EMILIE: Welcome to Plow and Pencil the art of American agriculture where like Ike, we recognize that farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil a thousand miles from the cornfield. The Plow and Pencil podcast will paint a picture of American agriculture. Today, we will tell the stories of the producers the products, the policies, and the platforms that provide feed and fuel to our nation and our world. Join the movement of farmers, ranchers, and agriculture advocates plowing new ground and pencil us in to your weekly podcast schedule. This podcast is brought to you by HitchPin.com the tool thousands of farmers and ranchers are using to buy, sell, hire, and work in agriculture.
Okay, wow. Welcome back to Plow and Pencil the art of American agriculture. I’m your host Emilie Fink and if you didn’t know June is National Dairy Month, a tradition that started as National Milk Month in 1937 as a way to promote drinking milk. It was initially created to stabilize the dairy demand when production was at a surplus and has now evolved into an annual tradition that celebrates the contributions the dairy industry is made to the world. It’s finished so incredibly proud to have dairy farmers across the country as part of our community and know that we celebrate all you do year-round but today I’m especially excited to have joining me Melissa Hildebrand Reed, plant and marketing manager and go-to gal for Hildebrand Farms Dairy. Melissa is a fourth-generation on her family’s farm in Junction City, Kansas. Her great-grandfather received a permit to sell milk on February 15, 1930. So if you’re doing the math that’s seven years before National Milk Month even started. And along with this for milk cows began selling milk door to door and glass bottles. Hildebrand Farm has now grown to an average of 150 cows and has milk sold in 120 stores throughout Kansas. Again in glass bottles. In addition to working with cows, bottle processing plant, milk coolers, grocery stores, and even directly with customers. Melissa is also a wife and mother to three adorable kiddos. Thank you so much for being my guest today. Welcome to Plow and Pencil.
MELISSA: Yes, thank you for the invite. It’s fun to talk about dairy. That’s what I do best.
EMILIE: Awesome. Okay, Melissa, as our guests are used to now I like to start each of these podcasts with a little bit of ag trivia. So I’m going to ask you today’s question. Milk is the official state beverage of how many states?
MELISSA: Honestly, I have no idea. And I’m a little envious because I’m guessing that my home state of Kansas does not have milk as our state beverage. And I didn’t realize the state beverage was even a qualifying category. So give me a little time to think about that. I need to Google the answer. Yeah, you know, see if I can circle back around with an approximate?
EMILIE: Well, I’ll give you a clue. There are actually only 28 states that have a state beverage.
MELISSA: So Okay, the number is less than 28. Got it. Perfect. Good clue.
EMILIE: Okay. Well, I like to really start our conversation with this 30,000-foot question. So Melissa, tell us who is Hildebrand Farm?
MELISSA: Sure. So Hildebrand Farms and Dairy is a small family-owned dairy farm nestled in the Flint Hills of Junction City, Kansas. We are a little unique in that, you know, several years back, we knew that we wanted to kind of grow for the next generation. And it was really the decision of my dad, my uncle, that took a huge leap of faith and built an on-site processing facility. And through this on-site processing facility, we’ve been blessed that we can run all of the milk our cows produce, and you know, take it direct to consumer. And we do that in a lot of different avenues. So we have our on-site farm store so people can come and buy direct here. We offer ice cream to our customers at our farm store. We have local Kansas products, do all sorts of fun events. One of those being in June Dairy Month event coming up next Saturday, actually. And so just the Farm Stores are our way to really connect with our customers. But then we also sell products throughout grocery stores throughout Kansas. And so we’re pretty proud to be a Kansas dairy. We’ve had opportunities to expand into Nebraska, Missouri in particular, and have just found that for us keeping our locality and really staying close to home has proven to be beneficial. Especially because we are moving all of our milk and we are profitable and we are sustainable. And there comes a level that you want to you know, assure there you can be limitless but at the same time, it feels good to kind of be within one region as well. So we’ve really defined ourselves as a Kansas dairy farm. But yeah, so you know, with the stores with the farm store, we also have other partnerships like in Kansas City I deliver are partnered with a company that does direct door delivery. And so people can order our products online and get it direct to their doors that’s in Topeka, Lawrence, and in Kansas City. And so we have some really cool business partnerships that have allowed us to move that product out. But you know, I still think even though we’re very much, you know, a grocery store brand, we’re still a dairy farm first. And that comes back to our priorities as a farm being the cows, you know, that