["It's the closest to the tree that we can get.", "We’ve been approaching this as the little engine that could.", "It’s time now to get up on a mountain and start shouting, have people really know about us."]

A growing body of research shows that in humans, tart cherries can act as an antioxidant and help people suffering from various conditions and forms of inflammation.

“Our family found relief from arthritis and gout through cherry concentrate, and that got the ball rolling,” says Carol Jones-Adams, describing how her functional treat company, Overby Farm, was born. “Working with researchers at Michigan State University (MSU) who patented their anti-inflammatory discoveries in tart cherries, then with veterinarians there, really helped us. Our own desire to produce something beneficial for our pets was the ‘aha’ that began it all in 2004.”

The fact that Jones-Adams and her family have a farm in Leelanau County, Michigan, USA—also known as the “cherry capital of the world”—was another contributing factor. At the time, she was trying to ensure that her teenagers, who wouldn’t eat breakfast, still received good nutrition by making them smoothies with cherries and other healthy substances. Soon she extended the blending of ingredients to making bone-shaped treats for the family’s dogs, Abigail and Lucy.

Jones-Adams and her husband and business partner, Bob Adams, were so impressed with how their dogs reacted to the treats that they started discussing taking them to the market. He was working with MSU on another project at the time, Jones-Adams says, and found out about the university’s patents with tart cherries.

“We licensed the patents for the companion animal market and started investigating how we could work with the veterinary department at MSU,” Jones-Adams says. “And we started formulating products and came out with Hip Bones as our first product about five years ago.”

Under the logo  on the Overby Farm website, you’ll see a phrase that sums up the company’s stake in the pet treats market: “an invitation to natural joint health.” Besides the Hip Bones functional dog treats, Overby Farm also offers a smaller version, Hip Bones Jr.; Hip Flex, chewable supplements for dogs that include cherries, blueberries and cranberries; and Hip Flex Feline, chewable nibs for cats. All the products contain other functional ingredients such as flax seed, fish oil and glucosamine.

“What we try to do is have our lines work well together,” says Jones-Adams. “So, for example, the Hip Flex supplement works very well fed in conjunction with Hip Bones. The idea came as we started learning about processing parameters; we realized that anytime you bake a treat, you’re going to lose a certain amount of the active ingredients. We do gear up the actives with our baked treats, but we also wanted to have a more efficacious, pure supplement type product, and that’s when we came out with Hip Flex. It starts with whole frozen cherries, then adds the cherry concentrate and goes from there—the closest to the tree that we can get.”

That approach to  the market has paid off. Though still just a very small family business—after graduating from MSU, son David joined the company in 2008 as sales manager—Overby Farm will exceed US$1 million in sales in the US alone in 2011, Jones-Adams says, the first time the company has hit that mark. “We feel like we have had our nose to the grindstone since the beginning,” she adds. “We’ve been approaching this as the little engine that could. We really try to thoroughly investigate everything before we do it, but it makes us move at a slower pace. And so far we’ve been fine with that.

“Now we’re ready to take the company to the next level,” Jones-Adams continues. “We believe we’re in a transitional phase right now, that we’ve learned about the industry in the last five years, we’ve learned a lot about formulating and working with the necessary players in the marketplace.”

After nearly a year of R&D and trials, the company is preparing to launch a range of new products that will double its offerings within the next 12 months: 

  • A wheat-free version of Hip Bones;
  • A line of Veggie bones; and
  • New packaging for Hip Flex and Hip Flex Feline (in bottles, in addition to the pouches they already come in).

The new Hip Bones are intended for dogs with allergies to wheat, Jones-Adams says. “We’ve kept wheat in Hip Bones—it was part of the original formulation—because with tart cherry, you need some sort of ‘stick factor’ to keep the treat together. But we recognize there’s a large percentage of the animal population that’s allergic to wheat or has some type of reaction. So it’s a request we’ve heard in the marketplace, and we’re trying to respond to that.”

In developing the Veggie Bones, the emphasis has been on cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower, focusing on recommendations from the nutritionist at MSU who advises the company. “We want to make sure it’s a very ‘green’ bone,” Jones-Adams says. “Cruciferous vegetables are the gist of it, and I think we’ll be adding a few others in there for fun, for health, like pumpkin and sweet potato.”

Overby Farm has  an exclusive relationship with a global fruit and vegetable global processor in northern Michigan. “He’s fantastic and has been moving down a path toward human nutraceuticals. We are the companion animal compatriot to that,” Jones-Adams says. “As we see his movement in this area, as we see people becoming more educated about what nutrition can do for them and their pets, as the science and the information keep becoming more available—and through our work with MSU and some of the other like minds we have joined with—it’s absolutely incredible what’s available and what we can do. Our ideas for formulating with fruit and vegetable streams are just through the roof.

“It’s time now to get up on a mountain and start shouting, have people really know about us,” she continues. “We’re ready to start rolling at a faster pace now. We’re ready to launch, almost like a relaunch, into a whole new level of the business. We’re excited.”

Jones-Adams is  equally enthusiastic about the market overall. “We have absolutely enjoyed all the people in the pet industry, like no other industry either of us has been in. It’s just been delightful. People are generally happy, they’re honest and I think pretty altruistic about what they’re trying to do. We love it.”

That’s why she believes in dealing one-on-one with distributors, retailers, even consumers; every e-mail that comes in through the Overby Farm website goes into Jones-Adams’ inbox, and she responds personally, she says. “Whoever you are and whatever role in this food chain you play or however you handle our product, we want to know personally what you think. And we take all that information and put it into our planning matrix to decide how we can continue to improve and grow. Because I think that really is the way to not only survive, but that’s the way to thrive in this marketplace and particularly in this industry, which is, thank god, a very heartfelt industry.

“The beautiful thing about dealing with people one-on-one,” she continues,” is not only does it work, but it’s a delightful way to go about your day-to-day activity and life. It’s wonderful and it’s fun.”

Read more about Overby Farm 

Read a Q&A with Carol Jones-Adams here.