Edible Culture Winter 2012 Issue

Small Creameries Making a Big Difference

By Jeanne Carpenter | Photo By Becca Dilley 0

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—farmstead creameries—that’s becoming increasingly responsible for drawing a new generation of dairy entrepreneurs into the land of milk and cheese.

While some dairy farmers choose to build new barns and add more milking cows to increase the size of their operations, a rising number of dairy farmers are instead building small creameries right on the farm, producing ice cream, butter, bottled milk, and 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 next generation—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. With more consumers wanting to know where their food comes from, farmers are in an ideal position to meet consumer demands for food transparency as farmstead dairy products are made on the same farm from where the animals are milked.

No one knows this better than Sassy Cow Creamery, located just 20 miles from downtown Madison. Three years ago, brothers and third-generation dairy farmers James and Robert Baerwolf took the plunge into “value-added dairy” and built an on-farm milk bottling and ice cream plant on a parcel of land located between their dairy farms. With two separate families to support—each brother is married and has three children—the Baerwolfs were looking to add value to their farm without adding more cows.

Today, Sassy Cow Creamery farmstead milk is available for sale in nearly 100 stores in more than 50 cities in Wisconsin and Illinois, including Metcalfe’s Market, Jenifer Street Market, Willy Street Co-op, HyVee Foods, and Woodman’s in Madison. Additionally, more than a dozen different ice cream flavors are available in about 30 stores across Wisconsin. All products carry the Sassy Cow label, with full-gallon milk jugs offering “cow trading cards”—a method for the farm to put a personal touch on its product by featuring a glamour shot of a Holstein cow with a description of its unique personality.

In addition, the farm’s retail store offers a dozen additional flavors of ice cream, white and chocolate milk, and several coolers of Wisconsin-made cheese, including cheese curds made on-site by a cheesemaker three days a week. A viewing window allows visitors to watch dairy production. The Baerwolfs also offer free creamery tours the first Friday of the month from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m., and schedule several open houses where children can meet cows up close and personal.

“Everything we did, we did with the consumer in mind,” says James Baerwolf, who oversees much of the day-to-day operations at the creamery. “Many consumers don’t know or recognize the ingredients in the food they purchase. We look at our creamery not so much as a manufacturing facility, but as more of a delivery method. The cows do all the work naturally. We just pick up where they leave off and bring great-tasting dairy products to the consumer.”

Another neighborhood creamery crafting all natural products is Sugar River Dairy near Albany. Owners Ron and Chris Paris source milk from a single farm and craft six different flavors of small-batch, non-homogenized yogurt, featuring what the Parises call “authentic Wisconsin taste.”

Sugar River Dairy Yogurt is sold in 30 different stores in Southern Wisconsin, including Brennan’s, Jenifer Street Market, Metcalfe’s Market, Pierce’s Northside Market, Willy Street Co-op, and Whole Foods in Madison. In addition to selling through retail stores, they also sell their yogurt at the West Side Farmers Market in Madison on Saturdays. Single-serve flavors in 6-ounce cups include blueberry, strawberry, raspberry, and peach, while plain and vanilla are sold in 24-ounce containers. The company recently added a Greek-style yogurt to its line-up.

The Parises began making yogurt in 2002. Ron grew up on a farm and Chris grew up in Madison. When they first got married, they made yogurt for fun in the kitchen. Today, they make about 6,000 pounds a week in a small commercial creamery they built next to the remodeled farmhouse, across the way from a tall red barn with a rock wall foundation that used to house dairy cows. The Parises have hopes to someday rehab the barn, but for now making yogurt is a full-time job. 

Crafting farmstead dairy products is a full-time venture for another family, the Bekkums, who run Nordic Creamery near Westby. Al and Sarah Bekkum broke ground last spring on a new farmstead butter plant, where they craft small-batch seasonal butters. The new creamery allows the Bekkums and their six children an opportunity to grow production and offer flavored and cultured butter to more stores and chefs in Madison. Products include a fresh sweet cream Summer Butter from April to October, a Harvest Butter made from November to March and a complete line of flavored cow’s milk butters.

Bekkum, a 25-year cheesemaking veteran, 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.

Jeanne Carpenter is a former farm girl turned cheese geek, writing and talking about cheese for a living. As the specialty cheese manager at Metcalfe's Market-Hilldale in Madison, she works with Wisconsin cheesemakers to bring new products to market. Her motto is "Have Fun. Do Good. Eat Cheese."

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