It’s awesome to be able to offer our CSA members local, healthy, delicious add-on products through our partnerships with a growing number of amazing Upper Valley farmers and producers! We want to shine a spotlight on these incredible local partners by sharing their stories. We interviewed Diane Wyatt of Sweet Cow Farm, bringing you the most delicious yogurt from West Newbury, VT.
What was your process for starting your farm/business?
We were all city folk who never grew up farming. In Westfield, MA, where we grew up, the closest we had was a small garden plot. As a family, we ran a 24 hr Shell gas station food mart for 20 years. Twenty-nine years ago, my parents sold the business and moved here to West Newbury, Vermont. My brother Tom, his wife and daughter, my sister Sharon with her 2 daughters and I moved in shortly after and that’s when we started to cultivate some of the land. First we planted an orchard with apples, pears, plums, and cherries along with a quarter acre vegetable garden. Even though our family had grown, everything was on a way bigger scale than what we needed, so we thought, ok now what?
At that time in 2002/2003, farmers markets were just starting to gain in popularity so we signed up as a vendor at the Fairlee Farmers’ Market. There were a total of five vendors, and we were one of two selling produce and fruit. We couldn’t bring enough to keep up with the demand and each week we sold out. The momentum inspired Tom to plant different varieties of berry bushes. At the time, we were only planning on selling the berries and we were totally unaware that we would ultimately use the fruit from these plants in our yogurt
How did you transition from vegetables to yogurt?
We continued selling vegetables at the farmers markets for several years until the competition started getting tougher and there were more produce vendors signing up each year. Since we don’t have greenhouses and our produce season is shorter than average and very weather dependent, we started to look for other options of producing a value added product that would fill in the gaps during the first couple of months at the beginning of the market season when we really didn’t have much to sell.
Since I was 12, I’ve always kept horses, so I knew the responsibilities involved in raising large animals. It took me a couple of years but I managed to persuade my now very large family to get a family cow for our own milk consumption. So I bought a week old calf because I wanted to learn and teach everyone how to raise a calf into adulthood, breed her, and then start the milking process. It was not an easy road though, especially after she calved and we started milking.
Dairy farmers pass the knowledge on to the next generations and so much of this knowledge is not spoken, it’s just learned by their experience of growing up on a dairy farm. We didn’t know any dairy farmers, so we had nobody to answer our questions and guide us. The only person I could call when I had questions or concerns was the vet, and that can get pretty expensive! We learned a lot by trial and error and we read lots of books. Coming in, I knew the basic requirements to keep livestock healthy. But I quickly found out there’s a difference between cows and horses!
We started getting into the normal rhythm of milking and things were going pretty well while we were learning to make every dairy product we could think of, including yogurt, to use up the 4 gallons of milk we were getting daily. Even still, Clover, our cow was producing more milk than we could use, so I had the idea of making and selling yogurt at the farmers market. The market manager didn’t care that we weren’t yet licensed as long as we took full responsibility for any issues that may arise with selling dairy products and since this would be our only outlet for selling our yogurt, we didn’t think it was necessary to go through the licensing hoops for one cow's worth of milk. As we started selling the yogurt, we came to the realization that our customers wholeheartedly supported and trusted us.
How has the Pandemic affected your business?
We barely felt the pandemic as far as traveling goes because we’re always on the farm anyway. 2020 was a record year for sales and I’m assuming it was largely due to the pandemic; people having to stay and eat at home and also the increasing local food movement. Especially now, people want safe food that they can access locally. It is a comfort knowing where their food is coming from. I advertised on our website www.sweetcowyogurt.com that customers could purchase yogurt on the farm, so people started driving here to get their yogurt. We still continue to let people come here and buy products and they like to come and see the farm.
What excites/inspires you about what you do?
I love being self-sufficient, being outdoors, raising and milking Jersey cows, and working with my family. I’m also inspired by the support we get from the people who love our yogurt. It’s so exciting that we are sometimes in awe that our customers love our products like they do. We feel it’s our duty to do the best we can at making our products. To get support from our community for doing something we love to do is very inspiring. I wouldn’t trade this occupation for the world. It’s all about supporting the people that support us, giving people what they want and need and doing it in a way that is healthy, sustaining, and supports farming.
Can you talk about your experience of licensing and certification?
In 2008 we got shut down by the VT Department of Agriculture because we were not licensed to process and sell dairy products. Since we had a large customer base and following that loved our yogurt, we decided to go through the many steps and processes to become licensed. That involved building a milk house and dairy processing facility attached to our house that complies with all the milk processing and sanitation requirements mandated for safe handling and manufacturing of dairy products. We became a Federally licensed Dairy facility in 2009 and have regular inspections of our processing equipment and facilities.
How did you acquire your name?
With their small stature, big brown eyes, and curious demeanor, the Jersey Cow naturally comes across to the passerby as a Sweet Cow and maybe we’re biased but we truly believe that our Jersey cows live up to and deserve to be the first 2 words of our Sweet Cow Yogurt.
What has been one of the most surprising things you’ve learned in your experience of farming and creating your own business?
I’ve been surprised at the continued demand for full fat whole milk yogurt even though non-fat Greek yogurt has dominated the shelves everywhere in grocery stores. Also when we came on board, there weren’t any small farm yogurt producers that we knew of.With the increased demand of whole milk and small batch artisan yogurt, more small farms are cropping up now and I’m seeing other smaller producers like myself in the yogurt market. Another surprise is our elder customers rave that our yogurt reminds them of how yogurt tasted when they were growing up; I’ve even heard them say that our yogurt tastes like European yogurt that was made there and served in families for generations. I believe it’s because the milk is largely grass-fed, whole Jersey and extremely fresh. We are able to make a product that’s different from the mainstream yogurt products out there and people love it!
I’m also delighted by how our business came together. We created this way of life as a family through all of us contributing our different talents. It was my inclination to start milking cows, while Tom had the inspiration to grow many different types and kinds of fruits. Tom and Sharon go to the Norwich farmers market to sell our products and Sharon also makes and sells wonderful body care products. My brother Chris does all the farm, building and equipment maintenance and has built all the out buildings including the barn for the cows, a shop, and the yogurt facility. He also delivers yogurt to the local stores and farm stands as well as fills orders weekly for the distributor. Even my 86 year old mother is a big part of our business and is happy to offer her expertise or advice! As a family, we pooled our different talents and together we are making it work. It’s hard work, there’s no doubt about it. Cows need commitment, but it’s definitely worth it.
Do you have any advice for young farmers?
Be willing to work hard. Take care of the land and if you have animals, they come first. Take care of them because they will give back what you put into them. Animals are happy and content when their needs are met. If you have any questions, or want help starting up, contact me any time. I’m always willing to talk. If you love what you do, there’s a market for local, good, healthy, whole food and there’s room for all of us.
Interview conducted by Hannah Jeffery