really cows and family, you know, that’s, that’s where we started. And it all has to come back to that for us to be happy. And I think there’s been some years there that were tougher than others, because we didn’t put cows and family first, you know, we were trying so much to push the milk business that maybe, me in particular, didn’t spend enough time with the cows in the family. So it’s a balance for sure. But that’s a little bit about who we are anyway. As far as products, with the products were very much fluid based. So fluid milk in glass bottles is our core product, whole milk being our number one seller, by far by none. We partner with a lot of coffee shops and restaurants. And so whole milk is huge for us. But then we also do to 2% percent, skim, a non-homogenized cream line, chocolate, strawberry, and Root Beer. Root Beer is a great seller, but it’s such a marketing product, you know, that’s one of those products that help us really market you and share our story. And if I’m sampling in the store, that’s the one that stops them in their tracks right here milk. I love the symbol of that, you know, so we also sell heavy cream in a smaller bottle, as well as our sweet cream, butter, salted butter, and cinnamon sugar butter.
EMILIE: This is awesome.
MELISSA: Yeah. Some days, not all days, most days. It’s awesome.
EMILIE: Yes, it’s overwhelming for me to wrap my brain around. And I’m thinking now that I have some regrets for not having lunch before this because now I just want like an ice cream cone or some cereal or something like that. But tell us too about your farm. So you’re actually growing the majority of all the inputs needed to feed your cows.
MELISSA: That’s correct. We farm about 1800 acres. So we’re able to harvest the vast majority of our silage, haylage, the feeds that we use minus the mineral of course, and we do buy a little bit of soybean meals well. But yes, so I have a incredible family, my dad, my uncle, who’s really run the farm for years, they’ve kind of moved away more from the dairy side and focus on the crops, and really kind of run the farm operation side with the grain and that side of the business. And then my full focus is the cows, the processing plant, distribution, marketing, and customer service. So that full stream is really my focus.
EMILIE: You’ve already kind of talked a little bit about the root beer milk, but what really differentiates you and your family’s dairy farm in the market?
MELISSA: Well, in the state of Kansas, I guess I should say it’s fortunate for us, but I feel like it’s really unfortunate for the consumer. We don’t have a lot of dairies kind of left in our region. And we are the only one that are bottling, pasteurizing, and selling milk direct to consumer. So when we first started, there were two other dairies that are in the business of what we’re doing now. And they’re no longer in business. And so this is a tough game. I mean, this is very, very difficult. But in our region, we are very much unique in that we do sell direct to consumer in our signature glass bottle. But there are a few things, you know, okay, so this last year, we were awarded the 2022 Innovative Dairy Farmer of the Year through IDFA.
MELISSSA: Yeah, so I have a hard time with it, though, because we’re just a dairy farm. But that was kind of cool. And so I have to think back as to why they thought we were neat. And I guess that would come down to the fact that we have some kind of neat partnerships, and that we partner with like the USDA and doing some research projects. Being close to Manhattan has given us that opportunity. We also have been breeding our cows for the last multiple years, about three years now. With A2A2 genetics. If you want me to get on a milky, geeky, dairy tangent, I can go down a rabbit hole with genetics. But the quick of it is that A2 is a protein that’s found naturally in the milk. Some cows produce A1A1, some produce A1A2, and some produce A2A2. And there’s been minimal research, it’s more anecdotal, that the A2A2 can aid with digestion, and people who for years thought they were lactose intolerant can consume the A2 milk without issue. And so it’s 100% milk. And so that’s something we’ve been doing the last multiple years is pushing A2 genetics record. And we’re not 100% there. So we’re not marketing ourselves as A2A2 right now. We’re really just kind of in that transition phase. But we’ve been really happy with the results already. And I get emails all the time from customers, and why can I drink your milk but not other people’s. So we kind of accredited to the A2 genetics. So that’s a few things that I guess we do a little differently. But I still as a dairyman feel that it’s so important that as we talk about our product, as we market, what we do, that we’re not going to shoot our industry in the foot and ever market against or create any fear marketing. I think that’s a very lazy man’s approach to marketing. And for us, as we talk about our product and what our practices are, it’s more the generalization of this is what dairy farmers do in general like you can kind of find our milk and glass bottles and know the name and the face behind it. Or you’re going to feel just as comfortable buying that plastic jug in the grocery store shelf, and know that it’s had the same care as well.
