A Tale of Two Hills

The path that yogurt wrought

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David Barber of Blue Hill at Stone Barns with his namesake yogurt

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Laura Joseph balancing her dairy output from Maple Hill Creamery.

Photography by Andrea B. Swenson

Cows will be mentioned only when necessary in this story. Struggle, conviction, family and dedication will be fully conveyed.

In the Taconic Hills of New York, situated among vast, open cornfields and up a narrow, twisty road, sits an unpretentious, yellow farmhouse and a large, one-story red outbuilding. Scattered behind are various ancillary structures. The bucolic surroundings belie the enterprise burgeoning within these walls. This is home to dairy farmer Tim Joseph, wife Laura, Tim’s sister, Julia, and her husband, Peter Meck, who have unwaveringly committed themselves to creating Maple Hill Creamery and its yogurts made with milk from 100 percent grass-fed cows.

In 2004, Tim and Laura became first-time dairy farmers with a herd of 60 traditional, grain-fed cows. Seemed like a good idea at first, but they soon realized conventional farming wasn’t working out for them. Tim decided to go against the grain. Literally. Enticed by the health values of a grass-based, forage-only system and “fascinated by turning sunshine into a product,” Tim carefully modified his cows’ diet, transitioning from grain to grass. By enabling his cows’ systems to function fully as they are designed—to roam freely and to consume high-fiber grasses that digest slowly, unlike corn and grain—the need for administering preemptive antibiotics is eliminated. Just one reason a grass-based approach is advantageous for the health of the animal, the ecology and the consumer.

With the chemical-free milk now being produced, Tim and Laura began making yogurt for their children. Their decision to generate yogurt was helped along by the fact that Tim didn’t “have the patience to make cheese.” Realizing a non-homogenized, longer and slower processed milk from 100 percent grass-fed cows could be turned into such a silken, full fat yogurt, the Josephs began setting up to sell their crafted product.

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This is a lot of vegetable-based
nutrition in a yogurt market
routinely plagued by excessive
amounts of sugar and additives.

GROWING PAINS

Success started to follow Maple Hill Creamery as they attended farmers’ markets, opened their own small store in Little Falls, which has since closed down, and obtained local and upstate distribution. Even still, gas expenses for deliveries were exceeding profits. In 2009, when Maple Hill Creamery yogurt appeared at the New Amsterdam Market in Manhattan, the response to their artisanal creation there caused an “aha!” moment for Tim and family. They realized their yogurt had a genuinely, promising future. The Josephs’ inadequate Little Falls, New York, facility was overwhelmed. So about this time Pete Meck, the husband of Tim’s sister, Julia, began committing time to this growing operation.

Pete moved into the farmhouse the end of 2009 by himself and by the following June, both he and Julia had picked up their New Jersey lives and headed north to join the struggling, family endeavor. Despite the force of family, the growing pains got worse. In order to evolve, Maple Hill Creamery had to recruit other grass farmers, as they are often called.

No easy task. Virtually all these farmers belong to a couple of organic dairy mega- cooperatives in the Northeast. To leave the security of a conglomerate for a singular, relatively unproven venture was not the way of the dairy world. The families eventually found a willing partner in Dharma Lea farm in Sharon Springs, which would later become their field agent enlisting additional farmers raising 100 percent grass-fed cows. By the end of 2015, Maple Hill Creamery will have 60 to 70 farms with 100 percent grass-fed cows signed on to help provide the milk needed for their yogurt production. (Dharma Lea farm is a designated learning hub of the Savory Institute, “which aims, as just one of its goals, to restore one-fifth of the grassland worldwide.”)

Even after going through a period of selling off anything they could to stay solvent, a considerably harder burden forced the Josephs and Mecks to make their biggest decision. Good news, bad news; the creamery needed a bigger production facility. An existing fluid milk bottling operation became available in Stuyvesant, New York (formerly Milk Thistle Organic Dairy which abruptly closed in 2011), and they went for it, not having a clue how to operate it. They all had each other’s support and they just kept right on going.

Maple Hill Creamery’s perseverance was rewarded as their product received further acclaim—and soon a renowned culinary group further down the Hudson would seek out their partnership.

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SAVORY CHARACTER

Blue Hill at Stone Barns had been working for a number of years perfecting its own yogurt from 100 percent grass-fed cows. Veering off in a different direction from the norm, their concept aimed to complement the seasonal flavor of yogurt from grass-fed dairy cows by adding vegetables rather than fruit to their product. Chef Dan Barber began the evolution at his Blue Hill restaurants by serving a dish, familiar and yet unconventional at the same time. Savory granola with beet yogurt. Patrons loved it.

Good thing it was so well received since there was a happy dilemma of Blue Hill Farm producing far more milk than the two restaurants (including the Manhattan outpost of Blue Hill) could possibly use for their in-house butter and coffee consumption. The Blue Hill group had considered crafting a cheese but acknowledged that the market was decidedly saturated. Seeing the yogurt’s success in the dining room, the Barber family recognized an enterprise that could be developed in line with their high standards.

Noticing a conspicuous yogurt gap in the dairy aisle, Dan along with his brother, David Barber, president and co-owner of Blue Hill, and Adam Kaye, vice president of culinary affairs at Blue Hill, worked together to formulate savory yogurts with the perfect balance, never allowing the dairy flavor to be overpowered by the vegetables.

