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Farm Bureau’s Ag Innovation Challenge Saved Our Farm

Viewpoints / Focus on Agriculture September 11, 2019

Credit: Kim Rotondi 

By Blake Place

It was 2:45 p.m., the last student had left my classroom for the day and I hastily checked my email before heading to a staff meeting. I was an animal science teacher at the local tech school by day and goat farmer when not in session. A subject header reading “Congrats. You are a semifinalist….” scrolled across my screen. My mouth dropped open and I instantly teared up reading the details about how our little goat farm in the middle of rural upstate New York had been selected as a top 10 finalist in the American Farm Bureau’s 2018 Ag Innovation Challenge. I quickly called my husband. We were both shocked to learn we had been selected as a winner for our idea of launching goat milk gelato as a value-added product from our farm.

The moment we learned we had been selected as the winner of $10,000 in start-up funds changed everything for us. Here’s how our journey played out.

Maple Walnut Gelato   Credit: Kim Rotondi   

We received a lot of publicity through local and state newspapers, television and media outlets. We were invited to attend the 2018 American Farm Bureau Federation Annual Convention in Nashville where we connected with many entrepreneurs and farmers. We were also special guests at the Lewis County Farm Bureau and New York State Farm Bureau annual meetings. 

In January 2018, we sat down to design our gelato cup label, while finalizing recipes.

In February, our cup went to the New York State Department of Ag and Markets for approval. The cups were in production in March and by the end of April we had created our first two flavors, vanilla and maple walnut (from local maple syrup, of course).

I believe that in many ways, being part of the Ag Innovation Challenge saved our farm.

We officially launched our goat milk gelato on May 5, 2018. I resigned as a teacher in June and by the end of the summer our product, now in four flavors, was in 20 stores and restaurants. We also added an e-commerce section to our website, to ship our gelato across the country to fans everywhere.

In 2019, we added two new flavors and were picked up by a local distributor. Our fluid milk market has continued to be extremely shaky, but we were able to start this small gelato business, which we are working to grow.

Just sitting down and completing the application for the Ag Innovation Challenge helped us to think strategically about our farm business and where we wanted it to go in the future. Winning put us on the map and we received local, state and national attention. The start-up funds we won helped us get the gelato into production much sooner than we had originally intended.

Farm Bureau followed our journey and remained a constant supporter of our project. I believe that in many ways, being part of the Ag Innovation Challenge saved our farm. The future of the farm is in value-added; being selected as a finalist helped our farm and our family.

I believe many people think they don’t have the time to complete an application or that perhaps it won’t lead to anything. If you share that sentiment, let me take you back to the day I entered the contest.

My husband and I were milking 150 goats twice a day and struggling to find a market for the milk (much to our dismay after believing we had a market for it). We both were working day jobs. The goats were in full-fledged kidding season and we were hand-raising about 110 goat kids. We had two small children at home. The amount of stress in our lives – between not having a reliable milk check for the fluid milk, balancing day jobs and raising a family – was tremendous. We had always wanted to launch a value-added product, but figured we would do so after a few years of shipping fluid milk and getting more experience under our belt. For several years we had been developing ice cream and gelato recipes in our home kitchen, anticipating a future in a value-added product.

When I sat down and started working on the Ag Innovation Challenge application, I decided right then and there we had no chance of winning or even placing in the challenge. Nonetheless, I hit submit and didn’t give it another thought until that wonderful day when I saw the email.

I encourage anyone who has an innovative rural business idea or plan to take the time to enter the Ag Innovation Challenge. Find more information and a link to the application at http://fb.org/aginnovationchallenge. You can’t win if you don’t at least try. Good luck!

Blake Place, a farmer and Farm Bureau member in New York, owns and operates Hidden Pastures Dairy with her husband, Andrew. Entrepreneurs have until Sept. 30 to enter the 2020 Ag Innovation Challenge, conducted by the American Farm Bureau Federation in partnership with Farm Credit. Through this national business competition for U.S. food and agriculture businesses, entrepreneurs compete for $145,000 in start-up funds.

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