SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — “It was like jumping off a cliff… Dream, plan, be creative but be meticulous in producing a top-quality product. Above all, keep it simple starting out...”
When traveling near Sioux Falls, South Dakota, a must-stop for lunch and ice cream is always the Stensland Family Farms Creamery. The ambitious and energized family, extended family and team of employees bring a dairy dream to life for thousands of customers at their two retail store and eateries in Sioux Falls as well as the Falls Park cafe, and for the hundreds who tour the Larchwood, Iowa farm an hour south.
In addition to ice cream, cheese is fast becoming a specialty from their on-farm processing plant, so not only is a hand-dipped ice cream cone a must — in traditional and creative flavors – delicious sandwiches, varieties of cheese curds and other goodies are on the menu as well.
In fact, the Stenslands are quick to point out that coming up with catchy names for both the new and traditional ice cream flavors is as important as the creation of a high quality product people remember and return for.
Their second retail location on the east side of Sioux Falls opened in June, and it mirrors the west side location, according to Mark Stensland, who manages the retail stores with his niece Leah (Stensland) Moller, who owns them.
Leah downsized her own event business to join-in on the dairy dream that began with her brothers. She does the Stensland brand-marketing, and she and her mom Mona make all the hand-dipped ice cream on-site, while the container ice cream is made at the creamery on the farm.
This dream — with 9 family members and 10 employees — began when twin brothers Jason and Justin, now 33, were just 16 and wanted to milk cows.
Their father Doug talks of the evolution during a March visit to the farm. He paints both a passionate and pragmatic picture.
“It’s like jumping off a cliff,” says Doug about the step into both modernizing the dairy and then adding the dairy processing and retail.
In fact, for Doug, it was a really big step. His father, Art had sold the cows when Doug and Mona’s children were young. They continued farming the 1600 acres, including organic crops, while Doug and Mona worked off the farm.
Sons Jason and Justin had a dream of getting back in.
“We wanted to dairy and then we wanted to know and shake hands with our consumer,” says Justin. They were busy in the creamery during my visit, but during a break, our conversation was marked by brothers finishing each other’s sentences on the workings of the plant and how their dream developed.
Doug and youngest son Kyle mostly manage the cropping and feeding of the 200-cow herd, but Kyle also spends Mondays in the plant with his brothers. Everyone knows both sides of the business here.
“It’s a learning curve,” says Kyle, part of the family team that joined-in to make the dream a reality.
“Nine family members all went to the edge of the cliff with us and jumped,” the twins explain. “If it were not for all of us involved, we would not be able to do this.”
Those other family members made life-altering decisions to be part of this. Doug’s retired brother Mark moved back to the Sioux Falls area to help Leah run the stores in Sioux Falls. For her part, she downsized her event business to get into the dairy marketing and retailing.
To work together as a team of family and employees with diverse talents, roles and ideas in one dairy-focused business means figuring out the dynamics — but then again, not overthinking it.
“We encourage each other all the time. That’s what it takes,” says Jason.
Doug confesses he and Mona talked about processing for many years. “Little did we know we were instilling that seed in our kids. Our children, they are the ones who resurrected this dairy.”
Jason and Justin started out working for another dairy farm as their home farm was crops and some heifers. They were 16 when they started buying cows and equipment. By the time they made a deal with their grandfather, Art, to rent the old dairy barn, they had 30 cows and since then have built the herd to 200 in an old step-up parlor for 12 cows.
“It took the two of us 10 hours to milk!” Justin recalls.
When it came to modernizing the milking, Doug’s mindset was parlor-milking, “but the boys wanted robots. They took me to see them and opened my mind.” Doug realizes that, “This is their future, not mine. I told them these decisions are for you, not me.”
The robotically-milked crossbred herd today produces 80 pounds/cow/day of 4.0F and 3.1P with SCC below 200,000.
Cindy Krull-Begeman serves as herd manager at Stensland Family Farms. She brought some ideas from a lifetime of dairying in Wisconsin, including the implementation of a fresh cow routine using Udder Comfort.
“At first, we used Udder Comfort here and there and liked what we saw,” says Doug. He and Mona had stopped by the trade show booth at the 2017 World Dairy Expo. “Cindy started as herd manager about that time and she has us using it more on our fresh cows. As we’re more proactive with it, we see the benefits.”
