Business Person Lifetime Achievement Award – Ed Brandsma

Passion and hard work take Edaleen Dairy from small family farm to thriving independent dairy brand and beyond

Article by Tamara Anderson-Loucks

originally published March 2017 in Business Pulse magazine—

Ed and Aileen Brandsma, owners of Lynden’s Edaleen Dairy Farm and stores, have steered their farm in many new directions during the 52 years they’ve been married. The term “old school” cannot be applied to them. “They are innovators and early adopters of new technology,” said their longtime banker and close friend Bill Irving. “And, salt-of-the-earth people.”

Through the Brandsmas’ leadership, what once was a small, family-centered dairy farm is now a thriving, independent industry powerhouse milking more than 2,500 cows. Coupling that with widespread community involvement, they have earned the Whatcom Business Alliance Lifetime Achievement Award. “It’s been a very rewarding life,” Ed Brandsma said, “with a lot of ups and downs in farming.”

Irving helped them through the growth periods financially, starting in the mid-1980s. “We’ve remained friends,” he said, “with a common end goal to keep the business profitable and thriving.”

A Passion that Spans 4 Generations

Dairy farming is fused into Ed and Aileen Brandma’s DNA. Aileen was raised on the farm that is now Edaleen Dairy, land owned by her family for nearly a century. Ed grew up on a dairy farm in Abbotsford, B.C. The newly-married couple took over their Lynden farm in 1964 from Aileen’s father, Maurice Honcoop Jr. At that time the Brandsmas sold all their milk to Darigold, but they realized the opportunities that the farm could achieve from processing their own milk. They expanded and upgraded the existing farm and processing plant in 1974.

Edaleen Dairy, a combination of Ed and Aileen’s names, officially opened in 1975 with 80 cows and 10 employees. They processed and sold Edaleen Dairy-branded milk products directly to distributors. They also established an on-site store on the Guide Meridian just below the Canadian border crossing, selling milk, half-and-half, and whipping cream to customers.

The Edaleen Dairy brand gained recognition rapidly, including steady traffic from Canada, and success bred the need for expansion. In 1989 the Brandsmas constructed a new dairy facility on Depot Road in Lynden to house and milk cows. The Guide Meridian facility processes the milk and operates the original farm-site store.

In 2007 management of the farm passed to the Brandsmas’ son-in-law, Mitch Moorlag, but Ed and Aileen continued their involvement in the dairy’s overall operations.

In 2011 a family friend noticed a property for sale in Sumas and told the Brandsmas she had found the perfect spot if they were interested in establishing a line of convenience stores. The Sumas store opened on June 1, 2011. The next year Edaleen leased, renovated, and opened a third convenience store Dec. 1, on the east side of Lynden. A fourth store opened in north Ferndale last year.

The convenience stores sell premium ice cream, milk, half-and-half, whipping cream, juice, butter, eggs, cheese, Ellenos Greek Yogurt, and other items. Two stores have a yogurt bar, three serve sandwiches and soup. And, they all serve the mighty popular soft-serve ice cream in various flavors, or with two flavors swirled.

Five years ago, the family brought on partners. Ownership now comprises the Brandsmas, their daughter Karen and her husband Mitch Moorlag, Scott and Melissa Engels, and Kevin and Courtney Price. Today, the thriving Edaleen conglomerate milks around 1,600 Holstein cows, has about 1,600 young stock (cows under 23 months old), and employs 65 full-time and 50 part-time employees.

The Rise of a Tasty Treat

In 1980 Edaleen Dairy made a small amount of ice cream and sold it at the Guide Meridian store. “A lot of cream is left after you separate the milk,” Ed Brandsma said. “So we made some ice cream, and sold the remaining ice cream mix to wholesalers. They added their own ingredients to create their own unique flavors.”

Using its cream to make and sell their own ice cream created a better profit center than selling the cream to wholesalers. So the Brandsmas expanded ice cream production in partnership with a professional ice cream maker, Tom Torgeson, who had left another dairy.

“Tom is just who we needed at just the right time,” Aileen Brandsma said. “He stayed with us until he retired about five years ago. Their award-winning ice cream is now developed by a new crew that creates the dairy’s unique flavors, such as Banana Split, Fudgy Wudgy and White Chocolate Raspberry.

“Rocky Road has always been most popular,” Aileen Brandsma said. “Generally, they run their ideas by Kevin (Price), the head of the processing plant. But the ice cream crew basically is free to develop new flavors without oversight. The freedom to create gives a better end product.”

Edaleen Dairy offers 30-40 flavors, including seasonals. About 20 percent of company sales comes from production and sales of America’s most popular frosty treat at all five locations. A single scoop costs $1.25, well below the average price for a scoop of premium ice cream.

Ed Brandsma said, “We’ve been asked why the price is so low. It’s a subject that the ownership has bounced around forever. But unlike many other ice cream manufacturers, we produce our own cream. It keeps costs down. We could charge much more, but for us it’s more about the joy our ice cream brings to others.”