EMILIE: Your role on the family farm really touches all parts of the supply chain. And as you just shared, having that customer feedback is so incredible. I mean, you’re out feeding the cows, and then also, probably in the next minute talking to a customer who’s consuming your products. And so you see the supply chain in such a unique, holistic way. I’m curious if there’s something in our current supply chain right now, that really keeps you up at night? Is there something that’s just that kind of big elephant in the room?
MELISSA: Sure. It changes, especially in the midst of a pandemic, you know, April 2020, our phone wouldn’t stop ringing with coffee shops and restaurants canceling their orders. And I had a big “Oh, God save us” moment, you know, how are we going to do this, as you know, I had already produced the milk, it was in coolers, it was getting ready to roll out and everything just came to a complete screeching halt. And God answer for us and that, you know, news story started talking about the impact of the dairy industry. And as a result, we had customers down the drive of our farm store. And so we were so impressed with our customers’ response to wanting to support us and be with us. And our farm store had a 500% increase in sales that I wouldn’t say canceled out that coffee shop order, but it sure as hell made a huge dent. And the blow, you know, really helped us get through that timeframe. So for us, that was that there was a lot of sleepless nights around the beginning of the pandemic, I would say right now, life is really great. I am still of course always looking for labor and laborers, the new aspect that provides me more fear than normal. If there’s one thing that’s keeping me up at night, it’s probably thinking to myself, I have some really incredible employees, and how do I keep them? You know, how do I retain and keep these awesome people that have been with us through the pandemic that have fought the fight with us? But you know, how do we keep them get from getting fatigued and tired and, and I want to make sure that they’re happy. So I spend a lot of time and energy with that and making it within our means as well. So where we price our own products, we’re very fortunate that you know, we can increase our costs if we need to. And we did do a small price increase in February to help kind of account for labor. But since then, our cost of goods has just gone crazy, as everyone knows, and we have not done another price increase and I’m really hoping to hold tight and not do that. So watching our margin shrink is a little tough, but at the same time, we’re trying to be strategic and I think anything, it provides us an opportunity to shop, and really kind of get out of maybe a potential rut that we’re in and just using the same suppliers all the time. And so there’s some real benefit to taking that extra time and shopping and assessing and really looking at our input costs. So that’s where a lot of my time and attention and my brain is, is working right now.
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EMILIE: You know, owning and operating a dairy is in, in my mind, one of the most demanding jobs that there is, if multiple milkings each day, every single day, right? No holidays for the cows, they don’t take a day off, making sure that they have everything they need to make sure you have a constant and consistent supply of milk is critical. And so I’m curious for those listening who maybe aren’t as familiar with the dairy industry, paint a broad stroke of kind of what a day is like, on the farm?
MELISSA: How it is like for me or like for the farm in general, because there’s a lot going on.
EMILIE: Yes, I believe that. Maybe just start with the farm in general.
