For a Jefferson County dairy and a Lewis County creamery, the slow build of their business r…
LOWVILLE — Many small businesses evolve from a product or service idea, but only a few are born of a mixture of philosophical shift, a drive to be a positive force in the world, and a, “Sure, we can do that,” mantra.
Bethany and James Munn both say they knew they were heading toward a change, but after going on a weekend retreat they started to think about their legacy and what kind of positive impact they could make on the world.
As a seventh-generation member of his family in Lewis County, Mr. Munn had fond memories of growing up in Talcottville and spending time on his grandfather’s farm, but never thought he would return to the area, let alone get involved in agriculture.
“It seemed that every time we came to visit, another farm was closing, so we decided years ago that we wanted to do something for the area,” Mr. Munn said.
They looked at what was being done well in the north country and did some research with Clarkson University and Cornell Cooperative Extension into what is needed that matched their skill sets, experience and capabilities and ultimately, “Ag just made sense,” Mr. Munn said, and the Black River Valley Natural creamery was born.
The Munns decided to stick to small-batch production of specialty, or niche, dairy products that add value to milk as a resource but are not highly processed.
“We don’t homogenize the milk, only pasteurize,” Mr. Munn said, “We try to touch the milk as lightly as possible to get it safe and consistent, then it’s ‘hands-off.’”
From the beginning, they have logged many hours at Cornell’s food science lab in Ithaca to learn how to make the things they want to make.
Black River Valley Natural started with butter, followed by whole cream-line milk, both in a number of flavors, but they are just a means to an end.
The goal for the Munns is to be an “idea incubator” that will lead to building a pipeline between agriculture-related businesses.
“Making butter isn’t what gets me out of bed in the morning,” Mr. Munn said, “It’s this incubator and helping these farmers.”
And it’s starting to work.
A dairy farmer asked if they could have their milk bottled, a goat farmer approached and wondered if they could produce feta, a school food services director inquired if they could produce yogurt — each were greeted with the same response from the Munns.
He or she has this. We have that. “We can do this.”
In January, the couple gave the same reply to Cornell Cooperative Extension when they were asked to take the lead on the North Star Food Hub.
“Sure, we can do that.”
They are now seeking out markets for small-batch specialty agriculture products, fruits, vegetables and meat made by farms in Lewis, Jefferson, St. Lawrence and Oswego counties.
Mrs. Munn said there are 40 producers involved with the food hub.
While the producers are all in the four counties, the hub’s goal is to connect them with markets further afield, too.
An existing example is Field Goods, a food subscription service in the Albany area that makes use of the food hub for direct-from-farm produce for its customers.
Mrs. Munn said while restaurants, schools, facilities and organizations are usually the biggest markets, the current healthcare crisis has them seeking out different buyers.
“We are expanding, reaching into different markets, especially now as needs have shifted from restaurants to bulk markets, retailers and food cooperatives,” Mrs. Munn said.
A new platform for the Hub is also in the works that would allow for user-friendly bulk buying on the website, Mrs. Munn said.
The passion the Munns have for what they hope to do, in the north country makes the work not feel like work on most days, even if they still pass out from exhaustion.
“This feels like a much better fit than our corporate lives did,” Mr. Munn said, “We’re holding it together with bailing twine and duct tape, but we’re happy to be part of a movement here.”
This article was corrected to state the Munn’s worked with Clarkson University and the Cornell Cooperative Extension to do research.