HUDSON, Iowa — Is it possible to support five 21st century households with the income from a family-run dairy operation?
It may sound like an idea best left to a bygone era or perhaps something only a large, automated operation could accomplish. However, Hansen’s Farm Fresh Dairy proves the area’s long-held family farms can thrive through ambition, innovation and hard work.
“We feel like we were in on the ground floor of the local food movement,” said Jordan Hansen, marketing director. “More and more people want to buy food from their neighbors. It’s good for the local economy, and it’s good for the environment.”
Hansen’s Farm Fresh Dairy has grown considerably in 13 years and now sells products at eastern Iowa grocery stores, co-ops, farmers markets and other locations. Dozens of area eateries use the products in their recipes, too. The dairy also sells milk, butter, cheese and ice cream and products of local entrepreneurs at its two retail outlets in Waterloo and Cedar Falls.
Today, the dairy supports Jay and Jean Hansen and four of their five children — Brent, Brad, Blair and Blake — and their families. Daughter, Lynn, lives in Omaha with her family.
Jay Hansen represents the fifth generation of his family to run the farm. According to the dairy’s archives, his two-times maternal great-grandfather, Christian Frederick Brandhorst, purchased the land southwest of Hudson in May 1864.
For decades, the farm produced a variety of crops and animals, which helped the operation achieve self-sufficiency. In the 1950s, the farm narrowed its focus to dairy operations, said Jordan.
Today, the original Christian Brandhorst’s original plot of 150 acres has been expanded to 440 mostly contiguous acres, the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier (http://bit.ly/2pS4TNr ) reported.
Jay and Jean Hansen settled at the farm in the 1970s to work alongside Jay’s father, Jack. In 1975, they started their family. Over the years, they encouraged their children to find other careers; they didn’t want them to feel obligated to the homestead.
They listened — for a while. After working at other dairy farms, Blake, the youngest boy, returned to the homestead. Blair followed.
Together they calculated how to slowly and deliberately increase their closed herd from 100 to 150 head.
“The idea was to open an on-farm creamery that would allow them to produce their own milk to sell,” said Jordan, now Blake’s wife. “If they could cut out the middleman in the dairy production process, they’d be able to increase the farm’s income.”
That, Blake and Blair believed, would allow the farm to provide them with enough income. They sold milk to the local co-op for market price and began developing plans to open an on-site creamery.
It was a big commitment, and they invited their older brothers to return and help.
Blake also put a new face on dairy farming — namely, a wallaby. He was introduced to them while traveling in Australia. He brought some to Hudson, where they became an attraction in their own right.
“This was right around the time we were starting the creamery, so the wallaby was incorporated into the logo,” Blake said.
It’s another unique touch for the family business, said Jordan, who noted, “It’s not the typical Holstein.”
The couple has since switched to kangaroos.
After opening in 2004, Hansen’s Farm Fresh Dairy sold whole milk at a few smaller Cedar Valley locations like Randall’s Grocery, as well as farmers markets, recalled Jay.
Other groceries contacted the dairy about stocking the milk. Meanwhile, customers started asking for skim and 1 percent milk.
“The processing to make the other types of milk meant there was leftover cream,” said Blake.
It was easy to find a use for this “excess,” Jay added. “We made ice cream, then butter, then cheese curds,” he explained.
Increased demand and the rapidly expanding product line positioned the dairy to open a retail outlet, Jordan added. In 2006, the family opened its first store at Ridgeway and Kimball avenues in Waterloo, followed about one year later by its East 18th Street location in Cedar Falls.
“The Cedar Falls store was supposed to be a temporary thing — a way to sell a lot of milk quickly,” Jordan recalled. “It turned out to be such a success that we ended up buying the location — the building, the land, the gas station.”
These experiences help the Hansens reinforce their reasons for keeping a closed herd — animals that were all born and raised on their homestead.
Today, the dairy works to balance producing enough to meet demand while not reaching the point of overproduction, said Jordan. The family’s commitment to maintaining a closed herd limits the dairy’s ability to grow at the rate of a large-scale production. This contributes to relative “shortages” of some products, which can frustrate some customers.
At this time, 150 cows supplies the dairy’s retail and wholesale customers. The family would like to grow the herd to 500, which will require a major overhaul of the farm’s infrastructure.
“We’d need to tear down the old barn and build a new one,” said Jay. “A new barn is a huge project. We have a site picked out and the water situated . but it will still take something like two years before we can get to that.”
The family has been somewhat surprised by the public desire to see their operation up close.
“It was a little shocking, but then again, it wasn’t,” Jordan recalled. “People today really want to see where their food comes from. We’re a local brand. We’re transparent about our operation, and that makes us accessible. So it makes sense. Most kids have no real agriculture around them, other than what they drive by.”
Each year, up to 5,000 visitors get to “see where milk comes from” at the dairy’s Tour Center. Visitors can schedule tours and experiential learning opportunities.
Jean, Jordan and other guides discuss the farm’s history, production and family farming. They also offer a behind the scenes look at what things like “organic,” ”hormone-free” and “farm-to-table” mean.
“This is an in-the-trenches experience,” Jordan said. “You see how the milking is done. We bottle feed calves and hand-milk cows. There isn’t glass between visitors and the cows; you get right in there where they live.”
Information from: Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, http://www.wcfcourier.com
An AP Member Exchange shared by the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier.