By Sherry Bunting (updated since originally published in Farmshine in 2018)
LORETTO, Pa. — Take a step back to a simpler time. A time when dairy farmers were looked up to, not questioned. A time when the milkman delivered fresh dairy milk to the metal ice box on the doorstep. A time when milk’s good name was upheld. When milk was milk.
A visit to Vale Wood Farms, Loretto, Cambria County, Pennsylvania, is in some ways a step back in time, but it is also a bold look into the future — one that delivers fresh, local, real milk and dairy to consumers. One that develops farm-to-consumer relationships as everything old becomes new again.
It’s not easy to corral a few of the third and fourth generations of the Itle family as they go about their work here. Getting them to drop what they’re doing for a group photo? Forget about it. Everyone’s busy with three separate businesses under one sign. And they’re not keen on drawing attention to themselves, but rather draw attention to milk and dairy.
Converging trends shape their market, and consumer connections are critical. (For example, today, two years since this article was first published, people have rediscovered whole milk and cream and since the Coronavirus pandemic, local foods and home delivery are a trend.)
But in the overall dairy industry, there is a growing number of competing beverages marketing outside the lines of real milk’s FDA standard of identity — introducing a growing surge of competing imitations into the dairy case.
In these challenging times, many dairy farmers consider on-farm processing. Carissa Itle Westrick, director of business development at Vale Wood Farms, acknowledges the risk and insecurity of this business that relies on building consumer and community relationships.
She points out that in some of their sales – wholesale and institutional – they, too, are price takers.
“My great great grandfather (C.A. Itle) was grappling with difficult economic choices in 1933 when he hitched up his horse and wagon and went to town,” Carissa relates.
Today, the Itles have a window into seeing how milk production levels in excess of demand impact profits throughout the supply-chain.
In the dairy sector, we often hear the experts and consultants drive home the point that ‘the next pound of milk is the most profitable milk on the farm.’
“Our economics are different,” Carissa points out. “That next pound of milk is not necessarily the most profitable. If we can’t sell that next pound of milk, then making it means we just made less profit on all the milk. For us, that approach doesn’t make sense.”
What does make sense is adding processing efficiencies and capitalizing on consumer trends, while helping to shape them.
“We have to make sure what we do fits today’s families,” Carissa notes. “We are small enough to be fairly nimble, which is so important to our business model.” For example, customers can sign up and manage their home-delivery online.
Technology-driven, home-delivery — Valewood-style — still comes with a personal touch. Of their 50 employees, five are drivers.
“Our drivers cater to our customers. They might even be asked to let the cat out or pet the dog or put the product right in the fridge,” she says with a smile. “We are hyper-local, and it’s not just a selling point for us. We shake hands with whose buying our milk.”
Meanwhile, connecting consumer dots is very much a family affair as events like the mid-July Pasture Party draw in large numbers from the community and those members of the Itle family not involved daily in the business. They bring their friends and tell their neighbors.
“When people come to an event here and go on the crazy hay wagon ride, it’s us on that wagon. It’s my uncle Dan on that wagon,” she says. “That’s our one-on-one time to tell about our cows and how they are cared for. We focus our education on how much attention we pay to the cows. They are our livelihood, and we depend on them. The effort, time, energy and emotion we put into keeping them healthy and comfortable – that’s what we want people to understand.”
The nearby schools also bring classes to connect with the farm providing their milk. In fact, Carissa’s aunt, Jan Itle, developed the “Moo to You” formal school tour program that began with five teachers and today works with nearly 75 teachers and reaches up to 5000 students annually, in addition to the other community events hosted at the farm.
Jan was recognized as 2017 Pennsylvania Dairy Innovator of the Year. Her good-natured humor is evident when she talks about working with seven brothers. And she is enthusiastic about hosting school tours.
“Give back to the community at all times,” is something Jan says they learned from their parents.
For her generation growing up, the Itle house was the gathering place, Jan recalls. “Our house was like a train station, and we still extend that invitation to the community today — to come and see what we do and share our passion.”
As the public becomes more generations removed from farm life, and the dairy disconnect grows, the Itles are doing all they can to reconnect. That helps their business model and the dairy industry as a whole.
The Itle family has seen it all in their farm-to-consumer business at Vale Wood Farms. The land on which the farm and processing plant sit today has been in the family since 1841, and while they’ve been processing and home-delivering milk and dairy products since 1933, “we are still addicted to our cow habit,” says Carissa.
Carissa is one of six fourth-generation family members working full-time here. Her father Bill is one of eight third-generation siblings involved full-time, plus another involved to some degree with a career as a veterinarian.
As company president, Bill manages the processing side. His brother Pat manages the 500 acres of crops. His sister Jan is the herd manager with her nephew Zach as assistant herd manager.
