May 22, 2023
We’re excited to announce the $10,000 April Amber Grant recipient. Congratulations to Ashlee Kleinhammer, Owner of North Country Creamery. They are the fifth qualifier for the 2023 year-end Amber Grant ($25,000).
Recently, WomensNet Advisory Board member Marcia Layton Turner sat down with Ashlee for an exclusive interview. You can listen to their conversation and view the transcript below.
WomensNet: Hi everyone. Welcome to a conversation with the Amber Grant winner for April, 2023. Today we’re speaking with Ashley Kleinhammer of North Country Creamery in Keysville, New York – right across the lake from Burlington, Vermont.
I’m Marcia Layton Turner, and I’m one of several WomensNet Advisory Board members. So Ashlee, thank you so much for making time to chat with me today. Really appreciate it.
Ashlee: Of course.
WomensNet: Let’s just start with a little background information. Can you tell us a little bit about North Country Creamery? Why did you start it?
Ashlee: You got it. We are a farmstead creamery in upstate, very northern New York. We milk around 20 to 30 cows, and we use all that milk for cheese and yogurt right on our farm.
We started in 2013, and we were able to buy it from a previous cheese maker, who taught us how to make cheese, and it was through a land trust as well. So the purchase was really reasonable. Great way to start a farm. And I was inspired by a lot of different things, I guess.
I studied environmental studies in college, but farther back I made a wooden cow in seventh grade. And I decided I liked cows even though I hadn’t really met one. I grew up in a rural beach town, California. But my dad grew up on his parents’ and grandparents’ farms, and so my roots go way back to actually Swiss dairy farmers, who came over in the 1850s and started dairy farms across California. And it didn’t actually skip a generation, even though I’m considering myself a first-generation farmer because I didn’t grow up farming, but my dad told me stories. So, I think in my heart it led me to eventually start this farm and just feel very connected to animals and people and the natural environment.
WomensNet: So where do you sell your products?
Ashlee: We do have a small farm store right on site, and we sell maybe 10 or 20% of what we produce right here in Keysville. It’s a very small town. Most of it is distributed within the Adirondack Park, which is the forest preserve I guess, that Keysville technically is in. So we try to keep everything as local as possible. It goes to natural food stores, restaurants, hospitals, and public schools too, which is very exciting for us. And then we do work with one New York state distributor who carries our products across New York State.
So it all stays pretty local.
WomensNet: That’s fantastic. Well, what do you think has been the secret to your success thus far?
Ashlee: Honestly, I think that it’s all about communication and listening. I’m a very passionate and focused person, so that inspires my work every day in the happiness to work way. And I think that between a deep care for cows and people and the environment, I’ve been inspired to maintain really healthy and exciting relationships around me. And that’s between people, animals, and the environment.
WomensNet: I wonder too, if movements like farm-to-table are just increasing demand for your type of products locally as well.
Ashlee: Absolutely. People care for health, nutrition, global sustainability. Where are we getting our food? So as locally as possible is often the healthiest as possible, and clearly fewer food miles.
WomensNet: Love that. So, what are some of your longer-term future goals for the business?
Ashlee: We are working on becoming a worker-owner cooperative. Currently, I’m the single owner of our LLC formation. But my partner and I work very closely together in the day-to-day management and day-to-day work. And we work with five awesome coworkers. We would like to offer them an opportunity for ownership in the business. So we’re working with a nonprofit cooperative institute to help us get there.
Another big project in the next three years is that we’re going to implement a climate resiliency grant that we got through our local conservation district. And that includes some efforts on our farm to capture water in ponds, irrigate our fields, and plant a lot of trees. So the trees will serve so many benefits. Carbon sequestration to the environment, shade for cows, fodder, which means that cows can eat some parts of trees like the leaves and some of the fruits like mulberries and things like that. And then food for people too. So some of the shade trees, the nuts we could harvest for people. And some apples, mulberries, all things that people and cows like.
WomensNet: So let’s talk a little bit about the $10,000 Amber Grant that you’ve just earned. What are some of investments that you’re going to make in the business with that money?
Ashlee: So we are going to expand our winter cow barn, which in our climate – our cows are inside for almost half the year. Because it’s so, so cold and windy some days.
We have a beautiful solar barn that we expanded, four or five years ago. We milk twice the number of cows that the previous owner milked. And we’d like to even milk a few more. So currently even with our expansion, some of our heifer and dry cows who are the young or the ones taking a break from milking, those cows have to go to the woods during the winter for some months. It’s pretty protected. It’s not too bad. They look great out there, but it’s not nearly as nice as the solar barn. So picture like a giant hoop house greenhouse. It’s sort of a translucent cover. There’s a nice, little breeze, so there’s good airflow, but it’s not like it cuts down all the icy winds, and all the sun comes in. So these ladies are just burled up looking great in this barn that we are gonna make bigger thanks to the Amber Grant.
WomensNet: So what’s some advice that you might give an aspiring female entrepreneur based on all that you’ve experienced in your last 10 years?
Ashlee: So the most beneficial thing to me is I became part of a women dairy farmer cohort. We have a monthly discussion group in the winter. We meet every other month, it’s on Zoom, and then we meet a couple of times in person per year. And we have a WhatsApp group. So not only are we meeting and discussing different topics, we are in touch whenever we have questions. We share knowledge, we talk about different resources for women specifically in our industry, and we just support each other in all the ways that you might imagine.
So I would recommend trying to form or become part of a women-owner group in your specific business sector. That’s been a game-changer for me.
WomensNet: How did you find yours?
Ashlee: A friend reached out who became a veterinarian and she had worked on farms before that. And she realized that so many of us want to be great dairy farmers and share resources, especially in the organic herd health kind of thing. She was like, ‘we all need to be talking together and sharing our resources.’ And then when she established this a couple of years ago, we were also excited and it’s grown to, maybe like half a dozen. Between six and 10 ladies on any given meeting.
WomensNet: Love it. Yeah, definitely. To me that sounds like a mastermind, which is like-minded business owners getting together to share ideas, resources, and tips. Very smart.
Well, thank you so much for sharing information about your business and some tips with us today. And congratulations again on your win and being last month’s Amber Grant recipient.
Ashlee: Well, thank you so much and thank you for the grant.