With a love of nature imbued by youthful visits to their grandmother’s dairy farm in the Berkshire Hills, a farm they would eventually refurbish as adults, the Barber brothers have guided their food careers by the dictates of wholesomeness. “Know thy farmer™” has long been co-owners’ Dan, David and his wife, Laureen Barber’s mantra. When Blue Hill outgrew its own yogurt production capacity in 2014, David searched up and down the East Coast for a dairy facility. Though Maple Hill Creamery was by far the smallest facility that David interviewed for the position, he connected with Tim and knew the like-minded Maple Hill Creamery was the perfect choice to carry on their unique savory yogurt line.

Already growing many of their own vegetables at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, New York, and Blue Hill Farm in the Berkshires and supplemented by local organic farms, the team was spurred on to add parsnip, sweet potato, tomato, carrot and butternut squash to the array, as well as the original beet. The organic vegetables, harvested in the fall for the Blue Hill savory yogurts, are pureed and flash frozen to retain flavor, freshness and color; they are not defrosted until blended into the yogurt. According to David, most of the yogurts contain “north of 25 percent vegetable puree, some contain north of 30 percent.” Only the tomato yogurt contains less then 25 percent due to the acidity. This is a lot of vegetable-based nutrition in a yogurt market routinely plagued by excessive amounts of sugar and additives.

Presently, the Barbers are thinking about line extensions for their award-winning yogurts sold under the Blue Hill brand name. While Dan is creating copious seasonal variations in his haute kitchen, no definitive decision has been made for the next flavor addition. Since color is an integral part of the Blue Hill yogurt sensory experience, green vegetables that rendered up woeful shades of gray are not being seriously considered. Corn, on the other hand, is a leading contender, with drinkable yogurts also a possible new brand extension.

Today, with the inclusion of Blue Hill products as well as their own line, life at the ever industrious Maple Hill Creamery is looking up—though no less busy. The Josephs and the Mecks still do some hat switching, but mostly Pete runs yogurt operations, Julia does finance, Tim handles the farm and business end and Laura manages five kids plus helps with the website. Their Traditional Creamline yogurt, unique with its layer of non-homogenized cream on top, is now a national brand with six flavors. Additionally Maple Hill Creamery has five flavors of Greek yogurt and six flavors of drinkable yogurts.

They have 20 employees, some working remotely from distant states, but according to Laura, “They all came on board because they were dedicated fans of the creamery’s yogurt.” Nowadays, the Josephs and the Mecks are smiling more and even looking back laughing at some events on their journey. They plan on taking a deep breath and thinking about Maple Hill Creamery “2.0.” However, the basic tenet of producing a food that is “good and clean,” “yogurt first, flavor second” will never be revised. Success at the creamery is framed by the company (read: family) values and closely controlled production.

By struggling so long and having the utter conviction they were doing the right thing with their commitment to health and integrity, Tim, Laura, Pete and Julia have disseminated a multitude of ripples across the organic dairy world. Already the first national dairy brand to receive a 100 percent grass-fed certification from the Pennsylvania Certified Organic (a USDA-accredited organization), Maple Hill Creamery is going even further, working to create across-the-board regulations and transparency for a monitored label of 100 percent grass-fed. Presently, only beef has a bona fide 100 percent grass-fed certification from the USDA—dairy products are not yet encompassed.

Further innovation comes in the form of Maple Hill and Dharma Lea farms collaborating to enroll “transitional” organic dairy farms, offering time and instruction to dairy farmers currently feeding their herd grain but who are thinking about switching over to grass-fed. The conversion can be a process that takes years depending on the type of livestock and the mindset of the farmer. It is an ingenious program that allows farmers to maintain an income while coming over to the green side. By the end of this year, there should be 40 or more organic farms on board the transitional roster.

Having successfully formulated the front end of their yogurt process—“ no corn, no grain, just grass” the Josephs and Mecks are now concerning themselves with a back-end issue of their high-volume Greek (strained) yogurt production: the disposal of whey. Whey, which is the liquid by-product that comes from curdling and straining milk, is abundant in both yogurt and cheese production. Some dairy farmers elect to feed excess whey to pigs, but there is only so much whey the pig population can consume. A known contaminant in excess, whey is an environmental disposal headache. Dumped in water sources, acidic whey promotes algae growth, reducing oxygen in the water and thus suffocating the fish population. To help turn this destructive practice around to an advantage, Maple Hill Creamery has been supplying their whey to the City of Cortland. Combined with various other organic substances, the whey is processed in an anaerobic digester to produce methane gas. The gas, which is stabilized and rendered odorless in the digester, supplies electricity to the city.

Why can’t things remain simple?

Maybe the hills themselves hold a clue. A venerable Shaker hymn, once whispered across these Berkshire/Taconic hills and whose lyrics were later made famous by Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, opens with this thought:

“’Tis the gift to be simple; ’tis the gift to be free.”

The Josephs, Mecks and Barbers are giving that gift—a legacy of 100 percent uncompromised taste and health, delicious and free of harmful contaminants. However, the greater gift may be mirrored in the last line of the hymn:

“Till by turning, turning we come ’round right again.”

Maple Hill Creamery, Blue Hill Farm and all their local farmers have started to turn the world round right again to a pure, natural, grass-fed, chemical-free food system. Blade by blade. Ruminate on that.

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