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Bittersweet end

Palisade, Minn. — Pam and Dick Bowne poured seven years of their lives into Gemini Guernsey Old Fashioned Creamline Milk.

They milked 50 Guernsey cows on their Aitkin County farm, processed milk in their farmstead bottling plant, distributed it to Twin Cities stores and homes, and did all their own promotions, marketing and sales.

In March — short on money, exhausted from years of 80-hour work weeks, facing new licensing requirements and shrinking margins — the Bownes called it quits. The cows are gone and the bottling plant is closed.

But the product they launched with hope and nurtured with passion will continue. Pride of Main Street Dairy, an independent creamery in Sauk Centre, will take over production of Gemini Guernsey creamline milk.

Distribution to be expanded

Pride of Main Street co-owner George Economy sees a bright future for the Gemini brand. Creamline milk, which is pasteurized but not homogenized, fits well with other specialty products: organic milk and ice cream, grazer’s cheese, milk shakes, smoothies and the company’s signature product, Helios Nutrition Organic Kefir. “I think there will be strong interest in old-fashioned milk,” he says.

Pride of Main Street, with marketing networks in 49-states, expects to increase Gemini sales and distribution — something Dick and Pam lacked the manpower to do.

Economy says the Bownes built a loyal following because of their “commitment to their customers and sustainable agriculture.” Saturdays, they would load up their refrigerated milk truck and drive 150 miles south to the Twin Cities, where they spent weekends making deliveries. Frequently, their accounts would sell out in two or three days, “and then they’d be out of stock until the next week,” Economy says.

Pride of Main Street, distributing through Promised Land Organic Farms of Zimmerman, Minn., “can guarantee regular and more frequent deliveries,” Economy says.

The Bownes have been friends with Economy for years and will continue to promote the brand they founded. “But we’re going off in a different direction,” Dick says. While they may go back to raising beef cattle, selling their beloved milk cows and handing off their hard-fought venture was a bittersweet end.

Starting Gemini Guernsey

The Bownes have been farmers all their lives. Dick, 57, grew up on a beef farm near the Columbia Gorge in Washington state. Pam, 53, grew up on a farm near Mobridge, S. D. The couple began farming in 1975, raising cattle and grain.

In the early 1990s, they quit grain farming, put their land into pasture, and concentrated on milking Guernsey cows. To boost revenues from their small herd, the Bownes turned to direct marketing. They worked with AURI and North Branch Dairy to reintroduce creamline milk.

The Bownes worked hard to distinguish Gemini Guernsey milk from other brands, promoting its freshness, taste and the farm-to-table link. Over the next four years, volume grew steadily until they were trucking all their milk to North Branch Dairy for custom processing.

But in 1998, North Branch closed. The Bownes had an available building on their farm, so they bought North Branch’s processing equipment, lock, stock and barrel, for $35,000.

Problems and delays

They expected to set up their bottling plant in a few weeks, which stretched into six months.

“We set it up on a shoestring,” Dick says, acknowledging that their big bargain came with headaches. They couldn’t get replacement parts, for example, so Dick had to design new parts. The farm’s electrical service was incompatible with the used equipment. “There was so much stuff to do,” Dick recalls. Delays mounted.

Meanwhile, they couldn’t supply their milk accounts.

Late in 1998, the Bownes received their farmstead-processing license and were back in business. Despite a six-month absence, Dick says they quickly regained all their commercial customers.

But the extremely competitive retail milk market prevented them from raising prices. As long as Dick and Pam and their two daughters did everything, their venture paid the bills, Dick says. Finally, “the work got to be overwhelming.” Still, Pam adds, “we don’t regret what we did. Even though we didn’t continue, what we learned can help somebody else.”

A cautionary tale

The Gemini Guernsey story is not unusual among new small businesses, which are often stretched to the breaking point by lack of capital and labor, says Michael Sparby, AURI project director in Morris. “If you break it down, the Bownes were really running four separate businesses themselves: milk production, milk processing, product distribution and marketing.”

The Bownes’ story also illustrates the relentlessly competitive pressures in the fluid milk market, which operates on high volume and low margins, Sparby says. “It’s another reason why we are stressing caution.”