MELISSA: Great. Yeah. So my crew gets here at 4:45 am. They roll on the farm and they start pushing feed up for the cows and prepping the barn for milking. I set that time for them at five o’clock. But if I as I mentioned before, I’ve got some pretty incredible employees. And so they like to get here early and get a good start. So things start rolling pretty quick. Actually, I should probably fast forward before that before 4:45 am, I have route drivers that are coming in picking up milk loading out trucks, and starting their route as early as 3 am. So I got trucks rolling by 3 am, 4:45 am my milkers are starting my dad, my uncle and myself we get to the farm at 6 am. My dad my uncle, they manage the feeding of the cows. So they start feeding and I head to the processing plant where at six o’clock I’m going to start determining what our per day is production is and assess what the pasteurization homogenization of the milk. And so I’ve got a team of four that get at the farm with me at six o’clock. And so we’re running hard in the processing plant and starting that side of the day. And so by about seven o’clock the farm is humming, you know, the all aspects are rolling, milk barn processing, all trucks are out delivering I’ve got three trucks and then a backup. And then things just kind of fall into a rhythm of okay, what’s the project of the day. So typically, milking gets done at about nine o’clock. And that’s when it’s time to think about vaccinations, maintenance pit, you know, reworking cows, moving, taking care of dry offs, all the things that come with a dairy farm, my milking crew helps with those projects till about noon. And then the processing plant, they’re running and pasteurizing, the milk, washing the glass, bottling the bottles, and then filling the cooler up until about three o’clock. And then three o’clock is also when we start our evening milking shift. And so at that point, I’m usually here anywhere from three or four o’clock, depending on the day. And then I roll out to go get my three kiddos and get you know, my evening shift as I call it with three kids at home, you know, the second work, the second shift in the work day. And then from there, though plants washed up, we love when everything is all tidy and wrapped up and everything’s buttoned up by 6:00 or 6:30. So on a typical night, milking is finished at about 6:00 to 6;30. But the processing plant is usually finished by four o’clock if not by three. So it feels good when all the trucks are in the yard. Everyone’s parked. All the issues of the day have been taken care of and we get ready for the next one.
EMILIE: So you’re taking care of cows and kiddos and everything in between customers. How do you take care of you?
MELISSA: Um, yeah, so I have a lot of hobbies. And I will tell you as dairy farmers we take a lot of pride in our work ethic and We take pride in working really hard for our cows in our farm. And I feel like do that I do have pride in that. But I also feel that so important that I give myself time. And I do especially to my family. So I actually live 20 miles off the farm. My husband, who has an amazing farm husband does not work on the farm with me but owns an appliance, two appliance businesses in a town that’s about an hour away from the farm. So we live in the middle of those two businesses and make it work. Yeah, I bake, I love to bake, I love to read and I love to garden. So I’ve got plants growing everywhere, inside and out of my house, my kids are was rolling their eyes as I’m driving slowly by every garden center. And I absolutely love to read that’s, that’s for sure, like a non-negotiable, like, I’ll have a long day at the farm and it’s not in bed until like 10 o’clock, and I still have to read for 20 minutes, even though I’ve got to be, you know, the alarms gonna go off at 4:45 am. So that’s just a part of my nightly routine. And something that’s important for me.
EMILIE: That’s awesome. I was, you know, just trying to wrap my brain around all that your farm offers, and as you mentioned, you have a great team that works together to get it all done. But one thing that I think is so neat, and anyone locally listening should definitely check out, you offer tours on your farm as well. Right? So you have opened your doors to the community and to customers and consumers. Tell us a little bit more about some of the different events that you have, and that you host at the farm.
MELISSA: Sure. Well, we just came off of hosting our yoga on the farm event, which is what it sounds like. That’s where we typically we have a yoga instructor come in. As the girls are out to pasture between milkings we have a beautiful view of the Flint Hills and our front lawn here. And we have people come and do yoga. And we find that those yoga-visitors are very much interested about their food, they’re very curious about their food. And it’s just a really great conversations that come from that. And we host that event in partnership with Common Grounds. Common Grounds a cool organization I’m in and I’m a volunteer for Common Grounds, and they really focus on kind of farm-women, in particular, providing information about your food for people that are out there looking. Yeah, just giving an option beyond the usual. So yeah, that’s been really Common Grounds has been good for us. So you have on the farm is one event, we also do a June Dairy Month event that’s coming up on the 25th of June. And that’s just kind of our chance to give back to our customer base and visit with them about all things dairy and kind of share our dairy message. But our huge event, our big one is in the fall. And that’s the Harvest Festival. So that’s when like it’s batten down the hatches, everybody on deck, we get a huge crowd for that fall festival. We have live music, a picnic, a hay bale play area, a corn pit, hay rack ride space, painting, and all the things like vendor fair. All of all the good stuff. And so we put a lot of attention to that event in particular.
