North Dakota dairy closes after 40 years for lack of workers
After more than forty years in the dairy business and a dozen in retail, My Bessy’s Best is calling it quits.
The dairy cows who provided the milk for the whole milk, cheeses and yogurt were shipped out on Feb. 27, and when the inventory is mostly gone, the store will close, too.
It was the baby, the labor of love of Blaine and Kathy Goetz. Blaine grew up on a dairy farm, and after the couple had been married a few years, they started their own herd.
They farmed and milked till milk prices were so low they knew they had to do something different.
The tipping point came in 2008, when milk was 10 cents per hundredweight.
The couple built a USDA milk processing plant and a retail store, and, through trial and error and a lot of help and advice from others, began processing their own milk.
They sold it as whole milk, and Kathy learned how to make cheeses and yogurt.
Their store, located in Sterling, N.D., thirty miles east of Bismarck, was a favorite among customers.
After their retirement was announced, their Facebook page filled with posts from customers thanking them for the excellent cheese, yogurt and milk and bemoaning the fact there would no longer be My Bessy’s Best food products.
Comments like: “my two year old LOVES her milk and has only had Bessy’s,” “we enjoyed your milk immensely,” and “so sad; you guys have the best chocolate milk ever,” filled the page.
The husband and wife are both 64 years old, but they weren’t ready to retire.
The dairy and processing plant is closing due to a lack of a labor force.
“We cannot find help,” Kathy said. “To do a good job, I need five (people) at the plant and five at the barn,” she said. “And getting good help is impossible.”
Their three sons and daughter are not interested in taking over the operation. “There’s nobody we’re saving it for,” Goetz said. “The kids are busy with their own careers.”
They could easily use more than ten additional employees. When they had more help, Blaine delivered Miss Bessy’s Best milk and milk products to grocery stores in Bismarck, Mandan, and Dickinson, but as the work force declined, they stopped delivery but continued to sell at the store on the farm.
Kathy Goetz taught herself to make cheese, figuring “because I make wine, I thought, why not? We have the milk.” They made nine kinds, from gouda to Swiss, from mozzarella to cheddar, five flavors of cheese curds, and yogurt.
They sold whole milk only, white and chocolate. Whole milk is the least purchased milk in a grocery store and a dairy manager at a local store didn’t think it would sell well. But that wasn’t the case, he told the Goetzes. “I have never sold so much whole milk,” he said.
The couple worked hard at the start, to make loyal customers. They knew the hardest part was convincing someone to try Miss Bessy’s Best, but once they did, they would love it. In the beginning, “if we had a minute we weren’t doing something, we were in the stores demo-ing,” she said. “You can tell people how good it is, but until they taste it, they won’t buy it.”
The Goetzes used international labor for twenty years, hosting people from across the globe as they worked at the dairy and processing plant.
There are an estimated 2,600 job openings in the Bismarck/Mandan area, said Brian Ritter, president of the Bismarck/Mandan Chamber Economic Development Corporation. “For comparison,” he said, “in January of 2018 that number was 1,600.” The area is growing at a rapid pace, Ritter said, with an unemployment rate of 2.6 percent. “That’s incredibly low. We’re approaching numbers that are starting to look like the high of the oil boom. We just can’t find bodies fast enough.”
Bessy’s Best was an economic boon for the farm, Goetz said, noting that in 2008, she and Blaine had some hard economic decisions to make. “We were too young to retire,” she said. “We either had to get out or stay in. We just couldn’t make it,” with the dairy and farm alone, she said. “Bessy’s absolutely carried the farm.”
The Goetzs were very careful of the ingredients that went into their products, Kathy said. “We advertised no synthetic hormones, no antibiotics,” and as few ingredients as possible. For whole milk, there was one ingredient: milk. Even for the item with the most ingredients, strawberry yogurt, there were only four: milk, culture, sugar and strawberries. “They were ingredients you could read and understand and find in your house,” she said.
The store did not have a fulltime employee or cashier; customers paid on the honor system. With a cooler and a coffee can, customers could stop by any time of the day, pick up their dairy products, and leave their money. “Our customers are basically honest people,” she said. “They take care of us.”
My Bessy’s Best was the only family owned dairy processing plant in the state. “I would love to have someone take this over,” Goetz said.
In their retirement, the Goetzs plan on traveling. “We’d like to buy a couple of horses and travel to state parks,” and ride, she said, “while we’re young enough we can still do it.”
It’s bittersweet, she said. “Now the decision has been made, it’s done with.”