On a slice of Winchester, Va., farmland, a herd of Jersey cows lounges comfortably, munching on an afternoon snack of corn silage. Meet "The Yogurt Makers," as their owners affectionately call them.
But to the cows, the bank and the public, Kitty Hockman Nicholas and Robin Hockman Eddy are the yogurt makers. Within 24 hours of the morning milking, the sisters will turn 1,100 pounds of fresh Jersey milk into Hedgebrook Farm Yogurt. And within two days, the cow-brown containers will be sitting on the shelves of local supermarkets, school cafeterias and restaurants.
Hedgebrook Farm Yogurt is one of a coterie of cottage industries that is awakening amidst the interest in regional, farm fresh foods. Often family-run, these small companies have a keen sense of pride and quality control and a cast of committed characters to do the job.
Eddy -- a part-time model whose work attire this day includes a thick bangle bracelet, long polished fingernails and six earrings -- makes the yogurt by herself, a task she insists she will never relinquish. Nicholas -- a tennis pro, former assistant manager of Woodward and Lothrop's lingerie department and the only woman on the board of the President's Committee of the National Dairy Herd Improvement Association -- manages the cows and the yogurt-making equipment. The two split marketing and public relations responsibilities.
Their 71-year-old father, Robert Hockman, whom the sisters refer to as "the head of the herd," oversees the family's apple orchard begun in 1907 by Grandma and Grandpa Hockman. Their mother, Kitty, does the books and is "good at remembering everything that ever happened," according to Nicholas. In addition, the family raises cocker spaniels, owns 16 cats, 40 ducks and 13 guineas.
Looking for another enterprise for the family's dairy operation about two years ago, Eddy and Nicholas felt that yogurt was the best outlet for the richness of their Jersey cow milk. But it wasn't until $100,000-plus later and after a lot of kinks were ironed out that the two were ready for their first yogurt run this past June.
The project started on Eddy's stove, where she experimented with making her own yogurt, incubating it in a thermos. Yet the sisters soon realized the limitations in turning their informal fiddling into commercial reality.
At least the home trials gave Eddy and Nicholas a fix on their ultimate goal. They wanted a creamy, Swiss-style, whole-milk yogurt. They didn't want to use any artificial colors or flavors and they didn't want it thickened with tapioca or gelatin. They wanted it sweetened with honey (choosing a Shenandoah Valley producer) and they wanted it made with a culture that included acidophilus (their culture also contains lactobacillus bulgaricus and streptococcus thermophilus, the two bacteria normally used to make yogurt).
These qualities led them to target the natural-food market, which demands more whole milk and honey-sweetened yogurt, whereas the mass market demands a lowfat and sugar-sweetened yogurt, according to Nicholas. The sisters felt there was a place for Hedgebrook Farms in the specialized natural-food market because their main competition would be Mountain High, which has recently been purchased by massive Beatrice Foods, and Brown Cow, which is sundae style (the fruit on the bottom), not Swiss style (the fruit mixed throughout).
To help them learn the ropes of commercial yogurt making, Eddy and Nicholas visited the Colombo yogurt plant in Hagerstown. And after being misled by "storytellers" who tried to sell them equipment that didn't fill their needs, they hired two dairy consultants to help them purchase equipment and develop the formula.
The sisters also hired a market research firm, which found that there was a demand for a four-ounce container, to better accommodate snackers and hospital trays and particularly small children, whose pediatricians are recommending yogurt as one of their first foods. (This marketing information later led to complications in purchasing standardized filler equipment and cardboard shipping containers, since no one else makes a four-ounce yogurt.)
Flavored yogurts, such as those with nuts and raisins or more obscure fruits, are novelties and are really not that popular, reported the market researchers. So the sisters decided to stick with five basic fruit flavors: strawberry, blueberry, peach, red raspberry and cherry, as well as vanilla and plain. (They are being coaxed to do an apple yogurt, considering the proximity of the apple trees.)
Other yogurts emphasize fruit on their containers; Eddy and Nicholas wanted to push the "farm-oriented" aspect of their product. Thus, a friend who served as their logo designer developed the simple drawing of the face of a Jersey cow.
Then the plant had to be built, the process had to be perfected and the timetable established. Ground breaking began on the former site of an apple tree, where the completed small white building now houses the yogurt-making apparatus and a tiny office.
