Small Dairy Reinvents Itself

5/25/2013 7:00 AM
By Paul Post New York Correspondent

BALLSTON SPA, N.Y. — Chuck Curtiss has rejuvenated his dairy farm by doing more with less and finding a new way to market his milk.

On May 18, a steady stream of customers visited the fifth-generation dairy for the dedication of its new farm store that offers nearly two dozen local products, from honey to garlic.

A few years ago he reduced his Willow Marsh Farm’s herd from 50 to 25 cows and then obtained a state permit to sell raw milk, whose customers go out of their way for its perceived health benefits.

“Our location is one of the big drivers behind our doing this,” Curtiss said. “This is one of the fastest growing counties in the country and it looks like it’s going to stay that way.”

The 134-acre farm, at 343 Hop City Road in Ballston Spa, is only a dozen miles from Saratoga Springs, a fairly affluent and highly popular upstate New York tourist destination. It’s also just north of Clifton Park, a densely populated suburb of Albany.

“They come from Schroon Lake (in the Adirondacks) to Albany and everywhere in between,” Curtiss said.

There was also a second reason for reinventing the farm’s business plan.

“We just wanted to do something so that we could have more of an influence on the price of our product,” he said.

Previously, Willow Marsh sold all its milk to Stewart’s Shops, a large convenience store chain with 325 outlets. Stewart’s owns its own bottling plant and gets milk from a network of about three dozen farms in Saratoga and Washington counties.

Willow Marsh still sells 60 percent of its milk to Stewart’s. The rest is marketed as raw fluid milk or made into cheese and yogurt products at an outside processing plant.

However, Curtiss is building a new creamery on the back of the farm store so those things can be made and sold right at the farm, too.

The store is already a big hit with customers such as Wayne Andrews, a retired General Electric Co. engineer, of nearby Burnt Hills, who made a Saturday morning visit to buy raw milk.

“It’s important to come here because I’ve experienced lactose intolerance with pasteurized milk,” Andrews said. “Plus, I like fresh eggs from free-range chickens. Anything organic I buy.”

Mike and Jen Rankin and their 1-1/2-year-old son, Jordan, came more than a half-hour from Latham, Albany County, to visit the farm.

“I saw an article about milk on the Internet,” said Jen Rankin, who is expecting the couple’s second child. “That led me to a link about this place. Milk from grass-fed cows is really good for you.”

The Willow Marsh herd is mostly Holsteins with a couple of Jerseys. Curtiss said that having 50 cows was too labor intensive.

“Wholesale prices were too low and overhead costs were too high,” he said.

When the economic downturn hit in 2008, Curtiss and his wife, Darlene, knew they had to try something different to survive. While reducing the dairy herd, they added beef cattle and began marketing veal, too. Five years ago they opened a self-service retail stand right at the farm.

It proved so popular they decided to go to a full-scale store that’s now open six days per week (closed Tuesdays). The handsome 1,200-square-foot structure has a freezer and upright coolers and is decorated with an array of country antiques. Exposed hand-hewn beams from an old barn lend to the rustic atmosphere.

Darlene Curtiss said she lined up producers who wanted to sell goods by going to local farmers markets. Other products they sell include chicken, baked goods, vegetables, compost and hay.

“There’s still more I want to carry,” she said. “I just haven’t gotten to them yet.”

Customer feedback has been extremely important too.

“Just listening to the public, to what they were looking for,” Chuck Curtiss said. “We decided, let’s go in this direction and see where it takes us. Now we’re going forward in a good direction.”

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