Growing up, Heidi Kovacs, our NJMOMpreneur of the Week, would admit she was obsessed with cows, so much she found a local farm near her home in Lebanon where she learned everything she could about farms and milking cows. A natural farmer, Heidi grew to pursue a career in dairy farms, always dreaming of having her own one day. That dream came true when Heidi needed to provide for her daughters and knew that starting a farm would combine what she loved with paying the bills—so with government loans, leased land, and a herd of 25 cows, she founded Sugar Maple Jerseys. Nine years and a lot of hard work later, she owns the 180-acre farm, a herd of 75, and recently opened a country store where she sells their milk, cheeses, pasture-raised meats, all-natural skincare, candles, and ice cream. We caught up with this Stockton mom of two to talk about her proudest moment, how running the farm is a family affair, and the Flemington restaurant where the whole family eats the freshest farm-to-table meals (and Sugar Maple Jerseys meats are served). (featured photo credit: Cathy Miller)
Heidi’s husband and daughters do their part to keep the farm, country store, and ice cream shop running smoothly.
Please tell us a bit about your family and career background. I grew up in Lebanon and founded Sugar Maple Jerseys in 2013 to provide for my two daughters after my first marriage ended. Madeline (Maddy) is now 13, and Miranda (Randi) is 11. I’d managed farms and owned cows and knew that I could do this with a lot of hard work. I never took business or agriculture classes, but business and farming come naturally to me, the same way that some people naturally have a green thumb. Also, I worked for a very long time in the service industry in higher-end restaurants so that I could afford to farm. It was important that I get to do what I love and just as important to me that I pay my bills. I applied for government loans and started with a small herd of 25 cows for milking, and though I started the farm as a single mom, I’ve since remarried, and my husband, Rick Denbigh, is my business partner. We now have about 75 cows, and along with our milk and cheese, we also sell all of our own meats, skincare products, and ice cream.
Where did your love of farming come from? In the same way that some people are obsessed with giraffes or pandas, cows were always my thing. Growing up, I’d always get cow t-shirts and cow posters, and when I started to find my niche in life, I decided to try milking cows. I found a farm not too far from my home, and I asked if I could help them milk their cows. I liked the atmosphere and the sense of connection to the land and the fields, so eventually, I decided to pursue the field of dairy.
Does your family get involved in your business? Everyone plays a role. While working a full-time job in construction, my husband, Rick, is also my co-owner, crop manager, and project manager. My oldest, Maddy, is responsible, too. She sells free-range jumbo brown eggs, feeds the calves, milks the cows, does guided farm tours, and works the store. And my youngest, Randi, manages a flock of sheep, feeds the calves, pets the kitties, and makes great coffee for everyone.
What sets Sugar Maple Jerseys apart from other farms? Everything we do is based on passion, hard work, and quality. The animals are our priority because everything starts with them. We practice the highest standard of care, and our stock is raised to live low-stress, healthy and happy lives – I firmly believe that happier animals yield higher quality products. In 2019 we moved to our current location, which is 180 acres, to ensure that our livestock is primarily grass-fed and pasture-based using regenerative grazing practices.
The farm’s Country Store has fresh cheeses, milk, skincare, and ice cream. (photo credit: Cathy Miller)
What do you hope your daughters learn from seeing you run your own business? I’m living my dream and couldn’t be happier, so whatever they decide to do in life, I hope they dream big, stay positive by focusing on all the good around them, and work hard. I’m a firm believer in leading by example, and I want them to mirror the way I live my life and run my business with a mindset of high self-esteem, a positive outlook, and standing up for myself and others.
What is your proudest business moment? My proudest business moment is having purchased my farm. When I first started Sugar Maple Jerseys, I had to lease land from someone else. Owning my property and running the farm, country store, and ice cream shop while being able to provide for and raise my daughters with a traditional, wholesome farming lifestyle means everything to me.
What are some of your favorite NJ businesses, and what makes them favorites? I’m all about supporting local, and Matt’sRed Rooster Grill in Flemington is a favorite. We do farm-to-table dinners with the owner, Matt. He comes up with the menu, we supply the meats, and we’ll have dinner at the restaurant. And my girls love to eat there, too. Growing up on a farm, they appreciate good food and have always been adventurous eaters with sophisticated palettes and will often order oysters to enjoy before their entrees. For the best tasting cakes, I highly recommend Storybook Cakes, where everything is custom, from the cookies to the cake pops to the cakes. I love it so much that it’s where I got my wedding cake, a gorgeous three-tiered carrot cake with cream cheese frosting.
Where are some of your favorite places to go in NJ with your family? We really love the farm and this area, so a favorite has got to be the Hunterdon County Agriculture Fair around the end of August. There are plenty of animals and things like tractor pulls and home-grown vegetable contests. We also enjoy visiting family at Point Pleasant for family time at the beach and the boardwalk.
What is your best piece of advice for a mompreneur just starting?
No matter what you do, you have to dream big and believe in yourself—think big things and then follow that up with your next big thing, and be willing to work hard to make those dreams come true. We live in a world where instant gratification is expected, but success in business takes time, energy, hard work, and dedication.