Tim and Laura Joseph
What happens when an underdog drinks its milk and grows up to become the biggest, sassiest pup on the block? In most industries, that's almost invariably seen as a good thing.
But in the world of sustainable, artisanal food, big inherently seems bad, and cult brands are often shunned by their first proselytizers once financial success arrives.
Maple Hill is inverting that notion, and in the process, creating a more economically just, ecologically responsible and sustainable method of small-scale farming for New York State as a whole. In their spare time, the founders are raising and feeding five energetic, engaged kids on a menu of complex ideals and a lot of grass-fed dairy.
Work flows into home for Tim and Laura Joseph, founders of Maple Hill, home flows into work, and family values are a bigger deal to them than the bottom line—even in business.
Tim and Laura sit down for a brief respite at their sprawling farm table in the middle of their kitchen, which is the heart of their home, but it doesn’t last.
Texts and e-mails ping into Tim’s phones from their network of farmers, their five children dash in and out with questions, observations and in search of Mom’s swift justice to settle minor disputes. Unlike many successful entrepreneurs, Tim and Laura are clearly at home—at home. And between assigning chores to the kids (weeding, mowing, chicken gathering) and throwing together a lunch on the fly, they will be the first to tell you: They never wanted to revolutionize farming—they just wanted to make an honest living for their family.
“Tim is a voracious reader and has always plowed through every new study and book about the food system,” Laura says, glancing fondly at her husband over a plate of his just-made farm-fresh grilled chicken salad over greens. “In 2003, we knew it was now or never to become farmers, something he wanted to do since he was 13 years old. We plunged in and had no idea what we were getting into. Thank goodness! Sometimes not knowing is better.”
The couple already had two children. They couldn’t afford help. The classic farm family dramas ensued. “We were broke and working all the time,” Tim says frankly. “The more I read about the food system and farming, the more I realized, going organic and grass-fed was the way we had to go. Not just because it’s better for the environment and the kids who grow up around it—our kids—but because it’s economically smarter, too. That grain bill is killer every month for a decent herd. More importantly, though, the grass-fed diet is better for a cow’s health. Transitioning to grass reduced vet bills considerably.”
One thing became obvious very quickly: Grass-fed dairy products also taste decidedly different. While Maple Hill eventually became a phenomenal success, with products everywhere in New York from Eataly to BJ’s, and stretching from Hawaii to Alaska, the Josephs saw firsthand how tough a sell grass-fed milk and yogurt was to generations raised on processed food.
“When we were first starting out, people would take a bite of our yogurt and you could see from their faces that they didn’t know what to make of it,” Tim remembers. “They weren’t used to the tartness of real yogurt without sugar added.”
Instead of wearing them down, the dubious response energized them to give a new generation of New Yorkers an opportunity to not only eat local, but sustainable, pure, real dairy. Initially, that meant starting with their own family and slowly working outward.
“We are not fanatical, but we try to make sure our kids eat the best food they can,” Tim says. “We have a new garden, and sometimes it feels like we’re growing more weeds than produce, but we have raspberries, strawberries, eggplant, peppers, tomatoes and asparagus, plus fall and winter root vegetables. Our kids are actually very helpful in the garden, and they tend to be more invested in food they grow or make themselves, so they actually eat it.”
“We don’t have a lot of rules at the table,” Laura adds. “But one is: You have to try it. One bite! The older children set a great example for the younger ones.”
The Joseph family also has chickens and ducks they raise, and they buy whole sides of organic beef, additional whole chickens, pork and lamb from their network of farmers.
“We eat together, often several times a day, but we don’t cook from scratch every time,” Laura says. “We make a lot of bone broths to use as bases for soups, we do a lot of simple roasts. We just try to eat real, whole foods as much as we can. Snacks are pieces of fruit, or big surprise, yogurt. But then you know what? Our kids also love cereal and kind of weirdly, canned clam chowder. And that’s fine. The people who have a ton of rules and are really dogmatic all the time about food get really boring, fast.”
One side effect of raising kids whose palates and food preferences don’t always sync up with the rest of the populace is that bringing them to the market is not an option.
“I never bring them to the store with me, because it always back- fires and takes forever,” Laura says, laughing. “They’ll come up to me with packages of food and start asking all of these questions about the ingredients and sourcing, and my answers just lead to more questions.”
While most Americans are increasingly interested in eating organic (we spent $13.4 billion on organic products last year, compared to $12.8 billion in 2014, according to research group Euromonitor), the vast majority of organic food is still processed. Only 1% of America’s cropland is devoted to organic production, according to the USDA.
“It’s so easy to eat organic junk food,” Tim says. “We’ve all seen and eaten the organic corn puffs or gummy worms. When we introduced our grass-fed organic yogurt, a lot of people were freaked out by the tartness and the earthiness. In the spring, our cream-on-top yogurt even has a pinkish-orange hue because the cows are eating new grass with beta-carotene.”
Most yogurts (and food in general these days) are made with so-called “natural flavors,” which is cheaper than using actual farm-fresh fruit. Because they’re derived from plants, they can still be called “natural,” but because they are manipulated in a lab, they have a chemical taste. To counterbalance that, manufacturers add a ton of sugar. Ergo, organic brands of yogurt with more sugar in them than a donut, and a nation of taste buds primed for sweetness.
“We don’t add sugar to anything,” Tim says. “The strawberry kefir is made with ac- tual New York strawberries, and it’s subtle, not a flavor explosion like a lot of brands with ‘natural flavors’ and sugar.”
In 2009, the Josephs scaled up from just milk and bought a creamery to make yogurt. At that point, they were still struggling financially and Maple Hill processed 500 pounds of milk a week. But Tim kept
reading and studying, and Tim and Laura kept thinking about the implications of the current food system for the state’s economy, and the health and well-being of the next generation. Family members (grown-up ones) signed on, despite the fact that the country was sunk in a recession and Maple Hill was struggling. At one point, their car was repossessed and the farm was in foreclosure. Tim’s sister Julia and her husband, Pete Meck, joined their team, with Pete signing on as yogurt-maker and Julia sorting out the finances.
Though Laura, in recent years, has gradually decided to focus more on the family at home, Tim wants to provide the same support to strapped dairy farmers in New York that his sister provided him with. There’s definitely a market for it. Whole Foods named grass-fed dairy and meat as one of its top food trends in 2016, and when Organic Valley topped $1 billion in sales in 2015, it credited its Grassmilk product line to its outstanding success.
“If grass-fed grazing is done properly, it actually adds fertility to the soil,” Tim says. “We work with the Savory Institute and our farmers so that their grazing process is restorative and symbiotic. Grass-fed dairy is also nutritionally superior to conventional dairy. There’s more calcium, vitamin A and a perfect balance of omega-3 and -6.”
Maple Hill has partnered with scores of farms to help them convert to the organic, grass-fed method, by hiring consultants to work one-on-one with them and personally visiting their farm to work with them.
In 2010 in Sharon Springs, the consortium bought their first farm, “Dharma Lea,” adjacent to the Beekman 1802 of the Fabulous Beekman Boys fame. Now, they are a 74-member farm- ing cooperative processing 500,000 gallons of milk per week for yogurt (cream on top, drink- able, Greek), kefir and raw milk and fresh cheese. The cheese is a relative newbie, but like the rest of their suite of products, it’s a goodie.
And as the cooperative gathers more New York farmers into their circle, their product line will continue to grow and expand, enriching eaters’ lives and reinvigorating our dulled palates.
In the meantime, Tim and Laura have to go find their kids, who are probably running around outside. All of their chickens and ducks have to be safely bedded down for the night before their own family feast can begin. Yogurt is on the menu.