John Harrison was a dairyman who looked at the dairy industry with a unique perspective.
Harrison grew up on his family’s dairy farm, learning the tricks of the trade. Not long after his college graduation, he set out on his own and purchased land that would become the foundation of Sweetwater Valley Farm's 1,800 acres in Philadelphia, Tenn.
For Harrison, running a successful dairy operation meant viewing the farm as a long-term business that demanded fresh thinking. By 1998, he had a plan to begin on-farm production of cheese. He was the only dairyman in his area to make such a bold move and was told more than once that his farmstead cheese would struggle to get shelf space in the stores.
"I had to work hard to do things that would put me ahead of everyone else," Harrison explained. "I can't worry things I can't control like the weather. I just have to stick it out."
It's this get-it-done attitude that has allowed Sweetwater Valley Farm to flourish despite the challenges that come with being a farmer.
Innovation has long been a core value at Sweetwater Valley. Like most dairy farmers, Harrison starts his work day at around 5 a.m. and doesn't stop until the cows, literally, come home.
Harrison also is a cheese-maker—an integral part of his farm business. In fact, of the 20 million pounds of milk produced annually on the farm, roughly 10 percent is used to make cheese.
But, as is the case of most innovation, there are risks.
When Harrison began on-farm cheese production in 1998 he was the only dairyman in his area making such a bold move and was told more than once that his farmstead cheese wouldn't get shelf space in the stores because it wasn't organic.
But by early 2000, Harrison found that consumers craved unique, local products. Support poured in, and Sweetwater Valley Farm attracted travelers looking for local flavor. Now, more than a decade and 25 varieties of Cheddar later, the farm is renowned for its artisanal cheeses. The farm produces about 200,000 pounds of cheese each year. Still, cheese is only one part of the farm's equation. Harrison hasn’t lost sight of the basics that are important to all dairy farmers – his land and his cows. Sweetwater is home to about 1,300 cows and 20% of their milk is used to make cheese while the rest is sent off the farm to be packaged for consumers. Harrison is also committed to help bridge the gap for what he sees as a growing disconnect between consumers and his farm.