Crave Brothers Shape Wisconsin Dairy
By Jeanne Carpenter | Photos By Jim Klousia 2
Eleven years, 40 employees and three plant expansions later, Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese has come a long way since four brothers decided to add value to their Wisconsin dairy farm and build a cheese plant across the road.
Today, the Craves farm 2,000 acres, milk 1,200 registered Holsteins, raise another 1,000 head of young stock, and turn more than two-thirds of all milk they produce into award-winning farmstead cheeses. In fact, the family has won more than 100 awards for its fresh mozzarella, Farmer’s Rope® string cheese, mascarpone, Petit Frère® and Les Frères®. And by the looks of recent judging competitions, the Craves aren’t slowing down anytime soon in either the new product or award departments. In 2012, their new Petit Frère with Truffles won a coveted first place ribbon in the flavored cheese category at the 2012 American Cheese Society competition and has been in high demand from specialty food shops and five-star restaurants ever since.
While the cheeses often steal the show, the real story—like any product made by hand—is in the Crave family itself. While most extended families can barely get through a holiday dinner without arguing, the Craves have found a way to both live and work together, and most days actually enjoy it. Perhaps that’s because each family member has a specific job.
Brothers Charles, Thomas and Mark manage the dairy farm. Charles is in charge of bookkeeping and feeding, Thomas is in charge of machinery and cropping, and Mark is in charge of the herd, young stock and milk quality. A number of their sons and daughters work at the farm as a career or after school and in the summer. Meanwhile, another brother, George, manages the cheese factory and is a licensed cheesemaker. His wife, Debbie, manages the administration, marketing and public relations for the cheese factory, while niece Beth, a chef and customer service manager, works full-time confirming orders and managing in-store demos and special events. She also works closely with Debbie on recipe development.
If all that doesn’t sound like enough to keep track of, the Craves also host trainees from around the world, becoming home to more than 20 trainees from 12 different countries during the last 13 years. In addition, both the farm and cheese factory welcome numerous cheese buyer and media tours each year, and in 2009, the Craves welcomed 70,000 visitors as the official host of Wisconsin’s largest outdoor farm show, Farm Technology Days. It’s enough to make the average person want to collapse at the end of the day with a bottle of wine.
But at the Crave farm, there really is no end to an average day. At an operation that milks cows three times daily, the lights in the milking parlor have never been turned off. In fact, George often jokes the brothers don’t even know where the light switch is located in the parlor, because they don’t need it. The lights stay on 24/7.
Milking cows three times a day not only generates a lot of milk, it also results in a lot of manure. That’s why in 2007, the family turned its attention to focus on farm sustainability by installing an anaerobic digester to break down the farm’s cow manure in a process that ultimately produces methane gas. The gas is then burned as a 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 farm visitor notices is a lack of that familiar “dairy air” often associated with dairy farms. 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. Excess dry material is 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. And because farmers are the ultimate recyclers, we recycle that manure into products others can use.”
Building a biodigester on the farm is just one step the Craves have taken to be a carbon-negative company. Another goal is breeding their awardwinning, 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.”
Read on for descriptions of the Crave Brothers' delicious cheeses!