There is no doubt that U.S. Champion Cheesemaker Marieke Penterman is absolutely a good cheesemaker. She’s got the credentials, awards and aging room full of cheese to prove it. And there’s no doubt the girl can dance – anyone who’s ever witnessed her moves when winning an award can attest to her prowess on a stage. But above all, and perhaps not as well known, is the fact that Marieke Penterman is an amazing mom and wife. All it takes is a visit to her family’s new retail store, cheese plant, dairy barn and milking parlor off Highway 29 in Thorp to confirm that Marieke is indeed a master at balancing work and family.
Walking up to the brand new Holland’s Family Cheese agri-tourism facility – where visitors can see every step of cheesemaking from farm to fork – is seeing every dream of a first-generation immigrant family come true. After winning the 2013 U.S. Championship Cheese Contest, Marieke, her husband, Rolf, and their five children, aged 11 to 5, put their plans of building a visitor-friendly dairy facility in high gear.
Today, from 7 am to 7 pm, visitors start in the Holland’s Family dairy barn, where they can watch 435 cows milked three times a day. Two sets of viewing windows – downstairs and upstairs – make for great viewing perspectives of how the Pentermans’ herd of Holsteins, Red Holsteins, Brown Swiss and crossbred cows are milked in a modern parlor. School groups can visit with teachers for just $2 per child, and gather in an upstairs educational room to hear the details of milking cows, followed by cheese tasting. Self-guided tours for the public are free, and guided tours may be booked in advance for a fee.
From the dairy barn, visitors walk just a few yards past a giant fiberglass Holstein cow to enter the retail store and cheese plant, which features large viewing windows of both the cheesemaking room and the aging rooms. A cozy fireplace with comfortable couches invites guests to get a cup of complimentary coffee, buy a wedge of cheese, and enjoy it right on site. An ice cream counter filled with Kelley’s Country Creamery is perfect for kids, and shelves of authentic Dutch foods and goodies are available for purchase. Marieke also believes in supporting her fellow Wisconsin cheesemakers, so a huge cooler filled with Wisconsin specialty and artisan cheeses round out the shopping experience.
But it’s not until one sees the parts of the facility not open to the public that one begins to learn what a a devoted mother Marieke is to her five kids: twin girls Luna & Joyce, age 11; Dean, 8; Fenne, 7; and Finn, 5. After school, the kids march up to the offices of the cheese plant to do their homework, where each has a self-decorated workstation with their initial on it, and where, three days a week, a high school student helps them with homework.
Marieke says she also helps them with schoolwork when she can, but like most parents – including me – by the time your kids are in middle school, math problems and grammar exercises are beyond us. With her office right across the hallway – marked by a bright orange door (each of the employees got to pick the colors of their doors and office walls), Marieke can both make sales calls while watching her kids out the door.
Unlike the original Penterman farmstead just a few miles away – where the farm house was across the yard from the dairy barn and cheese factory, the Pentermans purposely built their new house away from the farm – close enough to see it, but not close enough to walk there. “I liked being right on the farm before, but now, with a store open 7 am to 7 pm, we are here a lot. And I want my kids to know that when we’re home, it means we’re home. That’s for the family.”
The Penterman kids also remember where they came from. Marieke and Rolf speak both Dutch and English to their children (on a visit this weekend, each child was asked in Dutch to introduce themselves, and each did so with incredible cuteness), and Marieke proudly displays pictures of both her and Rolf’s family on the upstairs walls above the retail area. This area is available to the public to rent out for parties – “Our first party was a bachelorette party, and we didn’t even have it done yet,” says Marieke. Especially poignant photos include this one of Marieke’s grandmother and father, who as a small boy, is watching his mother milk the family cow:
And then there’s this one, taken many years later, which show Marieke as a little girl, holding the lead rope of one of her father’s Holsteins.
It’s hard to believe that not yet 10 years ago, Marieke started her cheesemaking journey with just one helper in the cheese room. Today, the Holland’s Family crew is made up of 20 women and 4 men, a strong and growing team, including Natalie, the sister of one of the original cheesemakers Marieke hired when she first started. That’s Natalie pictured at left below, with Marieke in the middle.
When she’s not in the cheese room or her office, or attempting to help the kids with homework, Marieke still finds time to be in the barn. She knows many of the cows by name, and even talked a local veterinarian into setting the broken leg of a recently-born calf. The vet, of course, wrote “Gouda Luck”, and all the kids signed it.
But it turns out Marieke isn’t the only devoted parent with a sense of fun – on a visit to Holland’s Family Cheese this weekend, we watched as Marieke’s husband, Rolf put air in the giant “Kangaroo Pad” right outside the front door of the retail store. The pad is open to all visitors – no matter their age – to jump on and have a little fun.
On this day, the first kids to break it in for the season were the Penterman brood. Twins Luna and Joyce jumped with abandon, while Dean chased his sisters, Fenne took frequent breaks to eat Laffy Taffy gathered at that morning’s Thorp Easter Egg Hunt, and little Finn tried valiantly not to slide off the edge when his brothers and sisters jumped near him.
And to top it all off – Rolf joined in on the fun, jumping from end to end right along with the kids, stepping off at the end, out of breath, to give Marieke a hug and to encourage her to give it a try. She smiled and joked she was happy to watch him and the kids. Because as a champion cheesemaker, mother and wife, she needed to hurry back inside the store to wait on a customer who was eagerly waiting to buy a wedge of cheese with her name on it.