By Sherry Bunting, reprinted from Farmshine March 21, 2014
HAGERSTOWN, Md. – “Every day we reach new milestones, and today is one of them,” said Tom Francis, production manager and VIP / media tour-guide Tuesday, March 18 at the dairy plant where Shenandoah Family Farms Brand milk and cream products are made.
The 142,000 square foot facility in Hagerstown, Maryland was idled by Unilever in 2012, then purchased in August 2013 by Valley Pride LLC, a dairy business owned by 21 dairy farmers from the Shenandoah Valley region of Virginia. This purchase, and the separate formation of Shenandoah Family Farms Cooperative, grew from seeds planted during a 2012 meeting of the five original board members at the Thomas House restaurant in Harrisonburg, Virginia.
“We are excited to be here and look forward to moving forward,” said Randy Inman during Tuesday’s pre-tour press conference. Inman, a Harrisonburg, Virginia dairy producer, serves as vice president of Valley Pride LLC and Shenandoah Family Farms Cooperative.
Over the past 18 months, they have developed a media and social media presence as they prepared for the startup of milk and cream bottling operations at the renovated plant February 24. Soft-serve ice cream mix production began last week, and hard ice cream production will begin after new equipment arrives in April.
To this point, Shenandoah Family Farms has used social media to bring farm families, farm life, farm children — even farm calves, cows, cats and dogs — right to the computers and smart-phones of thousands of customers. Brilliant photography of life on the farm and scenes of the beautiful Shenandoah Valley bring a nostalgic feel to the marketing of natural dairy products prized for their quality, flavor and wholesomeness.
“Our web presence will grow in the next three weeks with the launch of a new website with store locators and profiles of our farmers and staff,” said Shenandoah Family Farms marketing director Jennifer Churchman.
The plant is currently just scratching the surface of the demand and production capacity. The equipment has the capability of bottling 32 gallons of milk per minute, and the largest single-day of production they had since Feb. 24 was 6000 gallons. But Francis said this can be doubled with more shifts, workers and equipment as the demand grows.
To-date, Shenandoah Family Farms milk goes to 170 retail and restaurant establishments along the Route 81 corridor from Shenandoah Family Farm Cooperative’s home base in Harrisonburg, Virginia, through the plant location in Hagerstown, Maryland, and north and west into West Virginia and the Waynesboro and Greencastle areas of Pennsylvania.
“We’re adding 5 to 10 new customers per day,” Churchman confirmed, explaining how end-consumers can fill out product request forms at shenandoahfamilyfarms.com and take them to the stores and restaurants they patronize. The product-request forms have also been the key in developing initial leads for the sales team.
“The more requests that are submitted, the easier it is to get our product on the shelves,” aaid Inman. He noted they are close to getting their products into the local Walmarts.
“We are beginning to reach out to the Washington, D.C., area, and getting a lot of interest there,” said plant manager Fred Rodes, who has 25 years of experience working for three creameries after jumping the fence from dairy farming to dairy manufacturing in 1988 for health reasons. Rodes also said they would be open to doing private label work, but are focused right now on working directly with customers and through distributors to build their brand.
Hagerstown Mayor David Gysberts and other local city and county officials were on-hand Tuesday showing their enthusiasm for the plant’s re-start. “We are happy to see the Virginia farmers bring jobs back to our region,” said Gysberts. One-third of the 44 full time and 4 part time employees worked at the Hagerstown plant under its previous owner, Unilever, which employeed 400 at its peak before idling the plant in 2012.
“The more the community supports Shenandoah Family Farms products, the more products we can make, and the more jobs we can create here,” said Inman. “It’s a snowball effect.”
He explained that Shenandoah Family Farms products come from a small group of farms. Right now that is 21 farms average 130 milk cows per farm.
“The close proximity of our dairy farmers to our market will give customers assurance of fresh dairy products,” added Inman. “We are focused on high quality milk production and the assurance of best management practices for environmental sustainability, heritage farming practices, humane animal care, involvement in our community and involving our customers in our decisions as we grow.”
