At Echo Farm, Inc. in Hinsdale, sisters Beth and Courtney Hodge can be found milking their 70 cows at a first-generation dairy operation that started out years ago as a 4H project. The sisters sell most of their milk to the Agri-Mark Cooperative, a Vermont-based operation best known for Cabot Creamery products. For 23 years they’ve kept some of their milk on hand to make Echo Farm Puddings, artisan desserts sold in farm stands and Hannaford supermarkets throughout New Hampshire.
Although only 20% of their milk is directed toward pudding production, the sisters earn about half of their revenue from pudding sales. During the pandemic, that’s become even more important, said Beth Hodge.
2020 was supposed to be a banner year for the dairy industry. After years of low milk prices, farmers were anticipating more profit margin this year. But when the pandemic closed down schools and restaurants, two major drivers for dairy demand, prices plummeted, dropping below production costs and leading some dairies to dump their milk. The sudden downturn, after years of low prices, was disheartening.
“You’re limping into 2020 and all indications are that you’re going to see a recovery, then COVID-19 hits,” Hodge said.
At the same time, mainstream food supply chains were interrupted. As suppliers prioritized essentials like toilet paper and eggs, there was little room on their trucks for novelty items like Echo Farm Puddings. Even if stores wanted to order more of the pudding, suppliers were capping orders, Hodge explained.
Luckily, there was a silver lining. With supply chains interrupted and people trying to avoid grocery stores, the shop local movement exploded. Suddenly, home delivery services and local farm stands were asking to carry more Echo Farm Puddings.
“Those have been phenomenal,” Hodge said. “They’ve seen a huge jump up in their sales. That’s been a lifesaver for us.”
The demand for local pudding sales, coupled with financial support from the Small Business Administration (SBA) and the The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) were enough to make Hodge hopeful about the future.
“We started April thinking ‘what are we going to do,’ and ended April thinking there are other avenues,” Hodge said.
Now, the sisters are looking to expand their pudding operation. While they’d like to get into more grocery stores, they’re also focused on building relationships with farm stands and local food delivery services.
“We want to continue farming in New Hampshire and the best way to do that is to keep that local connection,” Hodge said.
While co-op dairy prices are set, the Hodges have control over their pudding prices.
“We’re not at the mercy of a global market,” Hodge said.
Because pudding has a higher profit margin, the sisters were already considering expanding the percentage of milk that they direct to pudding production. Now, they know that’s a move they’d like to make, especially while the Buy Local movement is strong.
“We definitely see a lot of value in that,” Hodge said. “People are looking for unique products and that gives us an advantage.”
They’ve had to confront some of the same issues that drove them to take more control of their business. Ordering supplies like cocoa and vanilla now takes double the time, so the Hodges are keeping more essentials on hand to insulate their business from supply chain interruptions. That means increased overhead, but also increased security.
As they change their business model, they’re having fun along the way. Grocery wholesalers only order the top four flavors of Echo Farm Puddings — chocolate, vanilla, tapioca and butterscotch. Farm stands and local delivery services will take an array of flavors, giving the sisters the chance to bring back old favorites like coconut cream and peanut butter.
“We’re calling them pandemic puddings,” Hodge said.
Pictured at right Beth Hodge, at left, with her nephew Colton, niece Honor and sister, Courtney Hodge.
This story is part of the 50 Businesses, 50 Solutions series, shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative, that aims to highlight how business leaders across the state, from mom and pop shops, to large corporations have adapted to meet the challenges and disruptions caused by the novel coronavirus in the hopes others may be able to replicate these ideas and innovations. Tell us your story here. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.