EMILIE: That’s great. And people who are interested can come I’m sure you probably have school groups and lots of people who are just really fascinated and learning about the whole process, right? It doesn’t just come from the store, there’s a story behind where either milk comes from.
MELISSA: Well, and I think that as people are more removed from the farm, they’re craving a little bit more connection to that outdoor life, and so a big part of our Harvest Festival and June Dairy Month is really giving kids just a minute to experience what we did growing up. You know, I had younger cousins that I played with, like crazy, and we just had the best time together, playing in the hay and throwing corn at each other and doing all the things kids do on a farm. And we love kind of giving other people in the urban settings a chance to kind of get a little bit of that farm life too. So it’s been good in that aspect and we just enjoy it and that we really focus a lot on the kids and it’s very much a family event.
EMILIE: So reflect back on the Melissa that was jumping in the hay and throwing corn at your cousins. Did you imagine that you’d be in the role you are for your family’s farm today?
MELISSA: Oh um, I don’t know. That’s interesting. So when I was in high school, I’m milked all through high school and had made comments to my dad all the time was like, hey, we need a new barn, like, how can we get more cows? Like, how am I supposed to come back to the dairy if we don’t get more cows, and yeah, so I remember pretty young having those interests, but wasn’t anything seriously committed. And then later when I went to college and experience the joy of sleeping in in the morning, I was like, dairy farming is hard. This is great. And so I took a pretty good hiatus from dairy farming all through college. And then when I graduated, I moved to Austin, Texas, and was in marketing. Now I went to K State, and majored in ag communications and journalism, with a real focus on sharing my ag story. I mean, that was the big reason that I went was I wanted to be able to share what we did in agriculture with other people. And so I’ve really held on to that, you know, hindsight, I don’t think it was ever intentional,but that was really the goal as a senior in high school, and I graduated K State, went into marketing, and then came back to the farm, did I ever think that we’d have a bottling plant, and I would be doing marketing for my farm at that point. We had talked about it, there are a lot of conversations that there is no definitive, like, we’re breaking ground tomorrow. That didn’t happen until I graduated college. And so when I was in Texas was actually when the plant was built. And so I came back to the farm, and we would already been bottling for about a year and a half at that point.
EMILIE: And so now you’re raising the fifth generation of dairy farmers, right? And I’m sure they are able to maybe help at least carry a bucket or two, right?
MELISSA: Oh yeah, in any way that you can find they can be exceptionally helpful. And all aspects and exceptionally not helpful in a lot of aspects too. But you know, that’s the joy of kids. They’re amazing.
EMILIE: So if you think forward for them, what’s the future of Hildebrand Farms and Dairy?
MELISSA: Sure, well, I’ve got three kiddos, nine, seven, and three. And so they have a lot of time to figure their life out. And where my husband has two businesses and I have a business as well, they have a lot of opportunities in front of them, and nothing will ever be forced on them. I mean, I think that’s step one is that, and we talk about that even now and their young age that this is very much something that can be in your future. And you could do this too. But don’t ever think that it’s required or you know, as part of the family or as part of you know, there’s no obligation whatsoever. So I will tell you, I have my middle son, the first day after I pick him up from first grade, he was like, so how much longer do I have to go to school until I can just farm mom, like, oh, just 18 more years, you know, 12 more years are fine. So I definitely have some kids that at this stage in the game are pretty interested in what I do. But there’s a lot that can change from now until then. And I think you know, for us the future of the farm, we definitely kind of have to work through transitioning to the next generation. It’s myself, and then I have a cousin that’s involved too. So it’s kind of you know, that that’s not an easy step. You know, there’s a lot that goes into the involvement of transitioning shares and ownership and even loans, and like all the good stuff, we’re also looking into a pretty large expansion project where we would be adding robotic milkers to our free-stall barn that’s we built in 1999. That facility has been really good for us. And we feel like it has a lot of life to live to give. And so we’re looking at adding two robotic milkers into that area with the option to add two additional. So we’ve got a lot on the horizon. You know, I think COVID kind of had us pent up for a couple of years. And now I’m in the mode of wanting to do all the projects all the time all at once. So I have to kind of take a deep breath and hone in on what’s most important each day.
