The Full Story
by Meg Cadoux Hirshberg
It’s been almost two hundred years since the original foundation was laid for the main house at Stonyfield Farm. We don’t know anything about those hardy folks who first settled the land, but we can be sure that as they cut and hauled trees, lugged rocks for stone walls, cleared pastures, built the barn, milked the cows, plowed the fields, and thought their thoughts, they could never have dreamed that someday their farm would be the site of a thriving yogurt business.
Today, our yogurt is sold in leading supermarkets and natural foods stores across the U.S. Stonyfield Canada now produces scrumptious yogurts in Montreal, and Stonyfield Europe includes organic yogurt ventures in France and Ireland. But even as recently as the mid-1980s, such an enterprise was not even a gleam in founder Samuel Kaymen’s eye.
Indeed, Samuel’s background and education would not appear to have prepared him for the role of yogurt mogul. Trained as a chemist and engineer, he owned a contamination-control company in New Jersey, which he sold in 1964 to seek a more rural lifestyle. Samuel, his wife Louise, and their then three children moved to a fifty-acre homestead in Cornish, New Hampshire. It was in Cornish that they learned to become self-sufficient, maintaining cows, pigs, sheep, ducks, geese, chickens, huge gardens, fruit trees, berries, grapes, grains and, eventually, six children.
It was also on this farm that they learned to change the raw milk from a cow named “Laurabelle” into delicious yogurt atop their woodstove. Samuel, a diabetic, kept experimenting to create the perfect yogurt: wholesome, mild, and creamy, requiring no added sugar. By 1978, when the Kaymens moved to Stonyfield Farm in Wilton, New Hampshire, they had several Jersey cows to bring with them—as well as the recipe for what would become Stonyfield Farm Yogurt.
A Seed is Planted
The Kaymens starting selling quarts of plain yogurt (filled one at a time) to local health food stores. Word spread, demand grew, and soon there were more cows than kids at Stonyfield. But yogurt was still just a sideline for the Kaymens; most of their energy was devoted to a school they founded in 1979, The Rural Education Center. TREC was a nonprofit devoted to teaching rural and homesteading skills. It attracted students and supporters from all over the world, and at its height had two thousand members, and hundreds of students passing through every year. But TREC relied on philanthropy for a large part of its financial support, and in 1981 those funds began to dry up.
Meanwhile, down on Cape Cod, future partner Gary Hirshberg was facing similar problems finding funding for the organization he then directed, the New Alchemy Institute. The Institute was also a nonprofit organization, specializing in the development of alternative technologies, including solar greenhouses, organic gardening, and Gary’s specialty, the water-pumping windmill. But since funding was becoming a problem at New Alchemy as well, Gary created new mini-enterprises to help the institute generate its own revenues. Largely because of Gary’s background in both nonprofit and for-profit ventures, Samuel recruited him in 1982 to his board of directors to help implement a business strategy for TREC.
A seed had been planted. To create a new source of much-needed revenue for the education center, why not expand the dairy herd, add value to the farm’s own milk, and make yogurt production a serious financial venture? On April 9, 1983, Stonyfield produced its first fifty-gallon batch of yogurt. In September of that year, Gary left New Alchemy and moved to Wilton with the dream of turning this small-scale yogurt business into a cottage industry that would fund TREC. The first hint of just how fast the business would take off came the very next month, when the dairy buyer for a large Massachusetts supermarket chain called Samuel and asked why Stonyfield Yogurt was being sold to other stores in the area but not to his chain. Samuel explained that more yogurt would mean more cows, and the fledgling business didn’t have any more cows. “Well,” came the response, “then get some more cows!”
But there was no room for more cows. There was also no time to tend them; Samuel, Louise, and Gary were running the farm, milking the cows, making and delivering the yogurt, raising money to finance the business, and running the education center.
Then, suddenly, the enterprise was literally struck by lightning. One November night in 1984, an electrical storm knocked out the power at Stonyfield, and with it, the electric milking machine. After a full day of doing their other chores, Samuel, Louise, and Gary were faced with milking all nineteen cows by hand. The cows were even more upset than the people. Unaccustomed to being milked in the dark by human hands, they stomped their feet, mooed, and kicked over buckets. The three milkers looked at one another, recognized the hopelessness of the situation, and realized sadly that the cows just had to go.
Stonyfield began buying milk from local dairy farmers. The old wood boiler that used to heat the milk was replaced by an oil-fired boiler; gone were the days of tending wood fires to warm the milk and incubator. The Rural Education Center went into dormancy. Five bedrooms in the old farmhouse were converted to offices. Wood heat in the offices and a spectacular mountain view belied the fact that Stonyfield had become a modern small business with computers and sophisticated dairy-processing equipment.
The addition of a new filling and capping machine in 1985 allowed the company to expand from selling just quarts of plain yogurt to offering individual-serving sized containers with such flavors as maple, vanilla, strawberry, apricot mango, peach, and cappuccino.
I came into the picture at about this time, when I met Gary at a conference and soon had him making personal weekend deliveries of yogurt to New Jersey, where I was living. Two years later, I joined Gary in New Hampshire and we were married; we have now added three yogurt eaters to the population.
A hilltop farm is a great place to raise children, but it’s not always the best place to run a business. By the time I joined Gary in 1986, eighteen-wheel tractor-trailers were arriving almost daily to pick up and deliver products, and for six months of the year they were getting stuck or sliding in the snow, mud, or ice. Full-time yogurt producers became part-time shovelers and rescuers of trucks. And the space for production and storage was cramped and far from ideal.
In the fall of 1988, Stonyfield built a modern, sprawling plant in Londonderry, New Hampshire. The new facility was custom-designed to handle the still-increasing demand for more yogurt. Over the last couple of decades, Stonyfield has experienced explosive growth, while introducing many new products: yogurt drinks, frozen yogurt, ice cream, YoBaby, a Greek yogurt we call Oikos, soy yogurts, and fluid milk—all organic.
Moving into the 21st century
Today, in addition to producing the yummiest and healthiest yogurts available, Stonyfield has become a model for socially and environmentally responsible business. We established a “Profits for the Planet” program, which commits 10% of our annual profits to individuals and organizations working to restore and protect the environment. Stonyfield also uses the yogurt lids—millions each week—to promote causes, organizations, and environmental initiatives. Our plant engineers have worked hard to reduce the energy we use to make yogurt, and to recycle as much waste as possible, which has kept tens of millions of pounds of waste from being dumped into landfills. We are proud that because of our company and your support, we are able to keep hundreds of organic farmers in business, and over 100,000 acres managed with organic practices.
For its efforts on behalf of the community and the environment, Stonyfield has received numerous awards, including the Clean Air Excellence and Green Power Leadership from the Environmental Protection Agency; Business Week’s “America’s Most Promising Social Entrepreneur” award in 2009; Consumer Reports’ “Best Companies to Buy From”; and, in 2008, Working Mother magazine’s “Best Green Companies For America’s Children.”
Our products have won many awards too, for taste and for health. In 2009, Good Housekeeping Research Institute awarded Stonyfield with “Best Vanilla Yogurt,” and similar accolades have rolled in from the likes of Women’s Health, Fitness magazine, Natural Health magazine, Vegetarian Times, Rachael Ray Magazine, Men’s Health, and Real Simple.
We’ve come a long way from the ”stony fields“ of Stonyfield Farm. Much as we loved the farm, we outgrew it. But our origins are there, in that rambling old hilltop farmhouse, and when we left we took with us the nurturing spirit of the place. That is what you are consuming with every cup of Stonyfield Yogurt you eat.
Meg Cadoux Hirshberg
Londonderry, NH, May 2009