Inman said the primary goal of this enterprise is to preserve small family farms for generations to come. “We saw this as a way to take some control of our product by building a relationship with our end-consumers and taking our milk from the farm to the consumer, and to see our farmers rewarded for their high quality production with a steady milk price.”
The investment runs deep here – beyond dollars. Inman explained that the farmers and staff “worked hands-on and side-by-side” to upgrade and renovate the facility over the past six months. USDA loan-guarantees helped the group of farmers get the financing to not only purchase but also upgrade the plant and build awareness for their brand.
The facility’s milk silos, large conveyors, pasteurizer, existing ice cream equipment, coolers, and in-wall freezers were all part of the plant purchase. The owners purchased a separator, homogenizer, bottling equipment and new ice cream manufacturing equipment as well as upgrading computers, software and the ability to track milk from farm-to-store. They also upgraded the coolers and chillers and adding other conveyor capabilities throughout the plant.
“We’ve had some delays with equipment arriving and the challenges you would expect with a project like this, but we’re ready. The word is getting out about our products, and the support from the local communities has been quite encouraging,” Inman said, adding that he’s impressed with how his fellow farmers and the plant staff have worked together.
“I’m amazed by the super commitment of the farmers, and their families, to get this up and going, and by our staff as we’ve worked together,” he said.
To be bottling the Shenandoah Family Farms milk and on the verge of beginning ice cream production was described as “overwhelming” by board member and producer Dennis Trissel. “In any business like this, you always hope to put in place what’s necessary to get the product marketed,” he said. “Our farmers know how to make high quality milk and our plant managers know how to make quality products…”
Now the ball rolls into the consumer domain through product purchases and requests where they shop.
“Our store customers need to see that we are capable of being here five years and forward,” said Rodes. “We have good staff and a lot of experience. I grew up on a dairy farm and I enjoy the challenges of running a creamery. I’m willing to work hard for these guys (the farmers) because I know they care about putting out a quality product. Now the rubber meets the road in sales.”
For the sales force Lyndon Jonson and Rich Muldoon, that’s a challenge they are meeting daily – “hitting the road and knocking on doors.”
“The most rewarding thing for me is getting a new account, that’s my high-point,” said Johnson, a former truck driver who is part of the Shenandoah Family Farms sales force.
When hard ice cream production begins next month, the plant will roll out vanilla, chocolate and strawberry and begin adding flavors with 11 flavors planned at this time. They will concentrate on volume packages for grocers and soft-serve mixes for restaurants before adding a line of other types of ice cream products.
“For the most part, our awareness building is getting farmers face-to-face with the end consumers,” Churchman explained how ‘engagement marketing’ is being utilized. “We will utilize all avenues such as radio, television and print advertising, but we are also sponsoring many local events and will have our farmers and staff there. They are important members of their communities and we want them right there with our customers so the customers can be part of how we grow our company.”
The 21 family farm members of Shenandoah Family Farms are all located within a 10-mile radius of Harrisonburg, Virginia. Currently three farms’ milk is going to the plant. Once all 21 farms’ milk is being utilized by the plant, another 12 producers are on-board to be added.
Churchman said they are using “test-market-moms” as an advisory group of moms and families to advise, test, and decide what to put out. “They can use their social media circles to gain additional feedback for us,” she said.
Ice cream lead Charles Evans is glad to be back to work at the plant under the new ownership. Asked what makes the Shenandoah Family Farms ice cream products stand-out in the marketplace, Evans said “the recipe. It was developed by the farmers and Fred Rodes our plant manager. It’s higher in butterfat content, making it rich and thick. Everyone who tasted our soft-serve today enjoyed it and we’re getting very positive feedback from customers.”
Rodes also stressed that the Shenandoah Family Farms ice cream (both soft-serve and hard) is 100% natural and contains no additives. “That’s kind of rare these days,” he said.
Inman said Shenandoah Family Farms is working with other cooperatives on milk supply balancing and they are working with other processing cooperatives and suppliers to combine additional products for their distribution contracts — including cottage cheese, sour cream and yogurt, as well as the full line of Turkey Hill teas.
