St. Brigid's Meadows
Vince and Dawn Hundt: Adding Value with Direct Marketing
Vince Hundt grew up on a dairy farm, six miles from his current farm near Coon Valley, WI. After college, and an opportunity to see the world, he returned to the area, got married, and started farming. For a few years they rented, but in 1978, the Hundts purchased their current farm and began milking a 43 cow herd. A subscription to Organic Farming and Gardening magazine helped them start down their path to organic agriculture. “By the late 50s, my family’s farm started to modernize and we adopted the University recommended programs and started using atrazine to kill weeds in corn. When we started farming, we too used some atrazine on the corn and some potassium chloride fertilizer. We were a classic small dairy that fed what we raised and raised what we fed. By the late 80s though, we started to see the light and stopped using poisons and antibiotics and went organic,” noted Vince.
“When we bought the farm in ‘78, commodity prices dropped by 50% and interest rates went through the roof two years later, so I started selling forestry and recycling equipment to prevent going bankrupt. This eventually evolved into manufacturing a newspaper bedding chopper called the Rotochopper. It was a simple system built right here on the farm that started to evolve quickly. It was amazing to see how fast something can grow and how many people’s lives are affected. During the 1990’s in particular, the Rotochopper company dominated my life,” reflected Vince. Today we have over 100 employees and machines all over the world.
By the mid-2000s, the company had gotten so big that is was better to have all of the staff and manufacturing together at the manufacturing facility in St. Martin, MN, where manufacturing had moved to in the early 90’s. “I handed off responsibilities to others, and now I focus mostly on international sales. No matter where you are in the world it is interesting how quickly the discussion turns to food and organic food. People do not trust generic food anymore. I love talking about organic food and farming and I think we are at a tipping point where almost everyone understands how important food is to health, economics, the environment and life in general.” stressed Vince.
In the fall of 2007, the Hundts bought the farm down the road, “a beautiful small dairy farm that I could not resist,” and started an organic dairy. They remodeled the barn, bought jerseys and started intensive, rotational grazing. Simultaneously, they founded the St. Brigid’s Meadows brand so they could direct market their dairy, pork, beef, poultry and egg products.
Vince hired a family to manage the dairy herd, while he and Dawn focused on the beef, poultry, crops and developing the branded business. “The good thing about direct marketing is you don’t worry about commodity competition, but there is a lot that needs to be learned. It is fun. Our customers tell us how much they love our products. They know where it is coming from and that it is really good,” said Vince. “Farming is rewarding when you see healthy animals and crops, and you can share that we people that you get to know who appreciate what you are doing. Direct marketing is for farmers that enjoy working with people.”
A few years ago, the Hundts decided to discontinue dairying. “It was a very hard decision, but we had a difficult time keeping steady help. We gave it several tries, but unfortunately, we weren’t able to make it work.”
They have instead decided to focus on the beef, poultry and pork products while partnering with a small organic dairy farm down the road to supply dairy products. To this end, they have just built a brand new on-farm retail store and a new laying hen house at the dairy farm. “Pork, beef, poultry, eggs, cheese and some local produce are enough to get people to drive to the country and visit a farm and buy some really fresh groceries.” emphasized Vince.
Vince is particularly happy with the soil improvements he has seen since adopting a rotational grazing system. Since 2008, he has been able to raise his soil organic matter by a full percentage point. Vince relies on his pastures and a three-crop rotation of corn, small grains and hay to produce the feed he needs for his livestock.
In 2008, when Vince began rotational grazing, he recognized the need to provide portable shade that could be moved from paddock to paddock to keep animals comfortable and evenly distribute manure. He was surprised to find that despite the popularity of rotational grazing, no one had created a successful portable shade. Working with two recent college graduate friends of the family, in 2012 they created the first prototype of the Shade Haven–a mobile shade canopy. With a few refinements, they began to actively market the new product. Their first show was the Organic Farming Conference in 2013, where they sold the first two Shade Havens. They now make five or six a month and have sold over 40 units with sales speeding up as word gets out. “It’s never too hot if a cow has shade,” noted Vince. “The #1 reason people buy these is because they love their animals and they love grass. On top of that these units can pay for themselves in a few seasons through improved productivity, and we have the university data to prove it.”