The pandemic brought hardship to many, but former Penn State Extension 4-H Program Assistant Abby Bramm and her family have turned adversity into an opportunity through opening Pigeon Creek Farm, a micro dairy, on their 32-acre preserved property in Pottstown.
"We'd all been moving so fast with work and school, and then the pandemic caused everything to come to a screeching halt," recalls Bramm. "My work hours were reduced, and I needed to decide whether to get a second job or fulfill my farm dream. That's when I discovered the micro dairy concept."
Micro dairies are farms with fewer than 30 milking cows. For perspective, most Chester County dairy farms have at least 70 cows with a few operations having several thousand. Nationally, the number of dairies is decreasing, yet those that remain are growing larger for improved economy of scale.
Despite the national trend for larger farms, Bramm realized there was wisdom in being smaller than the competition. She milks an average of four cows, producing 25-30 gallons of milk a day, with help from her father-in-law, mother, brother, husband, and daughters, who pitch in when they are able.
"I blame my wonderful neighbors for all of this," laughs Bramm, gesturing at the farm. "We started milking one cow for our family's needs, and then several neighbors started asking if they could purchase our surplus milk. We decided to take the leap and open a full dairy the summer of 2020 and opened the doors to our own little store December 8, 2020."
Despite the community's enthusiasm, Bramm knew she needed scale up gradually, as she was and still is a largely one-woman business.
"As a dairy farmer, all your supplies are astronomically expensive," says Bramm. "I wanted to make the most of what we already had since it's a slow return, especially at first."
Following that principle, she decided to begin by producing raw milk instead of pasteurized. Milk from the grocery store is usually pasteurized, a process involving heat to kill bacteria, whereas raw milk has had nothing done to it other than being filtered and cooled to 38 degrees.
"Producing raw milk doesn't require as much start-up equipment as pasteurized milk, and better still, we knew our customers were looking for it," says Bramm.
Once her customer base began to grow, Bramm felt comfortable expanding. Pigeon Creek Farm's store now features raw milk, eggs, chicken, cheese and produce from the farm, as well as pastries, yogurt, and beef from other local producers. She largely credits the farm's sales growth to evolving customer preferences.
"The pandemic helped a lot of people reconsider where their food was coming from as well as who it was coming from," says Bramm. "It seems customers are coming back not just for the milk but for the connection."
Bramm also credits her relationships with mentors at Kulp's and Kolb's dairies where she learned about cow care and retail store operation in her teens and twenties. Neighboring dairy farmer Holly Sollenberger has been a tremendous help, giving her the knowledge and confidence as a fellow woman farmer to take the plunge into full-time farming.
"Relationships are what made this business possible," she says. "Learning from older generations brings wisdom that you can't get in a book."
Bramm is excited about what the future will bring but understands her limits.
"I can't do every job here on the farm, but I can build relationships with people who can," she says. "We outsource our cheese production and bring in vendors who sell things we don't raise here on the farm."
Instead of working harder, she aims to work smarter. Rather than increasing store hours, she will be focusing on selling Pigeon Creek Farm products at other small markets to reach more customers. She also intends to expand into a line of pasteurized and flavored milks.
"As a 4-H leader, I saw lots of farms start and lots of farms have to close," says Bramm. "It's been hugely impactful for me to have the time to think about our business plan and what we can do differently."