Struggling family farm evolves into Picket Fence Creamery
Jeff and Jill Burkhart were building a picket fence by hand on their farm outside Woodward. As they lined up approximately 1,000 hand-cut wooden strips and nailed them into place, they discussed their dairy farm’s future. Fifteen years before, when milk prices were low, they had discussed bottling their own products. Now milk prices were lower than they’d been 21 years ago when they began the dairy farm. The family couldn’t afford to go on the same old way.
“My choices were to expand to a huge dairy with 1,000 cows and deal on volume; sell out, quit and get a job in town; or do something value-added, like milking cows and selling dairy products,” Jeff Burkhart said.
The couple decided to create their own dairy and name it Picket Fence Creamery, after the project they were working on when the idea was born. Instead of selling the raw milk produced by their Jersey cows as a commodity to Swiss Valley Farms Corp. of Cedar Rapids or another large commercial dairy, they would process it themselves. By cutting out the middleman, the Burkharts felt they could increase profits enough to save the family farm without compromising their values.
“We didn’t want to change from a family operation to corporate,” Jeff Burkhart said. “If we’d increased to 1,000 cows, there would have been environmental concerns, as well.”
Radiance Dairy near Fairfield is one of the few Iowa farms with a similar business venture. The Burkharts saw an opening in the Central Iowa market waiting to be filled. They consulted with Radiance Dairy owner Francis Thicke, representatives from the Iowa State University Extension Service’s value-added agriculture program, and Ron Orth, a consultant with the Iowa Institute for Cooperatives.
“This is not the answer to the milk price for very many producers,” Orth said. “For selected producers in dairy, there could be a niche market that will appeal to customers, and it’s produced close to home. There’s some interest in supporting the family farm these days, so people might be willing to pay a bit more.”
Picket Fence Creamery plans to begin producing and marketing its own milk, butter and ice cream in June. The company will offer skim, 2 percent and whole milk, in both homogenized and creamline forms. In homogenized milk, a high-pressure pump breaks up the milk’s fat molecules so they are evenly dispersed and suspended in the liquid. In creamline milk, some of the fat separates and rises to the surface. This cream can be skimmed out of or stirred into the milk before drinking.
Creamline milk summons a sense of nostalgia in some milk drinkers, and proponents tout its reputed health benefits. Scientists at Cornell University are conducting research to determine whether homogenization causes fat molecules in milk to coat artery walls more than fat in non-pasteurized milk. Although no conclusive results have been reached on creamline milk’s health benefits, Jeff Burkhart says the flavor alone justifies the product.
Picket Fence Creamery also will employ a different pasteurization method than its large commercial counterparts. Large dairies tend to use a high-temperature, short-time method, but the Burkharts will use vat pasteurization. Every other day, milk will flow into two 200-gallon vats, where it will be heated at a lower temperature for a longer time than the other pasteurization method entails.
“I’m not knocking what [other dairies] do, but this will have more flavor to it,” Jeff Burkhart said.
Burkhart’s herd of 100 cows and 50 heifers are pasture fed, which he says is easier on their digestive tracts than consuming grain.
“We don’t feed intensely to push hard for production,” he said.
As a result, one of his cows produces an average of 60 pounds of raw milk per day, compared with the 80 pounds averaged by cows in large commercial dairies. In the long run, however, Burkhart says his cows remain productive for several years longer.
Within days, the construction of Picket Fence Creamery will be complete. During a warm spell in December, the Burkharts and their daughter, Jenna, began the building. They constructed it themselves using materials purchased in their small hometown whenever possible. Only for the building’s complicated plumbing and electrical systems did they hire outside workers.
Eventually, the structure will consist of a milking parlor, a room where raw milk is stored, a room where the milk is processed and bottled, and a shop where customers can watch the process through observation windows or make purchases. Jill Burkhart has applied for a permit to sell other local products, such as soy candles, crafts, baked goods and food products, such as salsa, in addition to their own meat and dairy products.
“It’s a way for us to help out our farm friends,” she said. “It will also give customers more things to browse at.”
Picket Fence products will be available at A.J.’s Grocery in Woodward, Hy-Vee stores in Perry and Boone, several local Casey’s General Stores, the Des Moines Metro Market and two Campbell’s Nutrition Centers.
“I’d much rather deal with a local business, spending the money here in the state,” said Dianne Lahodny, owner of Campbell’s. “I think everyone wants a relationship with their supplier or grower. It costs more, but it makes people feel good about spending the extra money. Also, their grass-fed beef and dairy cattle are antibiotic free and steroid free — clean cows, we like to call it. Our customers appreciate that.”
Soon, the gleaming metal tanks, vats and other equipment will be in place. Hundreds of gallons of milk will rush through the pipes, on its way to becoming a finished product that will bear the Picket Fence Creamery label. State inspectors will analyze samples each week, and U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors will scrutinize the operation site each month, holding the company to the same standards as large dairies such as Blue Bunny and Anderson Erickson. Schoolchildren will tour the facility, shoppers will browse, and the Burkhart children, Jenna, 15, and James, 2, will continue to grow up on a small family farm, as their parents had hoped.
Only time will tell if the local market can support the Picket Fence Creamery. In the meantime, the Burkharts build their business, giving opportunities to members of their community and hoping the community will support them in return.