Featured Sustainable Producer Spotlight Story
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In 1999, Bill and Sheri Noffke began their hobby farm with one goal in mind: to raise food for themselves while making a little extra to cover production costs.
As the demand for healthy, nutritious food increased, the Noffkes changed their plan. Fast forward 15 years, and you will find what began as a hobby farm has now become Skyview Farm and Creamery, a sustainable business, producing grass finished beef and lamb, pasture-raised whey fed pork, pastured broilers, free range eggs, raw milk, and Grade A cheese. Mission accomplished.
With this much going on, Bill and Sheri work full time on the farm. While they milk the cows, their oldest daughter milks the goats, but she will soon be starting graduate school, which leaves the Noffkes in need of help.
"Sometimes we hire a little extra help when more than one of us needs to be gone, but pretty much Bill and I carry the load," Sheri says.
The Noffkes moved to Pleasanton, located about 50 miles south of Kansas City, Kansas, in 1999 when Bill accepted a position as a pastor at a small church. One very fortunate advantage the Noffkes had in getting started was that the house and 80 acres of land, inherited from Bill's father, provided them with debt-free living from the beginning. Additionally, Bill's skill as a carpenter helped enhance the home and improve outbuildings on the property. With a hobby farm in mind, they slowly began to acquire one type of animal, and then another.
"We began by buying a book about a particular animal, then getting the animals, then reading the book, Sherry begins. "Most books seemed like a description of problems that could happen, and we didn't need any of that! Later when a problem did inevitably arise, we went back to the book to look it up and discovered all kinds of information that would have been helpful earlier."
The Noffkes practice rotational grazing on their land, which is mostly hilly pastures. Twenty acres of their land have trees, which provide shade for the dairy cows, and are mostly used for wintering cattle.
In addition to pasturing cattle, the Noffkes have dabbled in the pastured poultry business, building portable chicken coops based off Joel Salatin's "egg mobile" concept. The farm's free range eggs are always in demand, and Sheri admits there are never enough. In the spring they raise enough pastured broilers to keep the family "in chicken" for the year while having a few extra to sell.
"There is certainly a market for them, we just don't have enough labor," Sheri explains.
Although the raw milk sales have always been a steady source of income throughout the years for the Noffkes, it has been the most challenging part to keep up. Sheri explains that some small dairies are seasonal and that a producer may lose customers in the dry time, not to mention getting the cows bred back to the producer's schedule is nearly impossible.
"When the kids started leaving for college, we knew our cheap source of labor was moving on and we decided to focus on the dairy aspect of our farm," Sheri explains. As a result, the Noffkes began building the creamery in 2010 and started making cheese.
Although their house and land was debt free, they did need to take out a loan to finish the creamery in a timely manner, which Sheri admits was a challenge as it make the generation of income even more important.
"There is a lot of start-up equipment involved in cheese making. Then of course it takes a while for the cheese to age..." Sheri says.
"There was also the steep learning curve from making good cheeses in the kitchen to 75 gallon cheese vats in the creamery. Once we had goat milk AND cow milk it became more complicated. We decided to save time and try to come up with recipes that combined the milks to save days making cheese. We discovered their unique characteristics and got inspired to try more combinations. Some weren't so good, but the chickens didn't mind!" Sheri explains.
The Noffkes faced another unforeseen issue: product liability insurance.
"Since we sell raw milk from the farm legally in the state of Kansas, insurers do not want to carry us, and the cost is really prohibitive," Sheri explains.
Despite offering to sign waivers to exclude the raw milk from the policy or trying to designate the farm into separate milk and cheese producing entities, the insurance company won't agree to carry them. This limits their market to vendors that do not require product liability insurance.
"The raw milk sales are our main income and the cheese is extra. If times get tough, people will still need milk, although it might cut down on their cheese consumption," Sheri says.
Skyview Farm and Creamery is part of the Kansas City Food Circle, which connects consumers with sustainably produced products. In addition to selling through farmers markets, grocery stores, specialty cheese shops, restaurants, and a winter CSA, the farm reaches its customers through the farm's website, their weekly email newsletter and Facebook page.
"Newspaper advertising wasn't very productive. People who are looking for sustainably raised food will search the internet for it. If you don't have a website, they keep looking," Sheri says.
The Noffkes offer farm tours and hold open house days for people to learn more about their operation and farming philosophy. Sheri also notes that quite a few customers carpool to their farm to pick up products.
"Most customers find us by searching online then they look for ways of being able to get mainly milk on a regular basis. We are about two miles from the main highway; it's nice that there is only about three-quarters of a mile of gravel road to our farm from the city so customers really don't mind the drive."
The Noffkes decided to pursue sustainable agriculture because they wanted to eat the food they produced and they had to live on a farm. Though the farm is not certified organic, all of their poultry, beef, pork, and dairy animals graze on naturally fertilized, chemical-free pastures and are fed non-GMO grains.
Sheri offers some advice to those looking to get into sustainable agriculture:
"Try to stay out of the pressure of debt and find your niche market. Well-raised food costs more, but you have to find out what the market will bear and your production costs," she says. "Heritage breed turkeys sounded like a good idea, but not very many people will pay over $100 for a holiday turkey even though it costs almost that to produce."
Sheri also suggests eating your own product and talking about it and notes that modern families spend less time cooking from scratch, so she suggests explaining how to best cook that product and offer suggestions to your customers.
"And finally, always return phone calls and emails. There is nothing more frustrating to a potential customer than being ignored. They will look elsewhere and don't call back."
Sheri has utilized ATTRA resources on topics that include algae in the chicken waterers, lespedeza in the pasture, and solving low milk production on grass fed dairy cows.
"When we had a problem that the locals would solve with chemicals, that wasn't an option for us. ATTRA was able to help us find the solution, or at least point us in the right direction. The agriculture specialists would truly listen and ask lots of questions before giving advice."
To learn more about Skyview Farm please visit www.skyviewfarm.net/.
The Sustainable Producer Spotlight is offered as a celebration of those who practice sustainable and organic agriculture and is not intended as an endorsement of the featured operations or products.
This page was last updated on: June 18, 2014