LaClare Farms to Build New Farmstead Creamery

An artist’s rendering of the new LaClare Farms storefront.

Katie Hedrich, the reigning U.S. Champion Cheesemaker (and 2010 Wisconsin Cheese Originals Beginning Cheesemaker Scholarship winner), announced her family dairy, LaClare Farms, will break ground this week on a new 35,000 sq. ft. farmstead dairy plant in eastern Wisconsin.

The new dairy will be on State Hwy 151, north of the village of Pipe on the eastern shore of Lake Winnebago. The facility includes plans for a state-of-the-art dairy plant, retail store and café, as well as milking parlor with housing for 600 milking goats. The facility will be capable of processing cow, goat and sheep milk. In addition to crafting LaClare Farms products, the facility will serve as a specialty custom dairy processing and aging facility.

“This week is the start of the biggest week of my life,” said Katie. Her parents, Larry and Clara Hedrich – dairy goat farmers and industry leaders for more than 30 years – agree.

“Building this farmstead dairy plant allows us to bring the next generation of Hedrich family members back to the farm,” Katie’s father, Larry said. “Our goal is to be one of the top sustainable agricultural enterprises in the nation, and with the talent our team brings to this operation, we will be.”

The new farmstead dairy plant allows the Hedrich family to expand their current offering of goat’s milk and mixed milk cheeses, including Evalon, Fresh Chevre, Cheddar, Fondy Jack and American Originals crafted by Katie Hedrich, who without her own facility, has been making five-hour round trips to Willow Creek cheese factory several times a week to make Evalon and LaClare cheeses. The Hedrichs’ new farmstead facility will also be capable of aging cheese in special curing rooms, as well as producing cultured products and bottled milk.

Katie’s brother, Greg Hedrich, is the business manager of the new integrated agricultural enterprise. Three additional sisters: Heather, Jessica and Anna, will work part-time for LaClare Farms in human resources, marketing and herd management roles while continuing their off-enterprise jobs. All five siblings hold university degrees in subjects ranging from marketing to human resources to dairy science to education.

“The key is each one of the children is not forced into one role,” Larry says. “They each chose to go to college, worked in the public/private sector for a number of years and now have chosen to bring their skills back to the family enterprise. We are beyond thrilled to have the next generation back on the farm.”  The enterprise also brings the talents of Larry’s cousin, John Jenkins, on board.

An official groundbreaking ceremony is set for Saturday, Dec. 15 at 2 p.m. at the new facility. The public is invited. The location is: W2994 County Road HH, on the corner of State Hwy 151 and County Road HH in Pipe.

The groundbreaking is just the latest example of Wisconsin’s thriving artisan and farmstead cheesemaking industry. The amount of specialty cheese produced in the state has doubled in the past 10 years, and today accounts for 22 percent of the state’s total cheese production. Ninety of the state’s 126 cheese plants craft at least one type of specialty cheese, up from 77 plants five years ago.

The new LaClare farmstead dairy plant is expected to be up and running by early summer, 2013. In addition to crafting LaClare Farm products, the Hedrichs plan to rent out space to dairy processors to help launch new products and to work with beginning dairy entrepreneurs to develop their new products. The facility will also offer viewing windows into the milking parlor, dairy plant and cheese aging room which will be available to the public.

Congratulations to the Hedrich family – I look forward to following your progress and touring your new facility in 2013!

Manure, Milk and Cheese: Crave Brothers Reshaping Wisconsin Dairy

Quick: name the only carbon-negative, family-owned World Dairy Expo farm of the year that’s won 100 awards in 10 years for its farmstead cheeses.

I’ll give you a hint: the cheesemaker has a dry sense of humor, is quick to give all the credit to his wife, and whom, with his brothers, isn’t quite sure where the milking parlor’s light switches are located, because no one has ever switched them to “off.”

