Small scale farm turns artisanal vinegar into big business

Jeff Hall and Cindy Hale are the owners of Clover Valley Farms, a small business located in the historic Clover Valley near Duluth.

Cindy Hale and Jeff Hall have something that many gardeners dream of: A greenhouse attached to their home that can be accessed straight through their hallway. It is filled with herbs and flowers of all different shapes and sizes. Even on a rainy day, the air in that room is filled richly with the scents of rosemary, thyme and oregano mixed with tulips and daffodils. One can imagine how the fragrance intensifies once the sun penetrates the glass panels and the air temperature rises.

But the couple doesn’t grow the herbs for olfactory pleasure, they use them as a vital ingredient in their value-added farm products.

Hale and Hall are the owners of Clover Valley Farms, a unique, small business, situated 20 miles north of Duluth, that grows or raises all of the raw agricultural components that make up the majority of their products. The couple processes the ingredients and markets them. The entire process, from beginning to end, is handled by the owners, making the business the epitome of the ‘local’-movement.

So what are Clover Valley Farms’ products?  Given that Cindy and Jeff grow about 600 pounds worth of rhubarb each year, along with an abundance of juneberries, elderberries, currants and gooseberries, it comes as a surprise that it’s not jams or jellies. The couple knows that this market is saturated by local producers. Cindy and Jeff are the makers of culinary fruit vinegars. One of only three in the state of Minnesota.

Their artisanal vinegars can be used to flavor virtually everything: Meats, fish, dips, soups and salads, even beverages. Cindy explains that they are a great alternative to add flavor to one’s food. “Instead of reaching for the salt, you add a little bit of vinegar. Often all it takes is a little bit of acidity to brighten up a dull flavor. Plus, all our vinegars contain live cultures, so they are good for the gut, too.”

The idea to produce culinary vinegars was born out of necessity, explains Hall. The couple who had always grown fruits and herbs on their property, turned the hobby farm into a small business in 2007 and started wholesaling their produce to local co-ops and farm markets.  But their berries and herbs are highly perishable and the couple soon learned that their produce went unused. Having experience in home-brewing and wine making as well, it was Jeff’s idea to try to preserve their goods with the historical method of using vinegar. They rolled out their first line of herb infused fruit vinegars in spring of 2014.

All vinegars derive from wine and Clover Valley Farms partners with White Winter Winery in Iron River, Wis. for this step. Hale and Hall deliver the fruit and the winery ferments them.

The couple then takes the fruit wine to an industrial kitchen space, which they lease at the Superior Business Center, and add the bacteria that turns the alcohol into acetic acid. Once the acetation is complete and the vinegar is infused with the herbs, the couple bottles, labels, packages and distributes the final product themselves. The entire process, from bed to bottle, takes about one year.

Utilizing the kitchen and production space at the Superior Business Center has allowed Hale and Hall to keep start-up costs low. As their business grows the couple is exploring the idea of building their own production facility on site.

“The target goal for production in our original business plan was 1,000 gallons a year. We are at about half of that right now. We are really poised to do a lot of growth. Both in outreaching to new customers but also adding new product lines,” said Hale.

One of those additions is the line of herbal salts. They were a natural fit for Clover Valley Farms repertoire since salting, just like using vinegar, is a historical food preserving method.

Most of the inspiration for new flavors and products comes from customers, says Hale. At one food show she was approached by a client who was looking for a ‘shrub.’

Not knowing what it was at that time, she researched the request and discovered it to be a mixture of fruit, sugar and vinegar used to preserve fruit. It wasn’t long before the couple added varieties such as Apple Rhubarb Shrub and Rhubarb Mint Shrub to their brand. Right now the two are developing a line of mustards that contain Clover Valley vinegars.

Clover Valley Farms distributes its products at 38 locations in the region as well as the Twin Cities. The vinegars and shrubs can be found at area attraction gift shops, state parks and breweries.

Top sellers are the sampler packages that retail for $17.95. Each box contains three 2-ounce vinegars. The shrubs are sold in 12.7- ounce bottles for $22 and a 2-ounce glass jar of herbal salts is available for $5.85.

For the first time this year, Clover Valley Farms will participate in the entire season of the Duluth Farmers Market. The event booth will primarily be handled by Hale and Hall’s only full-time employee, Eldri Snow, who joined the team in 2015.

The business also considers itself a learning farm. Both owners have an extensive background in the academia. Hale was a University of Minnesota Duluth staff member for 20 years, where she initiated a sustainable agriculture program among other initiatives.  Her retirement in 2013 allowed her to dedicate herself to the farm business full-time. When she is not busy making and marketing vinegars she offers apple pruning and grafting workshops, cooking sessions and lessons on how to make fruit vinegar.

She also dabbles in the folk-art of felting, with wool derived from their eight sheep. Using a rotational grazing system, the sheep also serve the function of mowing, fertilization, pest- and weed control. The farms sells pastured lambs and meat rabbits. Other livestock at some point included chickens and turkeys, as well as pigs.

Hall is currently on a sabbatical from his position as a special education specialist with the Duluth public schools. He added another revenue stream to the farm business with his woodturning crafts. His striking bowls and vases can found at regional art galleries.

While the business is operating profitably, Clover Valley Farms is still in an early entrepreneurial stage. In fact, it was nominated and won a 2017 Joel Labovitz Entrepreneurial Success Award. Should the growth rate remain at its current trend, the owners anticipate that their full production goal will be reached by 2019.

To find out more about all the fruits and berries Clover Valley Farms is growing, where to buy the artisanal vinegars and a to take a peek at the farm’s livestock, visit www.clovervalleyfarms.com