Skyr—It’s Not Just for Vikings AnymoreJun 01, 2022 09:00AM ● By Karin Knaus
When Stephanie and Hayley Painter were high school students growing up on Painterland Farms in the Northern Tier’s Cowanesque Valley, every day included not only farm chores and family time but also interactions with other farm families. According to Hayley, “We didn’t then realize how special our farm was.” Now in their mid-to-late twenties, the sisters are farm to table entrepreneurs, producing Painterland Sisters Organic Skyr Yogurt and spreading their family’s story of full circle farming—using regenerative and holistic agricultural practices.
Painterland Sisters uses the milk from their family farm to produce five flavors—plain, blueberry lemon, strawberry, meadow berry, and vanilla bean—of organic Icelandic style skyr (“skeer”) yogurt. (Read on to find out how Viking yogurt came to be made in Tioga County.) Currently sold in five states, including locally at Home Comfort in Westfield, the Stony Fork Store, Owlett’s Farm Store in Middlebury Center, and through Delivered Fresh, the sisters say the yogurt acts as a “conduit to our story and mission.”
That story began in 1941 when their great-grandparents George and Myrtilla Painter started what is now Painterland Farms on a hill overlooking Westfield. It was the sisters’ grandparents, John and Lynda Painter, who made dairy the farm’s mainstay. Lynda still lives on the farm and still makes a five-course breakfast every Tuesday at 9 a.m. for the whole family, which includes her sons, Johnny, Clinton, and Brad, and the fourth generation of Painters on the farm: Stephanie and Hayley, their brothers Bryant and McGwire, and cousins Jacob and Courtney. This locally famous Lynda Painter breakfast is hearty, and features dessert, which Hayley admits is a little unusual for 9 a.m. But hey, it’s tradition.
“Pride is one of the things that keeps me going. It’s a pride thing to pass on the story of our ancestors,” says Hayley. That pride in the Painter family traditions led the sisters to seek higher degrees, hoping to have their own impact someday. Stephanie earned a business degree from Susquehanna University, and Hayley followed her there two years later. What the sisters quickly realized was that the other students there had no idea where their food came from. They weren’t connected to it in any way.
Hayley finished her degree in animal science at Iowa State, where she studied with students who, like her, had grown up around farming. She says those students taught her quite a few things. A professor there led Hayley to an internship in cheesemaking in New Jersey. That’s when inspiration hit: “I want to make something out of our milk.”
This idea has become both women’s passion. You can see it in their dreamy blue eyes and smiles when Hayley speaks of their business: “It’s art and science together. It’s beautiful.” Initially, their dreams for production were as big as the valley itself, including a processing plant with hard and soft cheeses, yogurt, and ice cream. They soon realized that staying as connected as they’d like and sharing their family’s story—which has always been the most important piece of what they do—might mean starting smaller.
Around the same time this realization came, the girls were put in touch with a tenth generation Icelandic skyr maker living in Carlisle. Stephanie, Hayley, and their father, Clinton, headed downstate to hear his story and see his operation. Skyr has been a staple of Icelandic food since the Norwegian Vikings first settled on the island in the late ninth century. Icelandic style skyr is low in sugar, boasts up to eighteen grams of protein in a serving, and is lactose-free. The three left with some samples of his product and his story ruminating in their heads. Soon Painterland Sisters Organic Yogurt was born, with production taking place in Carlisle.
In addition to the dairy, for which they’re best known locally, Painterland Farms also raises crops to feed their cows. “We have the best milk because we feed them ourselves,” says Hayley. Their pride extends to that product, too. And why shouldn’t it? Being able to use their own milk and choose their own ingredients means they have a premium, nutrient-dense product. Theirs is the only skyr yogurt in the United States made using organic whole milk from a single source.
Looking to the future, the girls may explore other flavors and sizes beyond single serving packages. They also hope that down the road they can use the yogurt to spur agrotourism, maybe set up a store, and develop events and education programs so more people can learn about where their food comes from. They see education as a key piece of their mission, with packaging that features a QR code that links to fun and games geared toward kids.
Their experiences on the farm, in college, and as entrepreneurs have been an education for the sisters as well. They make a great team, as both are passionate and driven toward the same vision. “You know, we’re kind of competitive,” says Hayley. “We both played basketball and ran track, and we both had the same friend group, so we were always in a race with each other but on the same team. Now we’re using that to better our brand.”
The farm they grew up on is still an integral part of what they’re doing every day. “We are doing it for the future of the farm. If [our family] weren’t here working the farm and cows, we wouldn’t have it,” says Hayley. As the sisters have transitioned into working full time at their business, neither has daily farm chores anymore. Both keep farm life close at heart. Hayley, who walks the farm daily and feeds the hobby farm animals at night, says these moments remind her why they do it and help anchor the sisters more tightly to their full circle story of family and farming.