You'll be seeing a new type of top-grade yogurt on your grocery shelves soon, and it's the brainchild of two Rochester-area farmers.

The just-launched Flying Cow Creamery, which produces the yogurt brand you'll now see in places like Marlene's Market and Deli in Tacoma and Federal Way, and the Tacoma, Olympia and Yelm food co-ops, was also the solution to one big business problem, as well as the way to two local residents' small-business dreams.

The story is this: Keith Fagerness, who runs a three-generation dairy farm in Independence Valley, was looking for a way to downsize last year. Neighbor and Icelandic transplant Selma Bjarnadottir, who was creating high-demand homemade yogurt for valley residents at her Black Sheep creamery, wanted to expand.

“About three years ago we started working on our plan, figuring out how do we start a new business,” Bjarnadottir says. “Little by little, we started working on everything.”

Fagerness, who took on the dairy farm in 1981 when his father passed away, said that running that business had been an opportunity to continue the family tradition. Today, however, the relentless work schedule meant that, after “creating” more than 2,000 cows from closed breeding lines and producing milk for Dairygold for more than three decades, he's ready to cut back even more from the 35 cows he now has to venture into an even smaller herd that supplies the milk for just yogurt.

“Of course we have this dream, and maybe it's a far-fetched thing, that maybe Keith could be providing milk just for our creamery,” said Bjarnadottir. “Will we ever get there? I don't know. But we'll see.”

That the entire community has been involved in the process of creating the brand and choosing the product has already put out the buzz locally. A neighbor sketched out the logo, and residents around the valley voted on their favorite type of yogurt from Bjarnadottir's samples. The favorite pick is what's on the shelves today.

And sales are already increasing, Fagerness said. When the business first opened, they produced 10 gallons a week, then 15 the next month. He said that the July hope is for doubling to 20 gallons.

“We're still not using all of the milk from one cow, even, so there's a lot of potential,” he said. “If I got down to 12 cows, which is kind of a dreamy situation, I wouldn't have to work myself to death.”

As Fagerness well-knows, it's been the endless schedule and low pay that's squeezed many small dairy farmers out of the industry these days. Overall milk consumption has increased as the population has grown, but cows are also producing more milk, giving the larger dairies the upper hand. In the U.S., there are now less than 50,000 overall dairies, and at least five dairies have gone out of business weekly since 2008.

“For the small dairy owner, you can't pay the bills, so the answer is more cows and more milk,” Fagerness said. “The farms are getting bigger and bigger, but at the same time I know exactly why they're doing it; they want to have a stinkin' day off.”

The industry's current situation has thus left small dairy farmers a dual
solution: Expand, or close.

Or, as in Flying Cow's case, find a new business model.

“This is kind of our only hope,” Fagerness said. “There's either the rat race of expansion to try to survive, or you've got to figure out another way to do business.”

What's up next for the Flying Cow, besides keen marketing efforts, is delving into use of regional fruits like strawberries for a rotation of seasonal flavoring. Don't be surprised in the coming months if you find Flying Cow Yogurt on restaurant menus throughout the Northwest as well.

In the end, noted Bjarnadottir, it's all about creating a way to do something you love, while at the same time benefitting the community at large.

“I think people are finally realizing that buying local helps us all, that the money stays in the community,” she said. “You know, you buy from me, I buy from you … and we keep this sort of circle going.”