You are the owner/founder of Hun-Val. How did you get started in the world of farming?
Growing up, I lived next to family friends who owned a dairy farm. My whole childhood, my three sisters and I would go over during the summer. We lived in a pretty small town, so it was easy to ride our bikes down there and help out. We were also involved in 4-H on that farm, and my interest evolved from there.
What kind of dairy products does your farm produce, and where are they sold?
We originally just made cream-line whole milk and chocolate milk processed. But in the past year, we branched into heavy cream, half-and-half, butter and some other items in order to expand our product line. Currently, we’re also the only farm in New Jersey that makes ice cream from our own dairy. This way, we offer customers a more complete line of dairy products and do a bit of wholesale. This way, customers can get all of [their dairy products] from one place rather than getting some [products] from us and some from other sources to complete their needs.
How has the Covid-19 pandemic affected your farm?
Our business actually exploded during the pandemic. The grocery stores around us were completely out of certain products for days at a time. Because of that, we went from having five cars in our driveway (and thinking we were busy!) to having fifty or sixty [cars]. It was a really intense and surreal experience, but fortunately, we saw it coming. In the weeks right before [the pandemic], I ramped up production and was able to stay ahead of the rush. Even though It was crazy at the beginning, I only ran out of milk once. And the next day, we restocked! For as crazy as it got, and as fast as it happened, I was pretty proud that we were able to make sure people had some essential goods. It seems like throughout the pandemic, there’s been a shift in some people’s lives to shopping more locally, which is great because it helps support farms like yours, and people get better, fresher products. It was definitely an eye-opening experience for us and the customers, I think we’ll see a good percentage of those people still supporting us [after the pandemic].
How did you meet [Decency Foundation co-founder] Jon McConaughy and when did you begin working with him?
Several years ago, Jon called me and left a voicemail on my phone saying that he was going to be opening up Brick Farm Market and he was looking for a local dairy source. Farmers get calls like that all the time, so I didn’t anticipate anything coming out of anything rather than the initial phone call. He and his team wanted to set up a meeting so they could come out and see the farm. So, I said “That’s fine.” They said, “What time?” and I said “4:30.” I meant 4:30 in the afternoon. But I got [to the farm] the day we were supposed to meet, and there were several cars in my driveway at 4:30 in the morning!It was actually kind of refreshing [to see]. The fact that Jon came out there and wanted to see things (and that early!) was a pretty good indication that they weren’t just ‘kicking tires.’From that point, the relationship evolved. They started Brick Farm Market, and the market became one of our first customers. They’re still a customer today, and they’ve been incredibly supportive of what we’re trying to do.
Nu.Ag is helping you bring on-farm processing to Hun-Val. Can you elaborate on how that will help your operation?
Currently, we pay to have the milk hauled to and from a processing facility, as well as paying someone to actually process the milk. Once a week, our milk goes to a facility that can accommodate the volume we produce. This allowed me to create products, create a customer base, and establish myself in the market. But as we produce more milk and make more money, we’re also spending more to get all of that milk processed. By bringing on-farm processing to Hun-Val, we will eliminate costs that go to processing facilities. The goal has always been to move [processing] onto the farm, but logistically, it was kind of hard to fathom. When you’re talking about on-farm processing, you’re looking at about half a million dollars just to get it going. Without knowing what the market was and all the ins and outs of it, I just didn’t feel comfortable making a commitment like that.
The Decency Foundation is not only helping you establish on-farm processing, but they’ve also helped secure loans to facilitate this.
Yes. As a small farm, it’s hard to go to a lender and say, “Here’s what I want to do to my farm. P.S., I’m currently losing money because of ‘x, y, and z’. Most commercial lenders tend to get hung up on that. I guess all they look at is where you’re at [financially] and where you’ve been in the past, not where you’re trying to go. Because of that, it makes it really hard to start new projects, so it’s great to have extra help in that realm. I am very fortunate that people are looking at [my farm] and seeing value in it, seeing importance in it. Small farms are something that can be easily looked over, but [The Decency Foundation] is doing a lot to help them.
You have a new manure storage system on your farm. Tell us about it, and how it helps your farm.
Basically, the way my farm is set up, we have a tie-stall barn. The cows come in twice a day to get milked, and the manure goes out [of the barn] and into a spreader. Every day since we built the barn, I would go out and spread the manure on the fields twice a day. It didn’t matter if it was 100 degrees or 10 degrees, you had to do it because [the cows] are always making more! But now, we have a system that allows us to contain and manage the manure, which limits runoff and the contamination of local waters. We partnered last year with a couple agencies to engineer the storage system: New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, North Jersey Resource Conservation & Development, and the National Resources Conservation Service. It’s an aboveground tank we pump the manure into, and when we’re ready to, we can haul it out and apply it as fertilizer. This time of year, when everything is starting to grow, it’s very valuable fertilizer. And because we can have enough storage for six months, we only have to spread [the manure] when the weather permits. You can also apply it in the proper amount, whereas before, it wasn’t really measured. What we have now, I can completely manage how much goes onto the fields and do things more strategically. We’ve only been operational with this for not even a month yet. We just finished that project and it already has been such a time saver and so much easier to manage. It makes you wonder how you did it before!
What advice would you give to a beginner farmer?
Two things: the first is that you should love what you’re doing. The primary reason you get into farming, or dairy, at least, will not be for the money. (You probably won’t be making as much as you would in a different job.) It would be nice to rake in cash and do what you love, but I’d rather choose what I love, even if it means that sometimes I have to work extra hard to get by. The second is to surround yourself with people who are going to be supportive of you and your dreams. A lot of people told me I was crazy when I first started [my farm]; some of them were even in the dairy business! They said, “Get a nine-to-five job that pays the bills instead.” That was discouraging, to hear people talk negatively about the job you wanted to do. But I have like-minded people in my life, people who see what I’m passionate about. Having people that will do anything they can to help you, that's invaluable. Looking back at how [farming] has changed the course of my life, and the people it’s brought into my life, I don’t have an ounce of regret. If you love what you're doing, there's always a way to make it work. It's not easy, but it will be worth it.
Please support Jared Weeks by purchasing his products at Red Barn Milk Company: https://www.facebook.com/redbarnmilkco, owned by Weeks, or purchasing their milk from our friends at Brick Farm Market: https://shop.brickfarmmarket.com/product/milk/.
Please Follow Hun-Val Dairy Farm at: https://www.facebook.com/HunValDairyFarm/