Being one of the oldest of the 18 members of her generation, ranging from adults to infants, Carissa describes the overlap. It’s easy to see how her role serves as a bridge between generations.
All told, Vale Wood Farms employs 55 people, including family members. In fact, Carissa confirms that some of their employees are also multi-generational. In fact, even the many family members with careers outside of Vale Wood Farms, come back to help with events and such. “We were all raised to jump in and do, when we see something needing done,” says Carissa.
When Bill Itle looks at the future, he notes the confusion about what is real dairy is an issue.
“We feel the pain when farmers feel the pain, because we’re part of that, and it’s not always the processor making the money,” he says. While he has seen an increase in whole milk consumption, the overall drag on total fluid sales, says Bill, is confusion in the dairy case.
“It’s tough to get our name back and away from imitation products. They’ve been doing it a long time. They aren’t hiding in the woodwork,” Bill relates.
Carissa agrees, noting that some consumers don’t really know that almond milk isn’t milk.
“I have friends who ask why we don’t make it,” she says. “They think it’s a milk flavor.”
For all of its challenges and opportunities, this is a family that loves what they do.
“We appreciate how lucky we are to have this tradition here, and we also have a responsibility to keep it alive,” says Carissa, noting that for multiple generations to run three separate businesses together takes flexibility.
She recalls her grandmother often saying, “you can disagree without being disagreeable.”
“Balancing the generation with one foot out the door with the generation gaining life experience can be tricky,” says Carissa, admitting sometimes her role is more “cat herder” and interpreter.
“In a family business, we learn that there will be differing opinions, but at the end of the day, we make decisions and everyone supports the decisions. In a family business, you learn to have good healthy debate and to strongly support your point of view, but then to compromise and accept a decision once it’s made, and that’s how you thrive.”
As the industry changes around them, the Itle family jumps in to make key consumer connections. As a result, they maintain a steady market for their steady milk supply, growing home-delivery sales in the face of increased competition and consolidation being the new reality in supermarket dairy case sales.
They have an on-site dairy store, but it is off the beaten track and represents just 2% of their sales. As we sit in the pavilion that Carissa’s sister Jen has decorated for the following week’s Pasture Party, Carissa explains the evolution of dairy trends coming full-circle.
She gives four examples: The resurgence of fresh, real and local foods; the ‘new’ idea of home delivery; how ‘old’ products like whole milk, butter, and cottage cheese, are making a comeback; and how those old paper cartons are making a comeback too.
(In fact, take a look at the dairy case the next time you go to the supermarket. Most ‘new’ plant-based non-dairy beverages and ‘new’ dairy case items like iced coffees are packaged in paper cartons.)
“Consumers are gravitating back to the carton,” says Carissa. While Vale Wood bottles a variety of sizes in plastic bottles, paper half-gallon cartons are also available “because our customers see this as a great thing, from an environmental standpoint, and we like it because it protects the milk from light.”
We talk about the growing number of consumers seeking food delivery services and how the meal kit companies have really taken off. In fact, the three biggest food retailers – Walmart, Kroger and Amazon/Whole Foods — have either bought or created meal kit or food box delivery services.
Even as total consumption of dairy milk continues to erode, the large chain supermarkets and big-box stores are getting into the game because their checkout scanners confirm that milk — real dairy milk — is still the most frequently found item in grocery baskets.
So the future will either be a competition for shrinking market share – or an all-out effort to expand the fluid market. Vale Wood pays attention to those trends to steady their market while opening eyes of consumers expand it.
The upheaval in the industry reveals the trend toward the nation’s larger retail chains wanting a bigger piece of the shrinking fluid market. Small processors, like Vale Wood, on the other hand, seek to appeal to consumers and increase product demand.
The direct competition for supermarket shelf space is becoming intense because milk, though consumption is down, is still a store’s gateway to win customer loyalty.
As all processors navigate the competitive pressures, it is the home delivery service that is steadying the ship for Vale Wood. That part of their business brings them back to that key: connecting with consumers. A big part of that connection is the cows at the farm.
“It’s unique that we still milk cows,” says Carissa. “The cows are central to our farm history and heritage and our sense of identity.”
The Itle family milks 200 cows. Their processing covers 400 cows, as they purchase milk from three neighboring dairy farms instead of expanding their own.
In addition to bottling milk and flavored milk and making ice cream, they do soft products like dips and cottage cheese, and are now doing flavored butters. They do “a little bit of everything” to capitalize on trends. This helps them deal with increased competition for fewer milk drinkers.
“We can never underestimate the effort required to get into (or keep) a market,” Carissa says. And those barriers to entry are becoming more challenging as store brand private label market share increases at the same time that non-dairy beverage alternatives compete for space in the dairy case.
Still, 95% of Vale Wood’s milk utilization is Class I, thanks in large part to their consumer connections and education that lead to product awareness and loyalty.