If you guessed the Crave Brothers of Waterloo, Wisconsin, then ding ding ding – you’re a winner! Producing two semi-loads of milk, seven days a week, 365 days a year, the Crave’s 1,200 registered Holsteins produce super-fresh, super-rich milk that’s crafted each day into Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese.

From just-right stringy Farmer’s Rope to perfectly-sweet Mascarpone to big-nose Les Freres, the Crave Brothers – specifically cheesemaker/brother George and his wife Debbie – are widely considered to be the folks who paved the way for commercial farmstead cheese factories in the state.

Since 2002, they’ve added on to their original farmstead cheese factory at least three times (frankly, I’ve lost count), been featured on NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams, hosted 100,000 people over three days at Farm Technology Days, and played host to some of the nation’s best known chefs, retailers and food writers. More importantly, they routinely do it all in style, grace, and occasionally – if George has anything to say about it – a little humor.

At a recent presentation on farmstead dairies in Wisconsin, George gave a stellar talk describing the commitment the Crave Brothers have in crafting “designer” cheeses with consistent, high-quality milk. George is quick to point out that his family operation is not seasonal or grass-fed, and his cheeses do not change with the phases of the moon. Instead, the Craves craft consistent, ultra-high-quality cooking and table cheeses that consistently please customers and judges at cheese competitions. In fact, George will say the question he most gets asked is: “What do you add to your cheese to make it taste so fresh?” George’s one-word answer? “Milk.”

Indeed, the first key to Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheeses is truly the farm’s milk. My favorite representation of that stellar milk, (combined with the second key – the art and science of good cheesemaking) is the farm’s Petit Frere. The cheese is named for George’s “little” brother, Mark, whom at nine years younger, today stands slightly over George at 6 feet, 4 inches (not that George is bitter about it or anything).

Crafted carefully in 8-ounce mini wheels and sold in wooden boxes, Petit Frere is an offshoot of the company’s original Les Freres, made in a larger, 2-1/2 pound wheels.

Perfect for taking to a dinner party because of its small size and attractive packaging, Petit Frere is a labor intensive cheese that carries a big taste and robust odor. Before opening, some might assume it’s a mini Brie, but in only seconds, its odor quickly gives it away. This is a big-nose, or stinky, washed-rind cheese.

After the make process, George says the cheese is flipped three times over two hours, and then taken to a “warm room” to mature for 20 hours. The next day, it goes into a saltwater brine (nature’s original preserver and flavor enhancer), and after two hours is moved into the company’s aging rooms, where it is dipped in a mixture of brevibacterium linens for the next two weeks. Ideal at 60 to 80 days old, it is similar to an Alsatian Munster, but I would consider it an American Original.

While I like it on the younger side, many like it older, even up to 120 days. At this point, when the cheese enters a room, you know it’s there. Or, as George would describe it: “At four months old, this cheese is natural birth control. You let this baby sit out all day and you’re going to be sleeping on the couch.”

George particularly enjoys taking Petit Frere to fancy international food shows, and witnessing persnickety French buyers taste Petit Frere, wrinkle their brows, take a step back, look up again at the Crave Brothers banner, and finally ask George where the cheese is really made, as they can’t believe an American cheesemaker could make such a thing.

“When I tell a French cheese buyer that Petit Frere is an American cheese, and then go on to say it’s made in a little community in Wisconsin called Waterloo, their eyes usually get real big,” George says. “Because as you know, the French aren’t real fond of Waterloo.”

When he’s not making cheese, and not making jokes about making cheese, George works with brothers Charles, Tom and Mark on the farm, making sure all aspects of the 2,000 acre operation are running smoothly. In 2008, the family installed an anaerobic digester to break down cow manure in a process that ultimately produces methane gas. The gas is then burned similar to natural gas, thus generating clean, renewable energy for the farm and nearby community.

