When you first step onto Clover Valley Farms you see a small, eclectic, family operation that contrasts immediately with the mass production funneled onto supermarket shelves. As you tour the farm’s smorgasbord of poultry, sheep, rabbits, and pigs, as well as the orchard and greenhouse, you quickly learn how everything is interwoven on this farm, making a whole much bigger than the sum of its parts.
“Without the DA, we couldn’t be where we are today.”
Listening to farm owner Cindy Hale describe how the rotational grazing system breaks the internal parasite cycle, or how the farm’s juneberries, currants and beehives are used to make value-added items, you quickly catch on that Clover Valley Farms is infused with more business savvy and efficiency than any mass-production agricultural company could dream of. Ask Cindy straight up where her success comes from, and she’ll immediately refer you to the invaluable cooperation she’s had with the Development Association of Superior, WI.
According to Cindy, “Without the DA, we couldn’t be where we are today.” Which seems hard to believe when you see what a tight ship Cindy runs. In Cindy’s words, farming and business are two distinctly different things. “Farmers know how to grow their crop, but they’re not necessarily businesspeople. Sales and distribution are very complex,” says Cindy, while perusing her herb beds in the greenhouse (greenhouse plants, like mint, are for the vinegar infusions that Clover Valley Farms is famous for). “Being connected to the land is an important part of farming, but you still have to accomplish the economic part too.” It was Cindy’s deep cooperation with the DA that brought the economic side into focus, thereby providing the necessary overlap of Cindy’s farming instincts and penchant for retailing and public speaking.
“This is our 9th year of farming, or to be more specific, this is the 9th year we’ve filed Schedule F on our taxes. We started with pastured poultry in 2007. Then, three or four years ago, we were thinking, what can we do with our fruits? We understood that we had to move into value-added products. We used to sell our currants to the Co-Op in Duluth, but we don’t any more. Highly perishable products are hard to sell because the window of time you have is so short. Value-added products, like vinegars, jams, and syrups, are easier to sell. The trick is figuring out how to add value to perishable items. We also had to figure out how to distinguish ourselves. The jams and jellies market is getting oversaturated in our region. The syrups market is also very strong. But vinegar just flew off the table.”
To get things rolling, Cindy and her husband applied for a USDA value-added producer grant. “The first step was to figure out what the market looks like. Then there were the technical aspects. Thus, the second question was what was the best technical strategy? We would have failed if we didn’t do these studies. The study was a really pivotal piece.”
Cindy then goes on to explain how her farm’s economic growth truly took off when she started working with the DA, turning her studies and ideas into retail success. “It was pure serendipity that we found the Development Association. We needed a facility to lease, where we could do our vinegar infusing, bottling and packaging. Last year, when we started marketing our vinegars, we sent an E-mail to our customer list, asking them if they knew of a space we could rent to do our bottling. One customer suggested we ask the DA. Through the Development Association’s guidance, we started renting space in the Superior Business Center. This is a large business incubator lease space. The key for us is that the SBC has a large inspected kitchen. Artisanal producers need an inspected space. None of the leasers are in the SBC kitchen all the time. Sharing the rental costs is a cost-efficient way for each company to get access to the kitchen.”
Cindy goes on in glowing terms how the DA helped transform her business: “The DA has been super important with business support. It was hard to manage our schedule at first. We were both working full-time when we started our farm. We needed sessions with people who have experience at business flow. The DA hooked us up with business consultants who could teach us how to manage our time, when to do what to keep on track and not get overwhelmed. The DA paid for the initial consult. Now the DA has connected us to consultants who are helping us with marketing.”
Cindy is also quick to mention that the DA’s valuable help didn’t end with consultations alone: “The DA also provided us with a line of working capital, through the Douglas County Revolving Loan Fund.”
Nowadays Cindy is taking her vinegars on tour all over the western Lake Superior region, speaking at cooking seminars hosted by food co-ops over a hundred mile radius. Cindy’s business savvy shines right through her transparent vinegars, but she is sure to tell you that working with the DA has been an indispensable ingredient for making even vinegar taste sweet.
By Christopher Pascone