From 4-H, A Business Grows

“Puddingly yours” is how Beth Hodge signs her emails. It’s just one of the many ways she and her sister Courtney showcase a product that began as a 4-H project and is now a brand called Echo Farm Puddings.

The sisters describe it as a “4-H project gone wild.” Starting with two trucks making deliveries within a four-mile radius of the farm in Hinsdale, the distribution of seven varieties of pudding now extends to Texas.

Beth says she and her sister connected with their first cows and “didn’t want to see them milked by anybody else.” Instead of showing and then selling the calves, they purchased them to expand the herd, and the farm became a dairy farm. “My father is a CPA so he had the business savvy, so rather than milk just a couple of cows, we could milk more. We grew up seeing entrepreneurship firsthand—we knew we wanted to own our own business.”

“Our first calves were leased Jerseys,” Beth recalls. Later, they purchased their own Milking Shorthorns. “My first ride in an airplane was a trip to Louisville, Kentucky, for the dairy quiz bowl. 4-H opened our eyes—it opened a lot of possibilities for us.”

Both sisters attended Cornell University, where their business idea began to take shape.

“We knew we wanted to make a product,” Beth says. “We wanted to connect people to agriculture, so that meant making a product we could put in somebody’s hands.”

The Pudding

The sisters walked around grocery stores to figure out what they wanted to produce. “We didn’t have a lot of money to get started. We figured we could dip our toes in the water. We also didn’t want a lot of built-in competition,” Beth says. Ben and Jerry’s was churning out ice cream, other businesses were whipping up yogurt, but it didn’t appear that anyone was making pudding. “When we really started to investigate, we realized pudding could be a good business venture.”

Echo Farm Puddings’ first product was a rice pudding using a recipe the sisters got from a Greek diner. Along came chocolate and tapioca pudding, and before they knew it, they were making seven flavors on a regular basis. The first store picked up their pudding in 1997. As the business grew, they realized it was time for a distributor.

Since then, Beth notes that some things have changed, “but at the end of the day, we still get to work together as a family. At the end of the day, it’s me and my sister. It’s had its challenges. But the things that were important remain important—we’re continuing to do something in agriculture and we’re proud of our product.”

The Farm Today

Echo Farm now milks 100 cows—30 Jerseys, 10 Guernseys, and 60 Milking Shorthorns. Courtney has a three-year-old, Colton, who already shows calves and is fascinated by the farm machinery, according to his aunt and mom. “He really got excited about cows this year and actually had his own cow, Poppyseed, that he showed at the ‘peewee’ classes at the fairs,” Beth adds.

Beth runs the dairy farm and has a role in marketing the pudding. “I like to talk to the customers, do in-store demos, and hand out samples.” Courtney handles the pudding operation, sales, and production. And they still find time to show their cows. The sisters have a 4-H club of their own, and they lease out calves to the Hill and Valley 4-H Club to which they once belonged. They say 4-Hers are their best employees. “At ages six and seven, they learn about how the farm’s cows are treated. They’re the ones we want to hire, and as soon as they’re 16 and can drive a tractor, we usually try to grab them to work for us.”

Beth notes that three 4-Hers who are now in their mid-twenties all took jobs that relate to agriculture after working at the farm. One works for a Holstein association, another for Land O’Lakes as a nutritionist, and the third works for Dairy Farmers of America. “We love the idea that these kids are going to go on to do great things, getting the start like we did,” Beth says.

“This is what happens when you get raised on the farm,” Beth adds. The sisters credit their parents for their contributions as well, especially their financial and management background. And, the sisters give back to the program that helped them launch their careers by sponsoring a "pudding break" at the annual Tom Fairchild Friend of 4-H golf tournament.

The Future

Beth and Courtney want to get to the point where the pudding operation uses 100 percent of the milk from the farm for the pudding operation; right now, it’s between 15-20 percent. They belong to Agri-Mark, the company that owns Cabot Cheese, which provides marketing muscle.

Beth proudly points out that Echo was the first dairy farm in the country to be “Certified Humane” by the Humane Farm Animal Care. “It’s what sets us apart on the shelf,” Beth notes.

—Holly Young

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Echo Farm Puddings

Photo: Top right, Echo Farm Puddings co-owners Beth and Courtney Hodge; front page, Colton Hodge feeding one of the cows