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Sustainable marketing works. Niche marketing works. Just ask the dairy producers from Our Family Farms of western Massachusetts. The milk cooperative, based near Greenfield, Mass., has turned eight small, sustainable family operations into a local marketing success story in just about five years.

"We are the local milk supplier," says Debbie Duprey, Our Family Farms co-manager, whose family milks about 50 head of cows. "We are in a densely populated area of Massachusetts, near such cities as Amherst and Northampton. There are a lot of well-educated consumers in this area that are aware of the environment and support local farmers to keep rural areas rural. They care about their food."

Our Family Farms turned adversity into opportunity during the mid-1990s when fluid milk prices were low. A Midwest company interested in sourcing organic milk from New England had approached some of the producers about whether they could meet such a demand. Six families created Our Family Farms with a $1,000 investment each. The cooperative sold their first case of rBST-free (no artificial hormones) milk in 1997.

"We started out small, providing rBST-free milk to our friends and family," Duprey says. "It was not economical for us to produce organic milk the Midwest company wanted because we do not have a source of organic grain in this area. The rBST-free milk niche was a good one because we do not use bovine somatatropin (rBST) with our cows."

The eight family farms that are now part of the cooperative all use a rotational grazing system. Cows are kept on grass for seven months and put on hay from pasture for five months. The Dupreys also have a solar free-stall barn for cow comfort and herd housing.

"Our production practices allow us to produce a high-quality, good-tasting milk product," she says. "We are all second, third or fourth generation producers who guarantee our milk is produced in a sustainable manner and without rBST, and that message is a major part of our marketing effort."

Through a $12,500 grant from the Massachusetts Department of Food and Agriculture in 1997, they developed a business plan and designed their first marketing tool; the milk carton side panel. The milk cartons contain a short biography of one of the familiesí operations.

Other marketing efforts used draw on the groupís grassroots strengths and creativity. Radio spots on a local blues radio station tout that "Our Family Farms skim milk doesnít have the blues." Duprey and co-manager Faith Williams also work with a local cookie manufacturer to offer cents-off milk coupons to college students who buy locally-produced cookies.

"We benefit from talking directly with consumers," says Duprey. "We personally go into supermarkets and give out samples of milk and receive tremendous feedback."

All of the families involved attend fairs and visit schools to talk about composting and caring for the land and animals. They also speak to civic organizations about the value of local farmers and their contributions to the rural economy. Sales have grown from $76,000 per month in 1998 to $90,000.

"That is sound sales growth," says Duprey, "considering that consumers pay up to 50 cents per gallon more for Our Family Farms milk." The price is higher because of the number of steps involved to get the rBST-free milk in the retail pipeline. The milk is first sold to Agri-Mark who runs a special route to pick up the rBST-free milk. A local processor puts the milk into our cartons and sells it back to the cooperative for distribution to retail outlets.

"Itís a lot of work," says Duprey. "We do everything from milking cows to stocking shelves. Most of the time we are on the phone with stores figuring out milk processing needs and getting orders filled."

"This is a way of life as much as a business," Duprey says. And they want to keep it that way. Thatís sustainability.AM

Barb Baylor Anderson is a freelance writer from Edwardsville, Ill., who covers a wide variety of ag issues.

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