During a photo shoot to support this award and article, both Aileen and Ed expressed that joy as the source of their greatest satisfaction over the years – not their name on buildings. “We love offering people a place to bring their family – to come in, order ice cream, and sit down to enjoy it,” Ed said.

“Last summer we took some friends to the Blaine store to eat ice cream. For fun, and without identifying ourselves I asked some customers how the ice cream was. They said ‘There’s nothing better. Nothing better.’ It makes us feel really good that they come for miles just to bring their families in to enjoy our ice cream.”

Though the stores stay busy and the business flourishes, the company has no plans for more expansion.

“We’re just trying to do a great job managing the locations we have,” Aileen said. “A year-and-a-half ago we added ice cream cakes to our product offering. People love them, and there is a lot of growth opportunity there.”

Success Is Never Without its Challenges

Building Edaleen Dairy beyond a small family farm was not without its challenges. Edaleen Dairy products are distributed throughout Washington and Western Oregon. But in the early days the Brandsmas discovered that producing and distributing their own milk was far more difficult than expected.

“When you sell to a company like Darigold, they take everything you produce,” Aileen said. “But when you are selling directly to distributors and wholesale customers, you need to build your herds to meet demand. And if the orders decline, you now produce more milk than you are selling

“Managing the herds to meet the ebbs and flows—it was a huge learning curve.”

Ed Brandsma added, “It was particularly hard to build the customer base when we were new to independent distribution and hadn’t built a reputation yet.”

As the business expanded, they needed to grow the herd to meet demand. But money wasn’t always readily available to buy additional cows. “There were so many good people to help us along the way and who sold me really good cows,” Ed said. “People backed us on reputation, providing what we needed, knowing they’d get paid. People were so gracious. Looking back at the support we received, it’s amazing.”

Aileen told how “some sold us cows on low or no interest payments to help us build….you never forget that. We received a lot of God’s blessings.”

A Good Banker Can Make or Break a Business

They both credited God, their family, their workers, and their banker, Bill Irving, for helping them weather the bad times and build the business. Irving said he connected with the Brandsmas from the start during the mid-‘80s when Edaleen became his account, and a friendship developed that has spanned over 30 years.

“Bill went above and beyond to help us,” Ed Brandsma said. “He spent time reviewing our business plans, providing input on how to make the business work. And even when times were challenging he had faith and loaned us the money we needed to keep the dairy going, as long as he could see that our ideas were feasible.”

Irving said he believed in their vision. “I was raised on a dairy farm, too,” he said. “I knew a little about the industry. They have such a passion for the business, their employees, and the quality of their products. We went through high and low times, and they would seek input in their financial decision-making. I knew I could trust them.”

Irving feels the dairy’s success is attributable to Ed Brandsma’s character and management style. “He allows his employees to provide input in decision-making. He’s hands-on, but not controlling. And he seeks professional help, whether it’s with his accountant, myself, a nutritionist, or a vet – it’s a team approach at Edaleen Dairy.”

While his son-in-law manages the farm today, Ed keeps up with the day-to-day dealings of the business, particularly on the dairy side. “He’s basically a cow man,” Irving said. “He takes great pride in his dairy.”

Dedicated to Charitable Causes—
at Home and Abroad

The Brandsmas deem it important to give back to the community that has supported them through the decades. Edaleen Dairy sponsors parades and youth sports teams, and donates to numerous organizations and events. “We love Whatcom County, and are proud we can work here. We love to be invested in and support the communities we do business in,” Aileen said.

Their latest passion is involvement with the Gulu County Dairy Partnership through Partners Worldwide, an outreach program that teaches dairy farming in Uganda.

“Aileen dragged me to a convention I didn’t want to go to,” Ed said. “But we met Wendell Van Gunst, a producer-handler and the head of the Gulu County Dairy Partnership, who told us about his program. He had a farm created in miniature – to visually illustrate his vision of building a farm in Uganda.”

A team of worldwide partners, including the Brandsmas, made Van Gunst’s vision a reality. Now operational, the Ugandan dairy milks about 25 cows and sponsors university students to stay on the farm and learn dairy farming. It’s become a teaching tool for the community, and its milk has won several awards. Next, the partnership will build a processing plant and teach the community how to process milk and make yogurt.

“Uganda has rich farm lands, but they don’t know how to take care of it. They didn’t even have the machinery to plow,” Ed said. “Machinery was shipped over to help them farm efficiently. It’s a very special program.”

Overcoming an Unexpected Recent Challenge

Though the business is running smoothly, fate brought Ed Brandsma another hurdle to overcome – the “big C.” Not cows. Cancer.

A year ago he was diagnosed with lymphoma. The cancer was wrapped around his aorta, making it nearly impossible for him to breathe. He underwent his last four-hour chemotherapy treatment in early February. “I feel good. Thankful. I have no complaints,” he said, upon learning about the Lifetime Achievement Award. “I feel 80-90 percent better than last year. Things look good.”

After a lifetime of dedication to Edaleen Dairy, Ed Brandsma’s anticipated clean bill of health will allow the couple to pursue their newest passion. They plan to travel to Uganda to visit the dairy farm their support helped to build.