Hillacres Pride was established in 2003 as a way to diversify the family farm and for Mandy to return to the family business.
“My target market was the Lancaster tourism market,” she said of her original marketing plan. Mandy Arrowsmith credits their milk inspector for his critical expectations as they started up the business.
The farm had contracted with a local cheesemaker to process raw milk cheeses, but they still had to make adjustments at the farm for the cheese business. In addition to the food safety requirements, their inspector required them to secure the markets to purchase the cheese before he approved the plan. “Too many people have gotten stuck because the marketing side is the hardest side,” she said of the inspector’s advice.
The original idea has evolved into direct marketing at farmers markets and wholesale sales. Mandy’s mother heads up the farmers market sales and the wholesale market delivery route.
After a few years, the Arrowsmiths wanted to expand their offerings and diversify their dairy product lineup. The farm constructed an on-farm cheese plant in 2009 to offer additional pasteurized cheeses such as ricotta, feta, camembert, quark and fresh cheese spreads. Mandy Arrowsmith is the cheesemaker for the on-farm production. Adding the pasteurizer allows them to have cheese available immediately, instead of waiting the required 60 days for raw milk cheeses, she said.
Another addition to the on-farm enterprise was cheese wheels. Mandy attended a cheesemaking course in Vermont. Her artisan cheeses have colorful names that pay tribute to the local area, such as Susquehanna, Conestoga and Arcadia. They also soak their one cheese in Merlot to add a unique offering to the line-up.
The Arrowsmiths contacted Neville McNaughton, also known as Dr. Cheese, to spend time at the creamery to help tweak their creamery operation. The cheese courses were very helpful, but Mandy wanted to have someone help her address the challenges at their creamery.
“He helped us with things to make us more efficient,” she said.
McNaughton also helped Mandy make several cheesemaking alterations, allowing her to add some additional cheeses without a major capital investment.
They were able to modify the ricotta cheese process, increasing their volumes and reducing their workloads.
To make the cheese wheels, instead of purchasing a cheese press, they were able to utilize large plastic cutting boards and weights to press the wheels.
The cheese is vacuum sealed or can be frozen to extend its shelf life and quality. It can be a balancing act to keep their cheeses in stock, but Mandy said it’s OK if they run out of a flavor from time to time. For their farmers markets, they encourage customers to pre-order larger purchases.
The goal for the cheese side of the business is to help market their milk, she said. They have a flat rate that the creamery pays the dairy for its milk. Each business has its own checkbook and accounts for its own bills. Cheese is priced to cover the production costs and provide some profit. She monitors local cheese prices and what she believes “the market will bear.”
With sales at Philadelphia and New Jersey farmers markets, they have added on beef, chicken and pork products from pastured animals. Wholesale deliveries occur once per week. “To do the farmers markets, I don’t think we could afford the farmers market if they were just cheese,” she said. “If we are there, we have to be selling more stuff through it.”
“We don’t go for the big stores, we look for the specialty stores,” she said. “We can’t compete with Kraft.” The cheese is hand cut so there is some weight variations between the blocks. Their shredded cheeses are cut in a hand processor.
One challenge she has found with the business is balancing between flavor demands. They have several flavors of some of their popular cheese lines, yet she will often get the question, “What do you have new?”
The cows are the stars of the show at Hillacres Jerseys. Three of the farm’s cows are featured on the cheese labels to showcase the farm. They took several photos of the Jersey cows out on pasture and had a graphic designer turn the photo into their cheese label.
Two milkings a week are diverted to the cheese business. Milk not used by the dairy is marketed through Dairy Farmers of America.
The Arrowsmiths breed for type, focusing on a cow that can stand the test of time. “We don’t push for super production,” she said. “We definitely believe in longevity.” The rolling herd average is around 14,500 pounds. It’s not unusual for a Jersey to live into her teens at the farm. With cows living longer, Tom has about 10 fresh 2-year-old cows that can be sold for dairy purposes.
The milking herd resides in the family’s tie-stall dairy barn. The heifer calves are raised in individual stalls before moving into the heifer barn where they are sorted into different age groups. The heifer barn was built a few years ago. “We love our barn,” she said. Mandy said the newer barn simplified the management of this group.
Behind the dairy barn is a multi-purpose barn that can be modified for different groups. This summer, a large section of the barn is utilized as a pack pen for the Arrowsmiths’ older dairy cows and fresh cows. The rest of the barn is divided up for use by heifers or their Jersey steer groups.
When not selling cheese, the Arrowsmiths can be found showing cows at several different dairy shows such as the All-American Dairy Show, state shows and regional Jersey shows. Daughters Nicole and Caroline also show through the local 4-H program and at youth dairy shows. The Arrowsmiths have two sons, Johnny and Alex.
Time is the most challenging element of adding a cheese business to a dairy. Mandy often calls herself the most difficult employee among her staff because she can be pulled in so many directions with the dairy, the cheese and her family. Finding that work-life balance has been a challenge.
Mandy has one part-time employee working in the creamery as well as several part-time employees that help her mother at the farmers markets. “Finding a good employee is key,” she said. They also hire several high school students to work part time in the dairy.Photos by Charlene Shupp Espenshade
The Arrowsmiths offer a range of cheeses, including hand cut blocks of cheddar and colby.
All cheese wheels are vacuum sealed to retain freshness.
Mandy Arrowsmith holds one of the many artisan cheese wheels she makes at the creamery.
A Jersey munches on hay in the Arrowsmith’s heifer barn.
The cheese labels feature three of the farm’s Jerseys.
Tom and Mandy Arrowsmith operate Hillacres Jerseys, which provides the milk for their cheese business, Hillacres Pride.
Source: Lancaster Farming