In Lewis County, NY approximately 200 family-owned farms form the backbone of their strong rural economy, sustainable regional food system, and the area’s rich agricultural heritage. Spotlight on Business Magazine had the opportunity to sit down with James Munn and his wife Bethany to learn how Black River Valley Natural has made it their mission to bring that all together by offering customers premium quality locally sourced dairy products that are produced in an environmentally friendly dairy processing facility. Munn tells Spotlight on Business how he and his wife are proud to be supporting and promoting the local agricultural heritage and legacy of our Lewis County family farms with a small-batch artisanal creamery that hopes to be a regional food hub when it grows up.
James Munn and his wife Bethany started Black River Valley Natural with their hometown in mind.
Both working corporate jobs, the two were worn out and missing their family by October 2017. Long hours were constantly keeping them away.
“When we’d go home for Christmas or what have you, we’d talk about Lewis County (a rural county in upstate New York), and how economically depressed things were. We wished we could do something for where we were from,” said Munn.
“We started a dialogue with people in county government about investing or helping a start-up. We thought we could help on that side, and the county economic development office came back with value-added dairy products.”
The discussion continued, an advisory board was formed, and the two began a business plan. As their corporate work became more hectic, they were hiring people to watch their kids and moving further from the life they wanted.
“The question came as to why we didn’t just run this ourselves, and we decided we needed a change of pace, and it allowed us to move back to our own town. We were starting something that would make a difference in the community,” he said.
“It was something that economically could be a big boom for the area. We saw an incubator space where we could work with farmers and local food producers, and this was something we could do with our family.”
They love the business, even though Munn remarks they barely knew how to spell ‘butter’ when they began. But helping the community in Lyons Falls, where they settled in the county, pushed them forward.
“We took classes, read books, watched videos, toured facilities, and talked to consultants and advisors. We wanted to make this work here,” he said.
Black River Valley Natural is a small-batch artisanal creamery that hopes to be a regional food hub when it grows up.
“We want to build this brand to represent a lot of things coming from New York state. We specialize in flavoured butters and niche dairy products,” he said.
“We partner with local farmers to bring their milk to market. We just started bottling milk for a farmer that lives nearby. We were able to allow him to work with us to make sure he has a market and a sound business plan. We want to do co-packing like that as well.”
Working with the farmers in the area is at the core of what the Munns want to do.
“We look around at people who are at the heart of things, and who need the most help, it’s the farmers. We can offer an outlet for their milk and hopefully help make ends meet,” he said.
“Even if we can just take their products when we go into New York City, we help how we can.”
He laughs when asked about what it’s like working with his wife, Bethany.
“It’s been a great mix of good and bad. We’re learning each other’s needs, how to work with each other, and we’re together way more now,” he said.
“We drop the kids off to school, pick them up, and we love that. The extended family also stops by for coffee or visits the creamery, and I love that too.”
They had an open house April 25, which was invite-only for farmers and other small processors, meant to look at partnership opportunities and when we spoke with the Munns they were again prepping for a May 8 open house.
“This will be open to the general public, for 100 or more visitors. We want people to tour the facilities, get samples, and farmers can set up booths and sell products. We hope for a great turnout,” he said.
Munn gets to work with his wife, see his family more, and work where he grew up. But there’s one thing he loves more than anything else.
“The hope out there now in the community is amazing. People are so excited to see us succeed. We renovated a building that was part of an old paper mill, which went out of business in 2000,” he said.
“It was abandoned and sitting in the middle of this quaint little New York town. It was falling apart, and for us to come in, renovate and create a thriving business … It’s really added a lot of excitement to the town. County-wide people see this, and we’ve been able to bring together a lot of other processors and make them excited.”
He says one thing they really enjoy is seeing people who’ve been struggling now realizing there’s a momentum and expects good things for Lewis County.
His wife, Bethany, says there is a ton of things to look forward to, and things are moving organically.
“We tell the farmers and producers this is about collaboration, not competition. We lift people up and build trust. We are in multiple stores and trying to reach out and help,” she said.
“We want to partner with producers who can’t get their product out of the area. I have over 11 years of marketing experience, and we can distribute product to Lake George, Syracuse and more. We are dedicated to helping everyone do well.”
The food movement is happening because others want to work with them, she says.
“The money is in exporting unique products out of the county that people want, and that will bring money back into our town,” she said.
James Munn says the highlight is they feel like there was demand already in the county, and they stepped forward to get things started.
“The pent-up energy here was tapped into by us, and this doesn’t feel like work. We love what we’re doing,” he said.
“We felt like this area could use revitalization, and the county has been working to bring in viable businesses. We’re the first to sign up, but we hope this will attract other like-minded individuals and keep moving forward in a way that improves the quality of life for everyone here.”
By Jordan Parker