The real reel of diversification

Posted on July 19, 2022 in Dairy Performance
Several years ago, as they faced low milk prices, Amber and Joe McComish began brainstorming ways to diversify their dairy farming business. During her presentation at the Vita Plus Midwest Dairy Conference, Amber said the farm’s succession plan, industry price swings, the future of the industry and consumer trends, and building for their growing family’s future all influenced their diversification goals.

The couple operates a 250-cow dairy and 2,000 acres with Joe’s parents near Darlington, Wisconsin. Initially, Amber had her heart set on making farmstead cheese. Conversations with cheesemaker friends and “wanting to do something different” led her to explore several other options and she eventually landed on gelato, an Italian frozen dessert that Amber describes as “the middle ground between custard and ice cream.”

Amber said she “literally watched YouTube videos” to learn how to make gelato and spent countless hours in her home kitchen experimenting with the process and flavors. She then rented time in an incubator licensed kitchen in Platteville, Wisconsin, to begin producing gelato commercially. Because she also did farm chores and shared the kitchen with other entrepreneurs, it often meant making gelato in the middle of the night.

Amber actively sought resources in establishing her business, including the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA). Through the SBA, she found a consultant that helped her set up the business as a limited liability company (LLC) and established a business plan, which was necessary in applying for grants and loans. Amber pointed out that she owns 51% and Joe owns 49% of the business, making the business eligible for more grants as it is a majority female-owned business.

Amber began selling wholesale gelato to local gas stations and stores. In the spring of 2020, just one month after the COVID-19 pandemic closed the doors of many businesses, Amber opened her Lucky Cow Coffee and Gelato store and kitchen in downtown Darlington. Amber said one of the smartest moves they made was to look for used equipment to meet their needs versus buying new.

“We’ve seen a lot of new businesses go out of business because they spent too much on equipment,” she said.

Initially, the store was open one day a week and customers purchased their gelato via a drive-up service. It is now open daily and offers coffee, local cheeses, and baked goods in addition to the gelato. Last year, as Darlington’s Main Street was under construction, the McComishes added a food trailer to the Lucky Cow business. They also bought the building where their store is located.

She advised anyone interested in diversifying to take it one step at a time. She explained it takes a lot of time to secure all necessary licenses, apply for grants and loans, and look for new opportunities amidst the day-to-day work of running a business and farming. However, it can also be a very rewarding and financially sound endeavor.

Amber said, “This is hard and you are going to fail, but you keep working.”

The McComishes continue to take it one step at a time as well. Amber said the wholesale business “took a backseat” during the COVID-19 pandemic and store opening, but she would like to regrow that portion of her business. Right now, she purchases all the milk used to make her gelato because it is logistically simple, but her goal is to one day produce farmstead gelato. She also wants to find ways to maximize the use of the food trailer and rent out the apartment above the store.

Amber said the store has also given her great opportunities to have conversations with consumers about dairy farming and dairy products. A 2021 article published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel had people traveling across the state to try her Lucky Cow gelato.

“People will come,” she said. “They like to support local businesses and they like to try something new and different.”

Click here to download McComish’s PowerPoint presentation from the 2022 Vita Plus Midwest Dairy Conference.

Category: Business and economics
Dairy Performance