These days, award-winning artisan and specialty cheeses take most of the credit for putting Wisconsin on the map as America’s Dairyland. But it’s another growing category—the rise of farmstead creameries—that’s becoming increasingly responsible for developing a new generation of dairy entrepreneurs.
While some dairy farmers choose to build new barns and add more animals to increase the size of their operation, a growing number of dairy farmers are instead building small creameries right on the farm, producing ice cream, butter, bottled milk, or yogurt directly from the milk of their cows, sheep, or goats. Not only does crafting an on-farm dairy product provide another source of revenue, in many cases it provides a different avenue to bring the kids—many of whom don’t want to milk animals 365 days a year—back into the family business.
Since 2000, nearly a dozen Wisconsin farms have built on-farm creameries to produce fresh dairy products, and another one is about to join the ranks.
Al and Sarah Bekkum, owners of Nordic Creamery near Westby, Wisconsin, are putting the finishing touches on their new farmstead butter plant, where they plan to craft European-style traditional and seasonal butters made in small batches from the milk of their own cows. Al is confident the product will sell. He’s been making seasonal butters off-site at Sassy Cow Creamery near Columbus, Wis., for the past year, and selling it at farmer’s markets in Chicago.
“From the get-go, people went crazy for it,” Al says. “They want a fresh butter that’s hand-packed, and they buy it like there’s no tomorrow.”
On Tuesday, I road-tripped through long windy roads to the Bekkum homestead to visit Al and see how his new farmstead creamery was coming along. He had just stopped at the post office and picked up a box of 50 newborn fluffy chicks (farm fresh eggs appear to be in his future) and the chicks sat on the picnic table, cheeping and pecking at us through their cardboard box while Al laid out the farm’s grand vision. Turns out that Nordic Creamery is actually ahead of schedule.
Al says an official grand opening is set for Friday & Saturday, August 19-20 from Noon to 4, but the farmstead retail store will be open to the public in early July. Inside will be a vast array of Wisconsin products, including butter, ice cream and cheese made by Nordic Creamery. Butter varieties will include a farm-fresh sweet cream Summer Butter from April to October, a Harvest Butter made from November to March, a complete line of flavored cow’s milk butters, and eventually, goat’s milk butters, and possibly even mixed milk butters. Also offered will be Spesiell Kremen, a cultured butter churned at specific times of the year. Madison chefs are already lining up for the cultured butter, as its 85 percent butterfat content melts better for enhancing sauces and delicate desserts.
A 20-year veteran cheesemaker, Bekkum will continue to make his well-known goat’s milk and cow’s milk cheeses at the larger, more commercial K&K Cheese factory in Cashton, but one day, hopes to make a unique cheese at the farmstead plant using only the milk of his currently non-existent Norwegian Red Cattle.
Yes, Al Bekkum plans ahead. Bringing the rare breed of Norwegian Red Cattle to the United States is just one part in the Bekkums’ master plan. In the fall, Al will start milking about 25 dairy cows – a mixture of Holstein, Jersey and Ayrshire – and using that milk for his farmstead products. Within four years, he hopes to have every cow bred to a Norwegian Red Bull, and have a herd of Norwegian Reds Cows. This will pave the way for the first-ever Wisconsin Farmstead Norwegian Red insert cheese name here.
Not only are the Bekkums planning future products, they’re also planning ahead for their family. Bekkum says building an on-farm creamery is a dream come true. “It allows us to work at home and have more time with the kids. We’re growing a family and a business that one day the kids can run if they want to stay on the farm. That’s what it’s all about,” he says.