Red Barn Family Farms cooperative helps 8 small operations realize profit
Both Terry and Paula Homan grew up on dairy farms at a time when small family farms blanketed the Midwest – and remained viable and profitable. By the 1990s, a sea change was occurring, with many small farms either failing or succumbing to consolidation.
“I realized that small family farms were being labeled as unsustainable dairies just like the small cheese factories that used to be everywhere in Wisconsin were being labeled,” says large animal veterinarian Terry Homan, co-owner of Red Barn Family Farms in Northeast Wisconsin. “I wanted to do something powerful to support our state’s dairy farming heritage.”
That “something” was starting Red Barn – a co-op of eight small family farms, all located in Outagamie and Shawano counties. Together, the farms are not only profitable but also helping highlight what Homan calls “the good that is in the industry.”
“These small family farms excel at an individualized style of animal husbandry,” says Homan. “These farms embodied some very important aspects of the family farming heritage that has defined Wisconsin’s dairy industries. That’s when I conceived of Red Barn Family Farms and an economic model that changes how the game is played.”
Best care, best results
Red Barn started out five years ago with just two farms and has grown since in both the number of farms and end products produced from the farmers’ milk.
In support of producing the best milk, “the humane treatment of cows and the hardworking farm families who care for them are at the heart of the mission of Red Barn Family Farms,” says Homan. Farms in the co-op must adhere to strict standards for cleanliness, milk quality and, most importantly, animal health/husbandry, he adds.
These stringent and proprietary rules have placed each Red Barn farm in the top 25 of producers across the industry for each milk quality index. Among the rules is that all farms must be inspected and approved by the American Humane Association, each farm must be family owned and all milk must be free of the rBGH growth hormone.
Red Barn’s innovative pay structure pays the farmers a premium for their performance relative to these standards. That’s unlike most commodity pricing.
Amy Holewinski, whose Pulaski farm is part of the Red Barn family, values how the system rewards hard-working farm families.
“We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year, and we were getting frustrated with the price of milk for small family farms,” she says. “It’s hard to make a living on a small family farm when no one works (another job outside) the farm. Terry and Paula’s company seemed to offer a better alternative for getting a higher price for our milk.”
Red Barn started small and remains small for many reasons. One of the company’s goals now is to expand the customer base for its Red Barn-branded milk. While the co-op produces humane-certified milk – processed locally by Lamers Dairy in Appleton and sold primarily to state universities and hospitals – Paula Homan says they were initially “incredibly naïve” about what it would take to build a customer base. They started modestly, handing out sample cups of milk for people to taste the difference.
Today, Red Barn Family Farms are prospering, Terry Homan says, and it all goes back to that very evident cause-and-effect – “the best cared-for cows produce the best milk and cheese.”
Others have noticed. Red Barn was recognized last year as a Rising Star business by the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation.
To continue to grow the brand, the Homans work hard not just to sell milk and cheese, but telling their inspiring story.
“We have to sell a concept and an idea, not just a product,” Paula Homan says. “We’re a story and a brand, and we appreciate every customer we have. This mission has really kept us going.”
Providing milk for cheese production for more than four years, Red Barn branded cheeses have already won accolades in the competitive industry.
In 2008, Red Barn produced its first batch of cheese at Springside Cheese in Oconto Falls, and the following year, it took fourth place in the 2009 U.S. Cheese Championships in the sharp bandaged cheddar category. In 2011, Red Barn won gold and silver medals at the championships for two variations on its Heritage Weis Old-World Style White Cheddar.
Recently, Red Barn debuted Edun, a New Zealand-style raw milk cheddar (made by Willow Creek Cheese in Berlin, Wis.) which has been named among the “top 10 Wisconsin cheeses to try in 2013” in trade publications. A new cheese will be introduced this fall.
The trick to producing great flavorful cheese? Red Barn co-owner Terry Homan says it all begins with the quality of the milk. For that, of course, he credits both the cows and their conscientious owners.
“Our cheese is unlike any other,” he says. “It’s a combination of (many) farm styles, yet what they have in common is that the cows are well-cared for as individuals.”
Another practical tip for enjoying their cheese? Homan recommends leaving any cheese out on the counter for about 30 minutes prior to serving; it allows the flavors to become more pronounced.