Sen. Smith, Torres Small visit Ten Finns Creamery
The USDA Rural Development undersecretary announced a $500,000 grant to support agricultural innovation.
MENAHGA —Ten Finns Creamery, the A2 dairy farm run by the Joel and Amanda Hendrickson family south of Menahga, received some VIP visitors Tuesday.
U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development Undersecretary Xochitl Small and other USDA state officials talked with the Hendricksons about their unique business and announced funding for a program to help bring their A2 milk products to market.
A2 is a protein found naturally in milk. However, due to a genetic mutation, most cows produce the A1 protein, which the Hendricksons believe to cause the digestive discomfort many people experience after drinking milk.
The couple and their 10 children breed and care for about 150 A2 cows, producing whole, 2% and chocolate milk and butter that, Joel said, one of their customers told him causes only “two farts per gallon” compared to the non-stop gas regular milk gives him.
The more tummy-friendly protein content isn’t the only way their products stand out. In a tour of the farm’s milk processing facility, Joel explained their milk is non-homogenized and pasteurized with a “high temperature short time” process (HTST), as opposed to the “ultra-high temperature” pasteurization (UHT) that has a longer shelf life.
“I believe, if it naturally separates, why do we want to change that?” said Joel.
He said the typical shelf life for HTST pasteurized milk is about 16-18 days, compared to up to 60 days for UHT pasteurized milk. Nevertheless, he said, “I believe our milk’s better for you,” and that with ultra-pasteurization, “I think they kill everything good in it.”
Marketing, distribution issues
Joel said when he decided to breed an all-A2 herd, he hoped somebody like Land O’Lakes, Dairy Farmers of America or United Natural Foods would partner with him to distribute his product.
However, they were skeptical about the health benefits of A2 milk, or put off by the HTST-pasteurized, non-homogenized milk’s shorter shelf-life and tendency to separate.
Eventually, he said, his family decided to go it alone, with help from a private investor. They began processing their milk at home and distributing to regional coops and interested local stores, via Mason Brothers in Wadena.
Still, Joel said, marketing their product continues to be a top concern.
“The whole marketing thing,” he said, “that’s the trick. I’m convinced, if we could inform everybody in Minnesota about A2 milk and the benefits, my milk would be sold out.”
Assisting with innovation
Joining the conversation was Shannon Schlecht, executive director of the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute (AURI), which has worked with the Hendricksons on product development.
Schlecht said AURI has partnered with the state of Minnesota for 33 years, providing technical assistance for agricultural producers. But while they can help get something started, he said, their challenge is how to grow it in scale.
Harold Stanislawski, AURI’s business and industry development director, said marketing is one of the biggest challenges with A2 milk, especially in western Minnesota. “You need to try to create some bigger markets,” he said.
Stanislawski said A2 milk could be a good fit for nursing homes and hospitals, “but it’s a little hard to get into that value chain set up.”
Joel said the local market is easy, with the grocery store in Menahga selling about 100 gallons of their product a week. The farther away, the harder it becomes, he said, though there have been requests for his milk from Watertown, S.D. and Williston, N.D.
“People gotta ask,” he said. “I could go talk to these stores and tell them it’s a great thing. The way it works is when consumers go asking for it. Then it means something.”
$500,000 for AURI
Toward the end of the meeting, Torres Small announced that USDA Rural Development was awarding a $500,000 Agriculture Innovation Center demonstration grant to AURI to help producers develop and market value-added agricultural products.
“We’re really excited about getting to see, on the ground, the impacts,” she said, “what happens when we support some of the best innovators in America – farmers – and help find ways to take those innovations and create and support markets around them.”
She said such regional markets can help rural communities thrive and ensure that young people grow up to have their own business opportunities. “That’s why this grant is so important,” she said, adding that it “highlights local work and local ideas and invests in them.”
“It’s a great opportunity,” said Smith. “AURI is really unique in the country. There aren’t that many other examples of organizations that are figuring out how to take the great ideas that we’re seeing here and help get them to market, and help get them also to scale.
“It’s a really great example of a public-private partnership, and a state-federal partnership.”
Schlecht called the program “a great fit for AURI” that will enable them to help producers like the Hendricksons improve processes, develop products, reach the marketplace and grow their business.
According to a USDA press release, AURI will provide a $250,000 match to fund engineering and business development, and to connect producers with distribution systems, processing facilities and commercial kitchens.