The art of making yogurt simply involves subjecting milk with bacteria for a set time and a specific temperature. Within those two boundaries, the bacteria will multiply, producing lactic acid which will cause the milk protein to coagulate, thicken and form yogurt.
At 5 a.m., a husband and wife team who have worked for the Hockmans for 20 years milk the 51 cows with four automatic milking machines. Eddy makes yogurt once or twice a week, depending on the company's demand. This particular day she is just beginning to transfer the rich Jersey milk from a stainless steel bulk tank to the pasteurizer, where it is heated to 185 degrees for 30 minutes to kill off any unwanted bacteria.
By the time the half hour is up, the milk in the 300-gallon tank is foamy and frothy. Eddy then pours a series of white powders into the batch: stabilizer, protein and milk solids. The mixture is agitated and cooled with the farm's well water to 105 degrees, the temperature at which the bacteria will grow.
Eddy then uncaps a small can that contains the acidophilus bacteria, a milky white liquid that she pours into the tank. Whereas other yogurts are cultured with lactobacillus bulgaricus and streptococcus thermophilus bacteria only, Eddy and Nicholas decided to use one that contains all three because of the purported health attributes of acidophilus.
(Although the specific health benefits of the bacteria are still somewhat controversial, Barry Goldin, assistant professor of medicine at New England Medical Center said that acidophilus seems to have some ability to lower the generation of carcinogens in the intestinal flora. Unlike the other yogurt-making bacteria, acidophilus survives in the intestines, according to Goldin. In addition, Goldin said there is evidence that the bacteria may help regulate the bowels.)
The milk then does the rest of the work; Eddy is finished for the next eight hours, during which time the milk will be incubated at 105 degrees and then cooled. Afterward, the finished yogurt will be channeled into the blend tank, where it is mixed with fruit and honey and then filled into containers.
Eddy has figured that the yogurt costs them about four cents per ounce to produce, and it retails for anywhere between 59 and 79 cents per eight ounces. Most of Hedgebrook Farm Yogurt is sold at supermarkets, medical centers and schools in the Winchester area (Manuel's and Wife, a Winchester restaurant, serves a yogurt ice cream dessert in a sundae cup, by combining vanilla ice cream and plain yogurt), but in the Washington metropolitan area, it is available at all Magruder's, the Reston Farm Market, Virginia Vintage in Alexandria and the American Cafe.
Eddy and Nicholas are also on the bandwagon to educate consumers about what farming is all about, and regularly give tours of their farm and yogurt-making operation. For more information, call Hedgebrook Farm Yogurt at 703-869-1942.
In the meantime, here are some of the sisters' favorite yogurt recipes: ROBIN'S YOGURT FRUIT PUNCH (1 serving)
1/3 cup orange juice
1/3 cup apple juice
1/3 cup fruit yogurt such as peach, cherry or strawberry
1 ice cube
1 small, ripe banana
Combine all ingredients in a blender or food processor fitted with a steel blade. Process until smooth. KITTY'S YOGURT DILL DIP (Makes 2 cups)
1 cup yogurt
1 cup mayonnaise
1 1/2 teaspoons dill weed
1 1/2 tablespoons chopped parsley
3 tablespoons minced onion
1 teaspoon paprika
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Combine all ingredients and chill. Serve with raw vegetables. ROBIN'S GREEN BEAN CASSEROLE (4 servings)
3 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons minced onion
1 cup yogurt
1 pound green beans, blanched
1/2 pound grated cheddar cheese
1/2 cup cornflake crumbs
Over low heat, melt 2 tablespoons butter in a small saucepan. Add flour slowly and cook, stirring until well combined. Remove from heat. Stir in seasonings, onion and yogurt. Fold in beans.
Place in a 2-quart casserole. Cover with cheese. Melt the remaining tablespoon butter and stir into cornflake crumbs. Sprinkle on casserole. Bake at 350 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes. HEDGEBROOK FARM RASPBERRY YOGURT COFFEE CAKE (Makes a 9-inch cake)
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup butter or margarine, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cups raspberry yogurt (substitute any fruit flavor)
Cream sugar and butter together. Add egg and vanilla and beat just until combined. Stir together flour, baking powder and baking soda. Add flour mixture alternately with yogurt to sugar-butter mixture, stirring after each addition. Bake in a greased 9-inch tube pan or 9-inch square baking dish for 45 minutes at 350 degrees, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.