Sustainability Series: Maple Hill Creamery
February 12, 2015
Maple Hill Creamery is a family-owned dairy manufacturer founded in 2009 with the desire to make healthy yogurt, using 100 percent organic milk from 100 percent grass-fed cows. Maple Hill Creamery products are available nationwide at Kroger, Sprouts, Stop & Shop, Vitamin Cottage, Wegmans, and Whole Foods Market, as well as at many independent retailers. We talked to Paul and Phyllis VanAmburgh, owners of Dharma Lea farm in Sharon Springs, NY, Tim Joseph, owner of Maple Hill Creamery in Stuyvesant, NY, and Sara Talcott, Director of Marketing and Communications for Maple Hill Creamery about the importance of creating food for the ultimate health of the planet.
How does your business define sustainability?
At Maple Hill Creamery, it’s all about how the milk is made. We define sustainability via our long-held commitment to producing certified organic, third-party certified 100 percent grass-fed dairy products. 100 percent grass-fed dairy production is an approach to dairy farming that inherently supports four spheres of sustainability:
Animal Welfare and Longevity
We believe – and science shows – that 100 percent grass-fed dairy cows lead longer, healthier, and happier lives than their grain-fed counterparts.
Cows are ruminants, meaning they have a uniquely evolved digestive system (the rumen) to efficiently turn low-carbohydrate, high-fiber food (grass) into protein (meat and milk). We feed our cows only grass in the spring, summer, and fall, and stored hay in the winter because we believe it is the best diet for their overall health and longevity, compared to grain-based feeding.
Additionally, 100 percent grass-fed cows experience an excellent quality of life, spending the majority of their days grazing in lush pastures (rather than dwelling mostly in barns) and enjoy fresh air, sunshine, and cooling rains; and have ample room to wander, play, rest, and socialize.
Carbon Reduction and Soil Management
We’re exempt from the large carbon footprint that precedes feeding grain or corn to dairy cows. Huge amounts of resources are used to grow, fertilize, harvest, process, package, store, sell, and ship grain to farms to feed dairy cows, even in organic dairies.
Rather, our farms’ method of “Holistic Planned Grazing” focuses on moving the cows – often several times per day – through pastures with the best grasses for them, so they can stay healthy, strong, and make high quality milk. This method prevents overgrazing, captures more rainwater for healthy water tables, and puts carbon back into the soil while increasing grass production. Additionally, the health and fertility of grazing lands is vastly improved by building topsoil. What does this mean? According to Tony Lovell, prominent Holistic Grazing Practitioner, increasing organic matter by one percent at 30 cm deep per 2.5 acres, 100 tons of carbon dioxide is sequestered. On a global level, this means that the 86 million acres of grazing land could offset 12 years of global carbon emissions, much of it caused by carbon-releasing tillage agriculture, which loses nine pounds of topsoil for every pound of food produced.
The data on how quickly we are building topsoil with regenerative methods varies greatly, however, it is obvious that we have not only arrested the loss of topsoil but we are building it on our grazing farms. We look forward to using the data collected through ecological monitoring methods at Maple Hill Creamery farms to demonstrate that our type of farming not only produces amazing food but also generates ecological wealth at the same time.
Stability and Prosperity For Farmers
Our farmers don’t buy grain and corn for feeding their cows, and therefore are not at the mercy of these fluctuating commodities markets. In addition, many of their farming methods replace pricey capital equipment reducing potential debt load. The exploding consumer demand for 100 percent grass-fed organic milk and dairy products means we are able to pay our farmers a much higher, static price for their milk than conventional or even large organic dairy producers. Many of our farms report greatly improved financial stability, including being able to not only clear debt, but make improvements to their farms and invest for their families’ futures.
Additionally, we are rebuilding a return to the profession of dairy farming. The average age of the American farmer is 62 years old, and the industry is losing farmers at an unsustainable rate. Our higher pay price for milk is attracting young farmers. Of our current 30 farms, the average age is 39 years old – truly a remarkable change, and we are proud to be working with these dynamic young farmers.
Whole Milk Dairy Products With Health Benefits
One hundred percent grass-fed cows literally make healthier milk. Maple Hill Creamery’s milk has more (2x) “healthy” fats than conventional milk, including total omega-3 fats, alpha-linoleic acid (ALA), and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). In addition, our milk has a more favorable ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fats. As the low-fat mantra of the last few decades dwindles, more consumers are seeking out whole milk dairy products, and the ones who choose 100 percent grass-fed varieties will reap the long-term health benefits of these good dietary fats.
How are you incorporating sustainable practices into your business?
While producing 100 percent grass-fed milk is central to our sustainability efforts, we are also cognizant of our production practices as we grow. For example, the whey by-product from our newly launched Greek yogurt will be used by the city of Cortland, NY in an anaerobic digest to generate electricity for the town.
What are your short term and long term goals?
For the near future, we plan to focus on adding existing 100 percent grass-fed organic dairies to the Maple Hill Creamery family and transitioning other organic pasture-based farms to 100 percent grass.
Longer term, we are planning continuing farmer education so that all of our farms can best manage their herds and practices to ensure long-term return and growth for their farms. We will also leverage our close relationship with the Northeast Savory Institute affiliate, The Agrarian Learning Center, incentivizing farming practices that place a high value on quality produce, animal welfare practices, soil health, carbon sequestration and water quality.
Where do you think you’ll have the biggest impact?
Our biggest impact may actually be on these small farms: helping to create more fertility, health and prosperity. The ripple effect in small communities around the farms is widely understood.
How do you measure your progress?
Using tried and true biological, ecological and financial monitoring methods, we will create information that will inform our consumers and help our farmers manage for better outcomes.
How do retailers factor into your efforts?
Savvy retailers – both natural and conventional – are now enthusiastically embracing 100 percent grass-fed and pasture-based dairy brands, allowing us to continue to grow and add farms. Many natural channel retailers have committed to stocking only pasture-based dairy brands, educating their shoppers by raising awareness of the environmental issues of conventional dairy farming and the benefits of pasture-based dairy. We strive to educate all of our retailers on the enormous environmental benefits of 100 percent grass-fed dairy production, and while “grass-fed” is one of the grocery industry’s “hot” trends, we believe it will become a permanent, recognized segment.
Why are sustainable business practices important to the food industry?
As food producers, we should embrace our responsibility to not only create food for the short term profit, but for the ultimate health of the planet, people, and animals. Consumer confidence in food manufacturers’ standards and production practices has abated despite “health halo” messaging. Developing transparency around production practices is now at the core of many business models. As more companies produce food in a sustainable, responsible manner, this can do much to restore this lost consumer confidence.
Why are sustainable business practices important to the consumer?
Consumers are now voting with their wallets; they understand that how they choose to spend their dollars on certain products vs. others may have a long-term impact on sustainability.