Changing goals and reflections

29 Aug

This weekend in Indianapolis marks the halfway point of the Yogurt Pedaler trip. I’ve ridden about 400 miles, and I’ve visited two farms and two farmers markets. I’ve learned a lot, and the project has evolved in many ways.

One key lesson has been the real, inescapable prevalence of corn and soybeans to the agricultural – and physical – landscape of these two states. When this project was born, I had dreams of biking from farm to farm, learning about one farm from another and building my route as the days passed. Luckily, I decided to plan a little more – there really aren’t enough dairy farms to fly by the seat of my pants and make any real progress – but I keep finding out about great people and places a day or two after I visit them. And I’m certainly still building my route as the days pass.

Another key discovery has been that milk and yogurt are really heavy. As are a big glass jar, ice, and a cooler. Halfway through week two, after a couple of days of incessant headwinds, I seriously considered leaving my yogurt-making supplies in Indy and continuing on my way purely as a documentarian and yogurt ambassador. I was forbidden to give tastes of my yogurt to curious passersby at markets in both Urbana and Indianapolis – as the law states, to be fair – but it’s frustrating to make a big jar of yogurt and only be able to point to it when people wonder how it turns out, then toss it down the drain after hauling it around all weekend.

But the essential missions of the Yogurt Pedaler have also become much clearer to me on the road. The project is about getting people excited about making things, and it’s hard to do that if I am not even making yogurt. Sure, it’s about visiting the farms, but it’s also about getting to know the farmers and the animals and the products that are produced. I’ve tasted Kilgus ice cream, and I’ve tasted Traderspoint ice cream, and they are two completely different products from two completely different farms.

I’m sure I’ll visit even more diverse farms – but even visiting these two has made me ask lots of questions about the missions of these “sustainable” dairies, whether third generation and newly grass-fed like Kilgus, or new organic farms with missions that far surpass producing dairy products, like Traderspoint.

Kilgus is a third generation farm, but only recently did they refocus their market to the grass-fed, bottled-on-site niche. They’ve always been a responsible dairy, but this change in marketing has meant their survival, now that restaurants and speciality shops in Chicago are drawn to their product for its unique appeal.

Traderspoint, on the other hand, was founded in 2003 by a couple whose background and startup capital are found far from dairy farming. Their operation is beautiful, their herd of Brown Swiss is attractive and healthy, and their farm is bustling with activity from visitors to the farm, customers at the shop, and diners at their restaurant. Their marketing is so successful, spreading demand for “Fresh. Simple. Organic.” dairy nationwide, that they’ve had to bring in milk from other organic, grass-fed dairies to produce enough product to sell. They’ve done wonders for the organic movement, which I support and am frustrated by in equal measure.

The inescapable fact of the comparison I have just described is that the economic position of Traderspoint’s owners (they inherited the land, he is a plastic surgeon) allows more publicity and a greater reach of the message and products from grass-fed, sustainable, healthy food. But what are the real advantages of marketing over a family farm like Kilgus, with deep roots in the community, and with wisdom and a connection to the land and a way of life that is truly entrenched in the region’s economies and social networks? Would Kilgus be aided by investment in marketing to the higher-profile niche to which Traderspoint’s customers largely belong? Or by going organic? Or would they lose a valuable local connection, one that they have relied on and which has supported the dairy for decades?

As I ate lunch before leaving Traderspoint on Friday, I overheard Fritz Coons, one of the owners, say to a potential product supplier that their desire was to “express the brand through glass.” This gets at the essential difference I’ve been expressing here – through words and pictures – and I’ve become comfortable with the two dairies in their own ways and niches. I am attracted to Kilgus’ community connection at such a heartwarming level, and I truly believe it’s important to furthering American culture’s agricultural foundations. But I’m also convinced that what Traderspoint is doing to advance the “Organic” movement in this country, while I’m incredibly frustrated by its class limitations, is important to creating healthier and more balanced food systems. There is no perfect dairy, and I hope I continue to discover diverse models in the coming weeks, but these two welcoming places have provided me with plenty of calcium-rich food for thought.

One Response to “Changing goals and reflections”

  1. Craig November 16, 2010 at 7:27 pm #

    Hi Annie,

    I have visited your site a few times, and have thought about commenting on this post a few times, but am just now finding the time.

    I work for Traders Point, and I think we met at the Family Farmed Expo last spring. I am so glad you made your trip this fall, and I am sorry I didn’t get to meet you while you were at our farm.

    I just wanted to clarify some points you made regarding the comparison between us and Kilgus. I understand why you perceive some things the way you do, but I think you are misunderstanding how Traders Point came to be, and its underlying motivations for the way our product is produced, packaged, and “marketed.”

    First, to address the marketing, there really is no such thing here at Traders Point. We do not have a marketing budget, do not have commercials, ads, nationwide campaigns, coupons, sales, or anything of that sort. Our success has been SOLELY the responsibility of people like you who believe in local, organic, healthful, tasteful products. When our owners began this project they didn’t envision this outcome in any way, but it has been because their products are so good, and their mission so true that they have had this “success.” WHole Foods came to them asking to carrying the product, with no provocation. the same goes for almost all of our retailers. Marketing is not needed when you make a product like ours – it sells itself.

    I also wanted to discuss your irritation with our class limitations because of the price of our product. Please understand that we do not charge anything more than the TRUE COST of our products. We are 100% grassfed, which takes a significant percentage out of a normal cows daily production. Even a handful of grain does wonders for milk production, but does equal damage to the quality of the milk and the cows health. A lot of farms feed a lot of grass to their cows – but VERY few only feed grass/hay like us.

    As far as the glass bottles that you overheard Fritz referring to. Our owners believe in glass packaging because it helps preserve the quality/taste of the milk, the ability to recycle the glass, but mostly they believe in glass because of the various arguments regarding plastic or cardboard containers leaching chemicals into our bodies. It is not an image thing, it is a quality/health/environment thing. Our brand is recognized and appreciated for our glass packing now, and we absolutely believe in its benefits.

    Our products are expensive, but offering our customers the healthiest products on the market comes at a price. We are not making expensive dairy products with the goal of having a high end niche, and we have been endlessly grateful that so many people share our values and feel our milk is worth it. Our customers are a true cross-section of people from different income levels, backgrounds, ages, political leanings, religious affiliations etc.

    Traders Point Creamery has a fantastic connection with its own community and the Kunz’s have been a part of that community for many, many years. Just because land is inherited and there is some start up capital doesn’t make any of what they have done easy, to be sure. The list of struggles and stumbles is a mile long, and I have nothing but admiration for them for continuing to stand strong on their beliefs and commitment to health above all else.

    I hope this helps clarify your thoughts/opinions on Traders Point, and please feel free to contact me to discuss this in more detail. Keep up the yogurt making, in the mean time!

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