When Tim Joseph was 32, he decided to become a farmer. In 2004, Tim and his wife Laura started with 63 cows on 250 acres in a small town in upstate New York called Little Falls. Doing so, with no agricultural experience; while still working a full-time corporate job. Over the next seven years, the Josephs would go from a conventional dairy struggling to pay their credit card bills to being designated as the first national dairy to be third-party certified as 100% grass-fed organic. Maple Hill Creamery is now on the shelves in over 6000 stores nationwide with a range of products from cream top yogurt, Greek yogurt, kefir, drinkable yogurt, artisanal cheeses, and fluid milk.
In this interview, Tim and I talked about leadership, why he decided to become a dairyman, how Maple Hill Creamery became the Gold Standard in grass-fed dairy products, and what they are doing now to grow the brand.
Why are you doing this?
Joseph warned me that it was a bit of a long story.
“I didn't grow up a farmer but wanted to be one when I was a kid. In 2004, I got the bright idea that the way to be able to quit my corporate job was to milk cows because you get a milk check every month. The only issue with that is there's a big gap between the milk check every month and the expenses that you need to pay with it.”
“I stayed with the job and farmed at the same time. I was working from home most of the time with some crazy travel and stuff. Then we migrated to organic because it increased the value of our milk and we were very organic minded anyway. That was 2007 and we were still having a difficult time. We were new farmers, lots of mistakes, too much debt. It just didn't work for us.” I noticed some sadness in his voice.
“I really wanted to do something more with our milk. When we had gone organic, we had also stopped feeding grain. We were so broke, we couldn't afford the organic grain for the year it takes to transition to organic. During that year, you ship your milk conventionally but manage organically, so your costs go up before your milk check does.”
It was that reality that caused Joseph to start Maple Hill Creamery.
What’s your vision for the brand?
“Well, a lot has happened since then. That was 2009. A few years later, we couldn't run our own farm and Maple Hill Creamery at the same time. We had gone too deep on the farm, so we didn't end up really achieving our goal of keeping our farm, but it's evolved into more of a mission around other farms.”
“New York and most of the northeast have farms that are 50, 60, 70 cow farms. The vision is that the grass-fed model helps create more resilient farms.”
“We focus 100% on New York state, not that there's anything wrong with farmers elsewhere. It's just this is where we are, so we made that a conscious decision. We know how to make grass fed milk here. We know the culture. We know the climate, all of that, so we focus on a regional supply and just try to grow the market. We work a lot on education and helping on the farm side and then obviously, the other piece is doing all we can to generate demand as a brand on the retail side.”
“We tightened all the way down to just being a grass-fed yogurt company. Every year we’ve broadened our product portfolio. I started thinking about and expressing that we want to evolve from being a grass-fed yogurt brand to a grass fed dairy brand. Right? Now, we've got yogurt, cup yogurt, Greek yogurt, kefir, drinkable yogurt, and cheese.”
“We just launched half gallon whole milk and 2% milk a couple months ago.”
Joseph answered that his vision is that, “wherever there are consumers that are looking for a grass fed, organic product, we want to be the gold standard in terms of what that means.”
What have been some of the biggest obstacles?
“We're a small company and the grocery business is a huge business. There are huge players and yogurt is one of the most crowded, brutal categories. Trying to build out the market is always a challenge. It changes too. The way you did things in the beginning for one set of consumers and one set of retailers, it changes and you've got to start doing things a different way. We are going through that evolution as we grow.”
Joseph then talked about the input side of the business.
“We have a commitment to all these farms. We have 125 farms in upstate New York that we commit to picking up their milk every day, every other day. Balancing all that is a major challenge, especially in a year like this where the conventional market's a mess. The organic market's a mess, so that makes the grass-fed market a mess too.”
What have you learned about leadership?
“Boy ... It can be a very lonely place, that's for sure.”, he said wryly.
“It's very difficult to balance not losing yourself to that, the difficulty of all the stress of growing a brand and always running out of capital and all that. If I were to do it a second time, I guess, if I was crazy enough to do that, hopefully, I would learn to better balance things. Easy to say, right? Hard to do.”
Joseph went on to add, “You have to be calm, which luckily, I’m fairly even keeled. When the ship is headed for the rocks and the wind is blowing and rain is coming down, you must be calm at the wheel, so that you can get out of it. If you start freaking out, it freaks everybody out and you're going to hit the rocks. That's a tough thing to do sometimes when the rocks look pretty real.”
“You can be terrified and afraid, which is a pretty common thing, but you must keep a strong face and be calm. “
Joseph ended by saying, “Be truthful, but keep an even keel.”
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Elliot Begoun is the Principal of The Intertwine Group, a practice focused on helping emerging food and beverage brands grow. He works with clients to design and execute customized route-to-market and go-to-market strategies that build velocity, gain distribution, and win share of stomach. His articles appear in publications such as the Huffington Post, SmartBrief, and FoodDive.