FOREST LAKE, Minn. — Autumnwood Farm is proud of the products they produce and their agricultural heritage. The Daninger family has farmed the land, located on the south side of Forest Lake, Minn., for 117 years. That same drive and ambition which established the farm all those years ago is still alive and well today.
Pat Daninger’s grandparents emigrated from Austria and began farming rented land in 1902. Pat’s parents, Mike and Florence, bought that same farm from his cousin after Mike returned home from World War II and soon began milking cows.
It was after graduating from the University of Minnesota that Daninger and his wife, Sharlene, became part of the farming operation. From 1982 to 1990 they bought different parts of the farm, along with 300 acres of land on which they plant corn for silage, hay, winter wheat and have pasture ground.
For Daninger, it was a no-brainer. He always knew he wanted to come back home to farm. “We wanted to raise the kids on the farm,” he admitted. It wasn’t easy though when milk prices took a hit. “I thought of a lot of different ways to stay on the farm and make a living.”
One idea that popped into his head was to start a creamery on the farm and sell the milk they produce directly to customers and retail stores. “We pitched the idea to a few different lenders,” Daninger said and he ended up going with a local bank. With the funding available, the next step was to find grocery stores that would sell the milk products. He presented the idea to Kowalski’s and Festival Foods. They both told him come back when he had milk in the bottle.
Getting the facilities designed, built and ready for bottling took almost two and half years, but by 2008 the creamery was up and running. Soon word of mouth was out about Autumnwood Farm milk. Kowalski’s called Daninger and wanted to sell the milk in five of their stores starting that next week.
Running a dairy and milk processing plant isn’t always smooth sailing. “The first several years there was a new challenge every day,” Daninger said. It took five to six years for more and more retailers to become interested in selling their milk. Financially, the first seven years were a constant state of crisis. Daninger didn’t give up and soon the milk gained in popularity in Forest Lake and beyond. Daninger believes they would’ve been out of business in 2009 if they wouldn’t had the processing plant. It wasn’t that the business was successful at that point; it was that Daninger invested too much time and money to fold. Looking at the dairy landscape now, Daninger believes that having its own brand has been instrumental to the success of the Autumnwood Farm dairy operation.
The milk products Autumnwood Farm sells are in glass bottles. Consumers notice the difference glass bottles make in the way the milk tastes. “They tell us it tastes unique,” Daninger said. The processing of the milk is also distinct. “We use a long-term low-temperature pasteurization method. It protects the integrity of the milk.” Daningers hears customers appreciate that the milk they drink comes from a family farm. Their slogan says it best: “From grass to glass.” It simply doesn’t get much more farm fresh than that.
Autumnwood Farm sells their milk products in over 40 stores in the Twin Cities in addition to being sold at their creamery. Their milk and creamer are used in over 25 coffee shops in the metro area as well. It’s not just milk and creamer that Autumnwood Farm produces. They make their own ice cream in the summer and supply ice cream dairy mix to two ice cream shops — one in Duluth and another in Minneapolis. In addition to milk, ice cream and creamer, Daninger discovered that during the holidays people like egg nog — a lot. They created pumpkin spice eggnog and sold 4,000 gallons last year. They also sell chocolate milk year-round and strawberry milk seasonally.
Last summer, construction began on a double parallel parlor and freestyle barn. The dairy is currently at 75 cows with the goal to grow to at least 100 head. The farm has 12 people on staff, with much of those working in the processing plant.
“The way family and community has come together to make this work has made this gratifying,” Daninger said.
Family is at the heart of Autumnwood Farm. Daninger and Sharlene have four children: sons Nathan and his wife Aly; Luke, his wife Kayla and daughters Mariah and Erin and her husband Micah, along with grandchildren Ruth, Josephine and Bennett. Son Luke works on the crop side of the farm and daughter Mariah does much of the milking, helps with field work and handles the social media. While Daninger’s parents moved off the farm in 1988, Mike was still involved in the farm until a few months before his death at age 89 in 2006. Florence worked in the creamery until age 86 and still does data entry for the farm books.
In addition to his family, Daninger credits neighbors who volunteered their time for years to help get the bottling facility up and running. “We plan to continue to serve as many people as we can.”
Daninger would ultimately like to do farm tours to let the customers see the cows which produce all the products they enjoy and get an opportunity to see the dairy in action.
A rich agricultural legacy, coupled with the willingness to innovate and create opportunities for growth, has allowed Autumnwood Farm to succeed for 117 years and counting.
For more information on Autumnwood Farm visit https://autumnwoodfarmllc.com/.