Win, win and win: Turning tough challenges into abundant goodness

Philabundance partners with local dairy farms to bring Abundantly Good dairy foods to those in need.

By Sherry Bunting as published in July 20 Farmshine

PEACH BOTTOM, Pa. — Great ideas often come wrapped in tough challenges.

For Lancaster County dairy farms and Philabundance — the Delaware Valley’s largest hunger relief organization with a 30-year history of rescuing and upcycling food — the urban and rural challenges of hunger, food waste and price-depressing surpluses have converged under the new ‘Abundantly Good’ business model and brand.

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The folks at Philabundance are enthusiastic about working with Lancaster County dairy farms, like Cedar Dream(pictured) near Peach Bottom.

It’s mid-morning in July, and the day’s first milking and chores are done at Cedar Dream Farm. The 53 registered Holstein cows on this southern Lancaster County dairy farm lay comfortably chewing cud in the fan-cooled tiestall barn.

They will be turned out to pasture in the cooler overnight temperatures after the evening milking. Tended by Abner Stoltzfus, his wife Rebecca and the older of their eight children, the herd produces an RHA of 24,000M 3.9F 3.3P with somatic cell counts between 100 and 130,000. Their cleanliness and comfort tell the story.

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Next to the spotless and kosher-approved processing room, the chiller holds not only finished products but also clean, bright white pails of fruit puree for yogurts. I was attracted to the in-season black raspberry!

Before looking in again on the cows and heading to the fields, Stoltzfus takes time to show me the dairy processing room and the chiller full of consumer-ready milk and yogurt in the small creamery built a little over a year ago on the farm.

He offers a pint of the strawberry drinkable yogurt. Creamy, with just the tiniest hint of color from the strawberry puree. It had all the farm-fresh flavor I was thirsting for. Yum.

We talk about how co-packing for Philabundance and Sunset Farms helped launch the Cedar Dream creamery last spring.

What began for Philabundance in the past few years — utilizing PASS (PA Ag Surplus System) funds from the Pa. Department of Agriculture to reclaim surplus milk and pay the processing, packaging and transportation to turn it into cheese — is now expanding with the funding from the new retail brand, according to Monika Crosby, assistant manager of food acquisition for Philabundance.

To increase their reach, Philabundance launched the Abundantly Good brand a year ago, focusing primarily on specialty cheeses. For each pound of cheese sold through retail partners, $1.00 is returned — totaling over $9,000 so far — to buy even more surplus milk to make even more cheese, and now yogurt, for the food banks, soup kitchens, Fresh For All farm markets for eligible families, and other Philabundance clients and programs.

Crosby shares her concern about the 40% of food that is wasted yearly in the U.S., while 1 in 5 Philadelphians don’t know where their next meal is coming from.

She grew up the daughter of a dairy farmer in the New York Finger Lakes Region. When her father met Amos Zimmerman of Dairy Pricing Association during a meeting in New York, the connection between Philabundance and Lancaster County dairy farms followed.

“There is an overabundance of perfectly good milk, and yet so much of it has to be thrown out. So, we developed a business plan with Sunset Farms to utilize surplus milk to create cheese and yogurt,” Crosby says, explaining that the surplus milk goes to Sunset Farms in Ronks for cheesemaking and butter. Excess skim from butter-making goes to Cedar Dream.

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Abner Stoltzfus figures he’s made 8,000 pints of drinkable yogurt, with over half of it vanilla flavored, using surplus skim milk for Philabundance, and half from his farm’s own milk as Cedar Dream strawberry flavored drinkable yogurt (left) for the retailers selling Cedar Dream whole milk and whole chocolate milk (right). He also does other sizes, including 6-oz. bottles of milk and drinkable yogurt as well as cup-yogurt.

At Cedar Dream, the skim milk is heated to 108 degrees in the new vat pasteurizer. Yogurt cultures are added, and 12 hours later, flavoring is added. The process turns a pound of surplus skim milk into a pint of nutritious, full-bodied and flavorful drinkable yogurt — with nearly 4000 pints of vanilla made for Philabundance families since April.

This journey really began in the spring of 2017, when Philabundance used PASS funds to help divert 12 loads of surplus milk destined to be dumped. Local cheesemakers turned this into 66,000 pounds of natural, high-quality cheese for hungry Pennsylvanians, according to Crosby.

From that experience, the idea for the Abundantly Good brand was born during collaborations between Philabundance and its partners, including the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank and Chester County Food Bank, as well as the Pennsylvania dairy industry.

