in 2012 (and also added a daughter to our family of boys!). A milk-bottling facility in the Hudson Valley was looking for new occupants and we needed more space--so we all moved to Stuyvesant, NY to continue to move Maple Hill Creamery forward. To do this, we needed to sell our cows and sell our farm, which ended up being one of the hardest things we have ever had to do.
Although we are no longer farmers, we are proud of the relationship we have with our farmers and the product we are able to provide for our loyal customers. We are only able to do this now with a mini task force, so-to-speak, of amazing people who work both in Stuyvesant and all over the country. When we first began we were the yogurt shelf outlier--more tart and less sugar than any other yogurt out there. We were not what the industry was used to or what people wanted--so we were told. But you all proved those statements wrong, stuck with us and are just as much a part of our story as we are. We are nationwide now, and we have every person who played a part in this story to thank—many of whom are not mentioned here. There were friends who stuck labels on yogurt cups for free, farm-hands who stayed with us for years with little to no raise or delayed paychecks, and parents and friends who would turn up with groceries or new school clothes to keep us afloat. All of a sudden this feels like an acceptance speech—sorry for that—kind of cheesy! But the story of Maple Hill Creamery has many components—for all of which we are extremely grateful. This story is ever-evolving, as we are still in the thick of things...so we’ll be sure to keep you posted!
Written and photographed by Laura Joseph
Bottom family photo by Mike Mulry.
Laura and her husband, Tim, were the original Maple Hill farmers beginning in 2004
and founded the creamery with Pete and Julia Meck in 2009.