Over the last decade, the yogurt section of the supermarket has expanded … and then expanded some more. There are literally hundreds of brands and styles of yogurt to choose from, like Greek yogurt, Bulgarian yogurt, plant-based yogurt, kefir and more! Now, there’s a new yogurt joining those ranks: Skyr (Icelandic-style yogurt) made right here in Pennsylvania! Painterland Sisters Yogurt just launched in March 2022, and has already carved out a nice niche for themselves in the very crowded yogurt market.
The “sisters” in Painterland Sisters are Stephanie and Hayley Painter, fourth-generation dairy farmers. Their family’s regenerative farm is located in Westfield in Tioga County. Like many in the younger generations of established family farms, the Painter sisters were looking for a way to carry on their family’s agricultural legacy while also making their own ways. They teamed up with a 10th-generation Icelandic yogurt maker with a production facility in Pennsylvania, which has allowed them to put their family’s organic dairy out farther out into the world. Their distribution keeps growing: You can now find their products at GIANT, Kimberton Whole Foods, Central Market, Lemon Street Market and more!
We were able to grab a few minutes with Stephanie and Hayley during their hectic schedule to learn more about this exciting new business. Get the scoop in this Meet the Farmer Q&A:
PA Eats: Can you tell us a bit about your family’s farm?
Hayley Painter: Our family’s farm is in North Central PA, and it’s super rural, with lots of hills, valleys and streams. The area includes a lot of other smaller farms and small communities. We live on top of a hill, but still in a valley, so it’s a really cool site where we’re secluded with nature all around us. Our cows are grazed, so they are on the pastures all around us. We milk 400 cows a day! Growing up, we worked on the dairy farm together with our extended family, including our parents, grandparents, uncles and 13 cousins. Community was everything to us growing up, and being connected to the animals was something we did every day.
How did the two of you decide to go into business together? And why yogurt?
Hayley: We’ve been thinking about this ever since we were little kids; we always knew this was going to happen. Farming is in our blood because we grew up with this way of life — it was intrinsically a part of us. When we started getting older we were asking ourselves: What can we do to make a difference for our farm and for our world? We were looking for different avenues to bring our farm out to the world. Stephanie went to a liberal arts school here in Pennsylvania, Susquehanna University, and was the first person in our family to graduate from college. She graduated with a business degree. I went to school with her and then transferred to Iowa state to major in animal science.
Stephanie Painter: We wanted to figure out the best way to utilize our family farm’s milk that’s nutrient-dense, lactose-free, low sugar dairy. We wanted a plain and simple product that would allow us to educate people on the things that are important to us: our soil, our animals and sustainability. I think consumers want to feel connected to their food sources and are starting to ask questions. We’re bringing in this new perspective on yogurt. We’re millennial women selling yogurt, not doing it the way our grandpa and dad would have. The new twist on this commodity is that we’re getting back to our roots, digging back into where it all started, not reinventing the wheel.
Before this, we sold milk to a co-op and wanted a more stable market for our milk. For instance, the Horizon co-op just dropped a hefty amount of organic family farmers in Maine and that made us feel like, holy smokes, we have to get this going, because that will trickle down to the mid-Atlantic states. We see family dairy farms are going out of business every year. We wanted to find something that could sustain us for at least four more generations. Now we can finally control our own destinies as farmers instead of letting it be controlled by bigger companies.
Tell us more about how you developed Painterland Sisters Yogurt.
Stephanie: We filed for our LLC in the beginning of 2020. Hayley got a grant through the Dairy Center of Excellence and we were able to hire Kitchen Table Consultants to help us build a business plan. We obtained a loan from the bank, and then things really picked up pace. We had our first trial run in November 2021.
Our first business plan was to build a processing plant, and we were going to have it right here on our farm. But then we discovered co-packers, which is a very important part of the industry that people never quite think of. They’re a great opportunity for farms to create value-added products but still be able to focus on sales and marketing. And the cool part of working with co-packers is they have the coolest equipment, versus a start up processing plant.
The plant we partnered with felt right — right off the bat. The owner is trying to bring his family’s Icelandic yogurt tradition to Pennsylvania, and he has this pride and mission. He wants to create the best quality yogurt. We have pride in our family and our roots just like he does, and that created an instant trust.
Hayley: Yes, when we went there and met with him, we felt the pride. When we tried his yogurt it was an instant yes, we have to do this. The plant is also high certified in terms of safety and quality.
What makes Skyr different than regular yogurt?
Hayley: He uses ultrafiltration, with equipment that was first made in Iceland. People made the original Skyr in their sinks with Icelandic cultures. They still use those cultures but in the 1990s in Iceland they created ultrafiltration, meaning that with high pressure you can strain the water out of the yogurt base without taking any of the whey away. It keeps the structure very intact. Dairy products are like little babies; you can destroy them if you’re not careful!
Stephanie: The technology makes a nutrient-dense yogurt that still tastes good. Ours surpasses most yogurts in nutrition. Plus, 65% of people have lactose sensitivity, and this process breaks down lactose.
How did you develop your flavors?
Stephanie: We started by looking at market research about the top yogurt flavors, but wanted to put our own twist on it. For vanilla, we did vanilla bean where you can see the flecks of vanilla in there. We did plain, because in Iceland, they use Skyr in savory ways, like sour cream. For our strawberry flavor, we added some chunks of strawberry in there. Blueberry is a super popular flavor with lemon right behind or ahead. But no one has a blueberry lemon yogurt, so we tried it. It’s so good! Sweet up front and refreshing in the back. Meadow berry is named after my daughter Meadow, and it goes along with our vibe. It’s a combination of strawberry, blueberry, raspberry and currants with a little elderberry juice.
We spent a long time fine-tuning each flavor. That was the hard part. We had to decide things like, do we want to use agave or cane sugar, and how much sugar is enough? We got a couple samples with Stevia and we were like no, we want to educate that organic cane sugar is what our body knows how to break down. We worked with a food scientist from Oregon, and we had a salesperson from where we source our fruit who was so creative and supportive of us.
What has it felt like to bring this business to fruition?
Stephanie: Everything we had on paper, we’re putting it into action. As a start up we’ve had to pivot every day. It’s just like holding onto your seat with both hands! We’re growing so much, we’re hiring people, building new processes, making sure the customers we have are being taken care of and getting new business as well. It’s definitely like, let’s rock and roll. We haven’t even celebrated too much or worried too much because it’s just been going!
Hayley: We share our story through social media accounts like Instagram, making it trendy and relatable. We’re using Pinterest; our dad would never use that! We’re creating a brand people can connect with. We’re talking about the brand like a sisterhood. We’re selling yogurt in the way only young women can. We’re trying to make dairy cool.
- Photos: Painterland Sisters Yogurt