“I really enjoy being part of this team. It’s in my blood. I love cows, and I love what Udder Comfort does for them,” says Cindy, noting that her family’s Wisconsin dairies have also relied on the benefits of Udder Comfort for more than a decade. “Here at Stensland, the robots give us conductivity lists every morning, which is great for monitoring the herd.”
Cow comfort is important, with tunnel-ventilation and location fans as well as waterbeds throughout the freestall barn.
“One thing we also focus on is softening fresh udders, spraying them during the first 4 to 7 days after calving. Since they milk voluntarily with robots, it’s different from home where we applied it after milking. We spray fresh udders when we are feeding cows and use the headlocks. We also do start the prefresh heifers with Udder Comfort in the loafing pen. It is the best product for softening udders,” Cindy explains.
Today, all four children are integrally involved at Stensland Family Farms. In addition, Justin’s wife Chelsea is the farm tour coordinator, inventory manager and works with the financials. Jason’s wife Paige does the social media, ordering and sales.
The three boys together have the creamery, and their sister the retail locations with Doug and Mona as partners in the farm. “My biggest contribution is my signature,” Doug says with a good-natured laugh. “Everything is on the line.”
One thing that helps is the community of support. Even their banker follows them on social media. “He gets what is going on,” says Doug.
His advice on the processing side is: Dream, plan, be creative but be meticulous in producing a top-quality product. Above all, keep it simple starting out.
For example, the Stenslands started with three basic ice cream flavors and once the foundation was just the way they wanted it, they could build in new and creative flavors that keep things interesting for their customers.
On the pragmatic side, Jason and Justin say they did not start with all new processing equipment right off the bat. “And we focus on doing this to make the best ice cream, not the cheapest.”
They did a lot of preparation for this challenge, but they found that “you learn as you go, and it takes good team communication to keep moving forward.”
Chefs in the area have sought them out for their butter and cream, but the Stensland Family Farms ice cream always comes first. In addition to daycare centers serving a collective 2800 children, and grocers in the area, coffee houses in Sioux Falls are among the 100 locations they have developed markets for milk and ice cream.
The daycare centers were a key at the start. “Schools are tough because of the government rules and the competition. When we get a daycare contract, it’s mostly 2% and whole milk, while the coffee shops take on some of our fat-free and 1% for ‘skinny lattes’,” he says, admitting that the fat-free and 1% milk is hard to move and so in his spare time he experiments with yogurt ideas in his kitchen.
Doug says the daycare contracts give them a pool of children to educate about dairy, offering farm tours. They reach the parents this way too.
Doug also advises vat pasteurization at a low heat. “It’s harder to do, but it all tastes better,” he says, noting that customers tell them once they started drinking their milk, “they don’t have the lactose problem anymore.”
He attributes this to the combination of low heat vat pasteurization and the emphasis they are putting on A2 milk genetics in their Holstein x Jersey x Montpelier, Fleckveigh and Shorthorn crossbreeding program.
Their on-farm creamery was using 35% of their production by the end of their first two years as they are starting on their fourth, still marketing some of their milk through cooperative membership. Hiring a recent microbiology graduate of South Dakota State University is helping them expand into cheese and curds, which is even more trial-and-error in development than ice cream.
Doug and Mona are partners with the children, but they’ve adopted an attitude of “pretty much working for them.”
A key ingredient is “We don’t tell each other what to do, and we’re doing what we enjoy.”
In the cropping and feeding, Doug says he gives Kyle the reins like Justin and Jason in the processing side. “I throw a lot of the farming decisions to Kyle. I tell him ‘you decide’. It’s fun to see what weird thing he’ll do that’s new.”
“We love watching the kids do what they are doing and having a good set of employees,” says Mona. “Everyone working to get things figured out.”
Mostly, says Doug, “We try to find employees with energy and youth who bring something that they can develop here.”
In fact, a key piece of advice from Doug is to hire and recognize good employees and learn to “see the weird coincidences that happen that put people and opportunities in your path.
“Open your eyes and ears to see what God has placed in front of you. You have got to be open.”
— By Sherry Bunting