Thursday, June 13, 2024

Kalispell Kreamery’s Mary Tuck recounts her journey back to the family farm

Daily Inter Lake | January 9, 2023 12:00 AM

The cows at Kalispell Kreamery do not worry about missing a milking. Dairy co-owner Mary Tuck said in the many decades that her family has run the farm, almost nothing has stopped them from milking the cows when needed — even when every single one of them had the flu.

“We were having to milk cows through all that. It was one of those cases where we literally were taking turns within like, a couple minutes each, just staying alive while we were down here milking cows. One of those impressionable moments as a kid that I was thinking ‘it couldn't get much worse than this,’” Tuck said.

Despite those trying moments, Tuck loves her cows, her family’s farm and the work ethic it instilled in her. By the time she was ready to graduate high school, her life growing up on the farm had taught her how to weld, how to tackle a construction project and a good deal about animal husbandry. She enjoys many great memories of learning cow behavior, birthing calves and feeding them with her mother.

Kalispell Kreamery started as a chicken hatchery in the 1970s with Tuck’s parents, Bill and Marylin Hedstrom. After purchasing a cow, Bill soon transitioned to starting Hedstrom Dairy. Tuck is the youngest of four children and took on a lot of the farm work growing up because her other siblings had moved out by the time she was in high school — with the exception of her brother, who has Downs syndrome and still works there today.

It was a household where nothing went to waste— not even nails. She said if there was nothing to do, sometimes her father would have them go straighten out old nails to use for later. She remembers one Christmas when her father decided to rope the family into another project.

“My whole family had gotten together and my sisters were home from college. Somebody had offered my dad a free building if he just tore it down. Well, who do you think you got to tear down this whole big huge building? ... It was us,” Tuck said. “So on Christmas Day we're out there in the cold and we're tearing down this big huge building and saving every scrap of every piece of metal, throwing it on his big trailer and taking it home. Then we had Christmas dinner that night.”

Though she began her college career by majoring in animal science, she ended up getting a degree in elementary education. She attended Montana State University with her high school sweetheart Jared, who later joined the Air Force. The two spent the next six years traveling.

They then moved to San Antonio, Texas, where Tuck worked as an elephant trainer for a time after contacting the zoo about an open position.

“They're like, ‘Well, have you ever worked with elephants?’ I'm like, ‘How many people have ever worked with an elephant? I've worked with large animals.’ Like, I had some experience with training work with large animals. And so yeah, that was cool, I worked with elephants and giraffes down in the San Antonio Zoo and it was a really neat job,” Tuck said.

When Jared’s time in the military ended, the couple moved back up to Bozeman to figure out what they wanted to do next. Around 2010, her parents came to visit them with a proposal during a dinner conversation asking if Tuck and her husband would want to keep the farm alive.

At the time, the dairy farm operated through different contracts with larger dairy distributors like Country Classics. That contract was changing — the price they had paid for years to transport milk to Bozeman was rising and it wasn’t going to be affordable. So, the four got to work, drawing out business plans on napkins at the dinner table.

They wanted to promote and sell their own milk without the help of co-ops and other companies, but Tuck said that was a big leap of faith for a dairy farm by making their operation self-contained.

“There were some transitions happening in the industry that we weren't gonna survive through. So it's either this is going to save us or it's not, either way. We had to make a change. There are models for creameries and dairies. A lot of times they'll buy milk from other sources that they’ll sell, but we put ourselves up here on an island,” Tuck said.

They built the creamery themselves, with Jared’s expertise as an engineer coming in handy. Tuck said after 13 years it’s more professional than it was right at the beginning — they’ve continued to add on and make improvements as the herd grew larger. When they started making the transition they had 150 head of cattle, now they have 300.

Tuck took on the marketing and sales role. She began by convincing local grocery store chains to give Kalispell Kreamery milk a shot.

“I told them we are state certified, we meet all the standards, we're doing everything as cream on top milk. So, it's niche enough that we're not taking over another part of your market or it could be part of your main line because it is pasteurized and it does meet a big market. And we're not price gouging, we tried to make our price cheap enough that families could still enjoy it,” Tuck said.

They started producing half-and-half and heavy whipping cream, which helped them land a market with coffee shops. Though they were finding some success in grocery stores, the business got the best exposure by donating extra milk to local food banks which increased the number of people who were familiar with the local dairy source.

“All of a sudden our milk was just everywhere, and people were like, ‘What is this Kalispell Kreamery?’ So it really helped kind of establish that, and we still have a good relationship with all the food banks,” Tuck said.

THE WORK hasn’t stopped for Tuck, or the rest of her family who still play an important role on the farm. Jared runs most of the operations in the creamery, and Tuck said she keeps busy all day with the “five hats” she wears, including busy mom. Between supply chain issues, worker shortages and inclement weather, she said there is always “a fire to put out.”

During a recent cold snap that saw minus 35 degree temperatures, Tuck said Jared went down to the creamery one morning to find that something was wrong with the power and it had scorched half of his equipment. Work usually begins at 6 a.m., but the fix didn’t come until 11 a.m.

“So, it was one of those things where you just kind of hunker down and just say, ‘OK, we're gonna have to fix this,’” Tuck said.

The next project they are hoping to facilitate is something Tuck calls their “unicorn.” Keeping in line with her folks' penchant for recycling and low waste, she said they have been trying to implement a glass bottle system for more than a decade. Tuck said the vision is to create a more sustainable product that harkens back to the days when people would get their milk delivered and set their used bottles out for the milkman to pick up when he made his next delivery.

Tuck said she’s grateful to the community in the Flathead Valley for the support they’ve shown for the farm and creamery.

“One of our goals has always been to make sure that people know that they can come out here and see the cows, anytime with the kids. We have kids coming in here all the time with families and stuff, and they just come out here and look through the windows into a plant and go see the cows. So, there's a real connection there,” Tuck said.

Kalispell Kreamery’s products can be found in most local grocery stores, to learn more about their operation, check out their website