In two years, multigenerational Stensland Family Farms becoming household name

June 18, 2018

This paid piece is sponsored by the Prairie Family Business Association.

Two years ago, you couldn’t find a dairy product with a Stensland Family Farms label on it.

Today, there are gallons of milk, quarts of ice cream and blocks of cheese sold at major retailers and locally owned stores in 16 cities throughout southeast South Dakota and northwest Iowa.

There’s a Stensland retail store on 41st Street near The Empire Mall that’s doing so well the family is already thinking of where to open the next one.

And there are tour groups through the dairy all the time, offering many kids their first up-close look at what it takes to bring food to their table.

“It’s sometimes overwhelming. You step back and go, ‘Oh my gosh.’ But I feel good,” said Doug Stensland, whose family has owned the farm since 1915.

“If we hadn’t gone that route, I’m not sure they would be milking cows today.”

Evolving industry

Family-owned dairies such as Stensland are increasingly rare. Even with a herd of more than 200 cows and 1,500 acres of organic cropland, it’s not a giant operation.

But it’s located on outstanding northwest Iowa land, just outside Larchwood. All the forage the cows eat comes from non-GMO crops grown there. The cows are milked on their own schedule and cared for in a way that optimizes their health.

Still, things had to change if the dairy was going to step into the future.

“We’ve milked cows for 100 years, and for 93 years it was always the same,” Stensland said.

Then came the next generation. The Stensland land was first farmed more than a century ago by Tobias Stensland. His son, Arthur, began the dairy operation with one dozen cows in 1952.

It was always assumed Arthur’s oldest son, Doug, would join the operation.

“That was always the plan. You went into it and figured it out. I don’t even know if there was much conversation,” he said. “You just did it.”

At one point, they decided to retire the dairy operation and sell the equipment.

Then Doug’s twin sons, Jason and Justin, approached their grandfather Arthur in 2003 about restarting the dairy. They were 17 and looking to earn money for college.

The boys began putting in hours before and after school, milking twice a day with help from their younger brother, Kyle.

“And then the robots got put in,” Doug said.

By becoming a robotic dairy, the operation grew to milking 250 cows around the clock and at their convenience. Once the cow enters the robot, milking begins and a collar sends information to a computer.

Arthur and his wife, Rosella, who still live on the farm, are “sort of in awe,” Doug said. “Dad milked by hand, and now his grandsons have robots milking the cows. He’s very happy with what they’re doing.”

As production increased, the new generation of Stenslands began to see business opportunity. They decided to build a creamery on the property with the goal of producing dairy products and opening a retail store.

That brought brother Kyle, who had farmed elsewhere, and sister Leah Moller, who owned an event company, back into the family business.

“We decided to remove the middleman and start producing our own product, as we knew the integrity of our own product,” Moller said. “It was either that or my family probably wasn’t going to be able to sustain the dairy as is, so we said ‘Let’s do it.’ And I told them, ‘You guys aren’t doing this without me since I’m familiar with the retail and marketing side.’ ”

They opened both the creamery and their store at 3101 W. 41st St. in the fall of 2016. Doug’s brother, Mark, manages the store.

Stensland products, including milk, butter, cheese and ice cream, now are carried in all Hy-Vee, Fareway and Sunshine stores in southeast South Dakota and northwest Iowa as well as many smaller and independent grocers. They will sell to any retailer, though, and the products also are used by a broad range of restaurants.

At their own store, they sell Stensland products as well as ice cream by the scoop, cone or sundae, ice cream sandwiches and paninis.

This June for Dairy Month customers receive a free small serving of their new Stensland soft serve on Saturdays.

“We continually see new people coming into the store and people traveling through the area who said they heard about it and had to come in and taste the ice cream,” Moller said.

They’ve also opened up their family farm to the community, inviting groups and schools in for private tours.

“That was very important to our family,” Moller said. “We love agri-tourism, allowing people to come to the farm and see where their food (our product) comes from.”

There are day camps, too, offering kids as well as parents and grandparents the chance to get an even closer look at the operation.

“We’re growing a lot faster than we expected and gaining tons of traction in the community,” Moller said. “It’s exceeding our expectations. And as far as the creamery side, it’s a lot more work than we anticipated, but we’re getting through it. The fact that we’re all in it together and supporting each other’s efforts definitely helps us deal with those challenges.”

Family matters

Moller acknowledges she was a little nervous about working so closely with her family.

“I was ready for a new challenge but still a little hesitant,” she said. “Luckily, we all get along really, really well.”

Stensland Family Farms joined the Prairie Family Business Association this year after Doug heard about the resources available.

“So far, I’m impressed,” he said. “We’re just getting into it, and they’ve reached out and asked if I wanted to be in a peer group. I’ll take that on because there’s so much new and different happening for us than in the past. There’s a lot to learn.”

He looks forward to connecting with other families who have gone through similar growth, he said.

“I don’t think it matters what type of business you have; it still comes back to family and figuring out how to get along and realizing how to grow a business,” he said. “I just feel like there will be a lot of good resources to help us.”

It’s a good example of what the association offers members, said Rebecca Zabel, business development manager.

“We were so happy to welcome the Stensland family into our association,” she said.

“It’s wonderful to see so many generations in a family working together and bringing their different skills to help grow in new and different ways. From business strategies to expert resources and definitely relationships with other families who have been through similar transitions, we know there are so many ways they are going to benefit from our new relationship. And we look forward to sharing their best practices and positive experiences with others too.”

As for how big Stensland might become, “I don’t think there’s a limit,” Doug said.

“I think it’ll be deciding what avenues and what direction to go within the business. That’s a decision as the kids start to get more into this. There are so many different ways you can attack this; it’s a question of how it gets bigger. You have to stay flexible and see what happens.”

In the meantime, the next generation of Stenslands are already getting to work. Doug’s 11- and 14-year-old grandchildren sometimes work in the creamery and help with packaging, “and the smaller ones, of course, are always running around the farm or helping in other ways,” Moller said.

“It’s all very gratifying. We all get to interact with each other often and work within our area of expertise to keep everything moving forward, which also makes our job very fulfilling. I think we all feel that way.”

The Prairie Family Business Association is an outreach center of the USD Beacom School of Business.

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In two years, multigenerational Stensland Family Farms becoming household name

Two years ago, you couldn’t find a dairy product with a Stensland Family Farms label on it. It’s amazing how things have changed for this homegrown family business – and how much growth might still be ahead.

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