“We saw the great need for more high-quality dairy products… and decided to develop the Abundantly Good program to help fund our purchases of more dairy products for our community,” says Crosby.

The Abundantly Good specialty cheeses are sold to retailers like Di Bruno Brothers, Riverwards Produce, The Common Market and Third Wheel Cheese Co.

“We jumped at the chance to partner with Philabundance by selling Abundantly Good cheese, as it gave us the chance to sell something that tastes good and does good at the same time,” said Emilio Mignucci, vice president of Di Bruno Bros. in a press release. The specialty food retailer piloted the concept by carrying five varieties.

As they saw success with cheese, Philabundance went back to their farmers and learned there was excess skim milk from butter production.

“We determined that yogurt would be both delicious and nutritious for our families in need,” Crosby adds.

Stoltzfus says most of what his creamery does right now is co-packing for Philabundance, Chester County Food Bank and Sunset Farms. But he also brings a bit of his own herd’s milk in to package whole milk, whole chocolate milk, cup yogurt and drinkable yogurt under the Cedar Dream brand.

“They say it takes a full year to get started into on-farm processing. That’s about right,” says Stoltzfus, thankful for the opportunity to co-pack while he begins developing and marketing his own products. They are seeing a slow and steady increase by word of mouth in a few small local markets like the Solanco Market and East Drumore Foods.

“I want to provide consumers with a local Pennsylvania dairy product, fresh off the farm, and be happy with the product I produce,” he explains, emphasizing that this is not something that happens overnight. “I knew to be careful and not get too aggressive too fast. I want to take one step at a time, so I don’t fall.”

A former board member of Dairy Pricing Association, Stoltzfus understands the double-challenge of dairy excess pressuring farm milk prices and the plight of food-insecure families, so he was more than happy to do something that is beneficial for others.

“We have the facility to do this and are gladly doing it,” he says. “I figured we’d be focusing more on cup yogurt, but after sitting down with Philabundance, we started making the drinkable yogurt, and they seemed to really like that.”

Set up to bottle 400 to 500 pints per hour, he does about 500 to 600 pints per week with some weeks up to 3000 pints, but it’s the prep and everything else associated with having a creamery that takes time.

“I see the way things are going, the uncertainty, and I knew we better figure something out to keep us going,” he reflects.

While he likes being involved on the processing side, and sees more people exploring this option to help save smaller family farms, he’s quick to point out: “It does take some attention away from the farm and the cows.”

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Copacking helps Cedar Dream creamery get established

He knows he needs to balance his time and growth, even though he’d love to take milk from every dairy farm that has contacted him as new market uncertainties emerge in his community, not just for independent producers, but also co-op members around how Sunday milk pickups are handled.

“I would love to say yes to everyone, but I am just getting started,” says Stoltzfus. “I can’t grow too fast ahead of myself. Getting established is very important.”

He is grateful to those who are helping along the way, including his lender, Ephrata National Bank, for seeing the vision in the creamery investment.

For Philabundance, it’s dairies like Sunset Farms and Cedar Dream that are a big part of the triple-bottom-line they seek with the Abundantly Good brand, according to Elizabeth Sanon, assistant procurement manager.

“This project has enabled us to provide quality dairy products that far surpass anything we’ve been able to offer to our families previously,” she says. “We are not only combating the need for better access to healthier foods… but are reducing unnecessary waste of agricultural products and creating an innovative new revenue stream for local farmers.”

Under the farmer-mantra of ‘leaving this place better than we found it,’ Sanon says that while the U.S. continues to lose family farms at a rapid rate, the number of food-insecure people continues to rise. “With Abundantly Good, we are able to create solutions within the community to address these problems.”

The hope is for the Abundantly Good brand to continue to grow in retailers and product lines to ultimately fund the free distribution of dairy products to those in need on a year-round basis.

To learn more about Philabundance, including its Fresh for All program and the Uplift and Upcycle partnerships, visit https://www.philabundance.org  or contact Kait Bowdler, deputy director of sustainability at sustainability@philabundance.org.

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Abner and Rebecca Stoltzfus and their children milk and care for 53 registered Holstein cows and their replacement heifers. Cows spend the hot days in the fan-cooled tiestall barn and are on pasture in the cooler temperatures after the evening milking. They produce a 24,000-pound herd average with 3.9 fat, 3.3 protein.

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