Failed business after failed business after failed business. It seemed every time partners Ernie Harvey and Jennifer Holmes thought they’d found a processor for their organic milk, those companies soon went under. So they tackled the job themselves.

It may seem working with Victor, Mont., dairy, Lifeline Farm, is the kiss of death. It’s not. Rather, its business model may be a solution to the roller-coaster dairy industry as per a Montana Milk Market Regulation Study.

Study findings ticked off many business practices implemented by Lifeline Dairy that could help dwindling dairies stay in business. Most critically, they process their milk at their own creamery and make value-added products.

Ernie Harvey and partner, Jennifer Holmes, will soon sell their proven business to pursue new challenges. They hope they can find buyers who are equally as passionate.

Lifeline Farm churns out organic milk, butter, and a variety of small-batch cheeses at their Victor creamery, selling products through their storefront and local and regional distributors.

A certified biodynamic dairy through 2019, they strive to be self-sustaining and use all byproducts. They graze 300 brown Swiss cows — a dual-purpose breed — and steers. They feed steers to finish and market them as grass-fed beef. Whey from cheese making and waste grain from the parlor will feed 50 head of farrow-to-finish hogs. Hogs are locally processed into sausage, ham, bacon, and chops, and sold in their store and distribution channels.

“The business is very vertically integrated,” Harvey says, explaining the goal of the farm is to be self-contained. Reaching for that goal naturally results in diversification.

Full Circle. It’s novel to them for their business to be used as a positive industry example.

“I’ve always liked pioneering things. We’ve often been on the outside, ostracized by people who thought we were crazy. Interestingly, it’s come around that our method is a good strategy in a tough market,” Harvey says.

When Harvey and some like-minded, community-driven friends took over a local traditional dairy in 1984 with zero experience, they started the only organic cow dairy in the state. Nobody thought dairy cows could be affordably pastured, he says.

They implemented intensive rotational grazing, doubling the forage productivity of the farm. “We were doing that decades before it caught on,” he says. Paddocks are now rotated every 2-3 days and bolstered with applications of compost made on-farm.

Connecting. When the cheesemaker they used closed shop in 2002 and offered to teach them the trade, they accepted.

They set up shop in a small finished-to-suit building next to a grocery store. In the back, milk, cheese and butter are processed, packaged, and shipped out.

In front, their small but well-stocked storefront offers their wares, including milk, cheeses, butter, pork, and beef products.

It’s a bustling enterprise. Locals come in and out, ringing the bell to call someone out of the bottling or packing room to make a sale.

“That’s part of being a self-contained organism. We support the community, and the community supports us,” Harvey says.

Read more