EMILIE: Yeah, well, it’s incredible and just know how many people are really not only loving your product, but cheering for the example that you’re setting for everyone in agriculture and also maybe especially for those kiddos you know, it’s some of that foundational learning that happens on the farm, regardless of what direction their life takes. They’re going to hold on to and build off of it for sure. So what is something thing that you wish everyone knew about agriculture? And feel free to specifically go into the dairy industry or just talk broadly about agriculture.
MELISSA: Man, if I was to do like one broad stroking takeaway, I think that in agriculture, we have a very good reputation for working hard. We’re known for our hard work, and people respect us for our hard work. But I think that we also need to talk a little bit more and be very proud of how we work smart too. So we work hard, but we also work smart. And we have to because our farm is a business. And it shouldn’t be a bad thing to say that, you know, we should be proud to treat our farm like a business and we should be proud to work smart and strategically as any business owner would. And so I think that we have to talk about the smart things we’re doing, the different things that we’re doing and all the decision-making that goes into a farm. So it’s often talked about how hard we work is we feed the cows every day and milk the cows every day. Then inbetween that we’re strategizing future sustainability projects, we’re thinking about water usage and electricity and pin maintenance and we’re constantly building for the future in terms of our genetics and you know, setting the farm up to continue to succeed. And there’s a lot of cool things that have evolved from the dairy industry because of how you know cutting edge we are in terms of you know, our genetic potential and, you know, everybody’s wearing a watch on their wrist that potentially essentially as a pedometer. Well heck, my cows had those back in the late 90s You know, like, that’s nothing new. You guys have a GPS. Well, gosh, your combine had that before you ever had a Tom Tom in your car. In the ag business, we do a lot of really smart cool things. And I really feel like we’re at the cutting edge of a lot of science is really out there too. So that’s probably my only message when I talk to people is like, Yeah, I do work hard, but I also after work pretty darn smart too. Because you can’t just work 16-hour days every day and think you can sustain it. Oh, there’s a lot of dairymen that do and good for them. That’s just not for me.
EMILIE: Well, have you had time to either think about or Google what do you think the number of states are that milk is the state drink for?
MELISSA: Okay, so I pulled up the list and this list is impressive I will tell you. Um, if I were to throw a random number, because I didn’t take the time to count them, I’m gonna guess like 15 maybe 20.
EMILIE: The number I saw was 21.
MELISSA: Fantastic. I mean Kansas needs get on board.
EMILIE: Yeah, that’s wonderful. Yeah, it made me laugh. I think one state and now someone probably listening will tell me that I’m wrong but one state I think had maybe whiskey and milk and I’m not sure exactly what they wanted to make sure I guess both industries are represented well, so…
MELISSA: Hey, you know if you need to have a state spirit or alcohol, by all means.
EMILIE: Yes, exactly.
MELISSA: Yeah, there you go. And Nebraska’s is KoolAid. Go figure.
EMILIE: It’s got to be red KoolAid probably, right?
MELISSA: Now I’m going down the rabbit hole of Google. That’s a fun one.
EMILIE: Yeah. Well, Melissa, thank you so so much for joining me today and congratulations on your family’s business and enjoy your celebration of June as Dairy Month.
MELISSA: Thank you so much for having me.
EMILIE: Yes. Thank you for all you do.