Micah Showalter, 2, is tasting Shenandoah Family Farms soft serve ice cream with brother Adrian, 8, and sisters Emily, 9, and Erica, 6. Micah and his puppy are the stars of the Shenandoah Family Farms Whole Chocolate Milk label, shown here in poster size (left) on the wall above him, and all four children with a newborn calf at the Showalter family’s Sun Dial Farm-2 are subjects of the Whole Milk label, shown here in poster-size above them (right). The Showalters are among the 21 farmers in a 10 mile radius of Harrisonburg, Virginia, who purchased and renovated the former Unilever ice cream plant in Hagerstown, Maryland. They started bottling Shenandoah Family Farms Brand fluid milk and cream products at the plant on February 24. They began making vanilla soft serve ice cream mix this week and will soon be doing chocolate. Hard ice cream production begins in April with vanilla, chocolate and strawberry and will expand to 11 flavors over the next several months. Photo by Sherry Bunting
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Shenandoah Family Farms milk and chocolate milk were served with homemade cookies at the tour of the creamery Tuesday. Photo by Sherry Bunting
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After Unilever idled the 142,000 square foot Hagerstown, Md. plant in the fall of 2012, it was purchased last August by Valley Pride LLC, a dairy business owned by 21 dairy farmers from the Shenandoah Valley region of Virginia. In addition to updating the ice cream manufacturing equipment, they have invested in milk bottling, which started February 24. Photo by Sherry Bunting
Owen Trissel is “over-the-moon” with excitement as he suits-up for the plant tour with his parents Cory and Charity. Owen, 9, and his brother Ian, 4, are the stars of the 2% milk label. One of the features of the Shenandoah Family Farms brand is to engage consumers in farm life through brilliant photography and larger labels. Photo by Sherry Bunting
Production manager Tom Francis served as tour-guide Tuesday. He said hard ice cream production begins in April. The Shenandoah Family Farms brand offers chocolate milk is offered in whole milk variety, and ice cream is a higher butterfat, simple recipe made with 100% natural ingredients. Photo by Sherry Bunting
Dairy producers Dennis Trissel (right) and Randy Inman are two of the original five who met in 2012 at the Thomas House restaurant, Harrisonburg, Va., forming Shenandoah Family Farms Cooperative and planting the idea-seed for taking their milk straight from farms to consumers. They are pictured with Shenandoah Family Farms marketing director Jennifer Churchman who says “engagement marketing” is the hallmark of their campaign and plant manager Fred Rodes (left), who grew up on a dairy farm, then spent the past 25 years on the other side of the fence in the creamery world. He loves working with people, building teams, tackling challenges and tinkering with ice cream recipes. Photo by Sherry Bunting
Shenandoah Family Farms Cooperative vice president Randy Inman welcomed media and Hagerstown, Md. officials to the grand re-opening tour of the plant purchased by the investment of 21 members of the Valley Pride LLC, where Shenandoah Family Farms Brand milk is bottled and made into ice cream. Photo by Sherry Bunting
Hagerstown Mayor Dave Gysberts and Council member Don Munson were among the 35 suiting-up for Tuesday’s tour of the Shenandoah Family Farms dairy manufacturing facility. They are all smiles as 44 jobs have returned to the site of the former Unilever ice cream plant that once employed 400 people. Now owned and renovated by 21 dairy producers from northern Virginia, the plant began bottling milk last month, started making soft-serve ice cream mix this week and will be ramping up hard ice cream production as early as mid-April. Photo courtesy of the City of Hagerstown.
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The 142,000 square-foot plant has been updated to make Shenandoah Family Farms ice cream and fluid milk and cream products. Photo by Sherry Bunting
“Want to see where your milk goes?” That was all the encouragement these children needed to check out the conveyor taking crates of bottled Shenandoah Family Farms milk to the cooler where it was being loaded for delivery to 170 retail and restaurant customers — with 5 to 10 new customers being added daily.
A year of awareness-building through Facebook and other media brought daily photos of farm children, farm life, and farm calves, cows, dogs and cats right to the computers and mobile phones of thousands of consumers. Photo by Sherry Bunting
Charles Evans is the ice cream lead for Shenandoah Family Farms. He served the soft-style ice cream to local officials and media Tuesday. (I must say it was tasty!) Photo by Sherry Bunting