The digester also brings added benefits. First, it reduces odor. One of the first things a visitor to the farm notices is a complete lack of that familiar “dairy air” – a pleasant surprise. Second, the digester is capable of producing products the Craves can use on the farm (liquid byproducts are used as fertilizer on farm fields and solid byproducts are used as animal bedding). Third, excess dry material has the capability to be sold as organic potting soil.

“People ask me: what do you make more of, milk or cheese?” George says. “The real answer is our number one product is manure. But because farmers are the ultimate recylclers, we recycle that manure into products we and others can use.” In fact, enough electricity is produced on the Crave farm to not only power the entire farm and cheese factory, but also another 300 homes.

Building a biodigester on the farm is just one step the Craves are taking to be a carbon-negative company. Another goal? Breeding their award-winning, champion Registered Holsteins to be a bit smaller, similar to Jerseys, thus lowering the farm’s overall carbon footprint.

“At the end of the day, we take corn and grain, we put them into a cow, and we get milk from her in return,” George says. “Our goal is to do that as efficiently as we can. And we’re working on that every day.”

Birthday Sheep

Turning 40 years old isn’t so bad when you’re surrounded by your favorite people, especially when those favorite people happen to live on a sheep dairy and it’s lambing season.

Last Wednesday was my big 4-0, so the hubby and I trekked to Hidden Springs Creamery near Westby to hang out with Dean and Brenda Jensen and their 350 sheep for the day. Brenda had hinted last fall my birthday would conveniently fall during prime lambing season, and really, who doesn’t want to spend their 40th birthday in a barn surrounded by newborn bleating lambs? Hello, dream trip!

We arrived late afternoon, just in time for transporting the 11 lambs born that morning to an Amish neighbor’s farm, as Brenda had run out of clean stalls (this occasionally happens when you have 275 moms giving birth to an average of twins in a 30-day period). Another 75 ewes will lamb in May, giving Brenda a longer milking season, and thus more milk to make cheese later into the season.

How do you transport newborn lambs, you ask? You pick them up from their stalls, carry them to the farm pick-up, carefully place them in tubs in the cab, and carry the extras on your lap. It’s amazing how warm, snuggly and quiet a newborn lamb is – I think the one I was holding in my lap for the 3-mile ride may have actually fallen asleep after it pooped on me.

After returning to the farm, it was time for milking. Greg and Dave are the Jensens’ evening milkers, and they’re pretty good at what they do. Here’s a look at milking sheep:

The Jensens are currently milking about 150 ewes, which takes just a little over an hour in their new double 10 Swedish parlor, a huge improvement over their home-made milking station they used the first five years they were on the farm.

After milking, we took a tour of the lambing facilities. The lambs start their lives in the nursery, born in straw pens, and then are moved to bigger pens as they age. On March 28, most of them will be sold at market – just in time for Easter dinner – and the Jensen farm will be a much quieter place.

The ewes still waiting to give birth, meanwhile, are so fat and fluffy that they look like caricature sheep – you know, the ones that came with your Little People Play Farm set? They’re all wool, with short stick legs, kind of like this:

The Jensens’ farm is absolutely breathtaking. Situated in the heart of Amish country, it’s all hills, fences and pastures. Their morning milker is an amish neighbor, hence the buggy in the photo.

After morning milking, the evening’s and morning’s milk are combined, gravity fed into a stainless stell tank on wheels, and driven about 40 feet to the farm’s creamery, where it is again gravity-fed into the farm’s cheese plant, where Brenda makes cheese about four days a week. Here’s a glimpse at the milk transportation process:

We didn’t stick around to make cheese with Brenda in the morning – I’ve made cheese with her a couple of times before, once with my daughter, so we said goodbye to the Jensens and rolled down the driveway, although not without saying goodbye to the barn cats and Augustus Burdock Jensen, the farm dog.

Many, many thanks to Brenda and Dean for your hospitality, laughter and kindness in helping me celebrate the big 4-0! It couldn’t have been any better.

Photos by Uriah Carpenter, copyright 2012.