Plummeting milk prices forced the Kappers family of Chatfield to conduct their dairy business a little differently. Unlike conventional dairy farms that sell milk to a cooperative, the Kappers began to sell their dairy products in a more untraditional manner: directly to their customers.
During their early years in the industry, Bob and Jeanette Kappers grew tired of losing money as milk prices plummeted. Bob had dreamt of processing his herds’ milk and selling it straight to local families. And after a long eight years of planning, the first batch of Kappers’ Big Red Barn milk was pumped from their processing plant to be bottled for delivery in 2004, and they haven’t looked back.
Bob and Jeanette’s son Lucas and wife Jenna are involved in running the family business, which they refer to as a “micro-dairy,” meaning all their products are produced, processed and packaged right on the farm.
“My dad grew up dairy farming and then he and my mom bought the operation here in Chatfield back in 1984,” Lucas recalled. “We ran a conventional operation until 2004 when we switched over.”
As milk prices fell, the Kappers realized they couldn’t survive in the business unless they grew significantly larger. At the time, the family milked 50 cows and figured it would take 500 for them to stay in business. “We didn’t want to do that, and we didn’t want to sell, so this was our only option,” Lucas said.
The switchover to their current operation involved a lot of work, which began with converting an old shed on their farm into a processing plant. Lucas called it “quite the process” to do something like that because it’s highly regulated, so there’s a lot of red tape to make that conversion.
“The process was a long one while working with USDA to get it done,” Lucas recalled. “I was only nine years old when we started it, but I remember when we took down that old shed. My parents found newspapers in there from the early 1900s, which made for a neat keepsake.”
In an interesting coincidence, the family that owned the farm before the Kappers also bottled and sold their milk to the public. “It was a different time,” Lucas said, “regulations weren’t quite as tight as they are today. The previous family siphoned milk out of their bulk tank and sold it to friends and family. After they quit dairying, the place stood vacant for a couple of decades before my parents moved in.”
The Kappers didn’t have a lot of local experts to draw from when they wanted to learn how to process their milk. With a hearty laugh, Lucas called it a lot of “trial and error.” However, in addition to not finding a lot of knowledge to draw on, finding the equipment for a small processing plant turned into another big challenge.
“Locating equipment on this small of a scale was almost impossible,” Lucas recalled. “Manufacturers hadn’t built equipment this small in a long time, and the newest piece of equipment they found was built in the 1960s. It involved a lot of retrofitting, calling around, and putting this together with that.”
There was no instruction manual, so the Kappers began running milk through their processing plant and had a group of people that would taste-test each batch of milk. “We found a few people that did help, but not many,” he added. “We wished there was a ‘crash course’ in processing out there, but that didn’t exist.”
Much like the past, the Kappers’ milk is delivered in glass bottles instead of traditional plastic jugs. Why glass? Their website says, “Plastic and other materials can alter the flavor of the milk; for the best taste and environmental impact, glass is best! Why plastic?”
Processed milk comes from the cow and into glass bottles in no more than 24 hours. They’ll generally milk anywhere between 50 and 70 cattle twice a day. The milk gets pumped to the processing plant at the end of the day, and milking starts again the next morning.
Customers have the option to visit the Big Red Barn at 33218 County Highway 5 in Chatfield, or have products delivered directly to their home.
In fact, Lucas said delivery is a significant part of their business.
“There are only a handful of places where our milk is available, such as a café in Lanesboro that’ll sell it by the bottle,” Kappers said. “By and large, the only way to get it is from us. We have a self-service store open every day of the year. We also sell our products at farmers markets in both Rochester and St. Paul, Minn.
“But our flagship program since day one is home delivery,” he added. “We’ve also added an online component. Customers create an account online, and that’s how they shop. Additionally, we carry and deliver products from small producers who don’t have any other available outlets to sell their goods.” You’ll find products such as ground beef, vegetables, bread, soaps and butters and more from other vendors available for purchase on the Kappers’ website.
The non-traditional business model has been so successful that the Kappers family is well into expansion plans. “We’re looking at the possibility of putting up a new barn so we can eventually raise our number of milking cows to 100 or more,” he said. “The community we’re in is fully behind us, and our customer response has been awesome.”
The Kappers also have plans for new products in the works. As early as this summer, they’re working on rolling out new flavors of milk, including strawberry, root beer and coffee. They plan to add to their ice cream lineup, as well.
To find out more about what the Kappers family has to offer, go to www.kbrbhomedelivery.com.