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How we chow part 2: Handled with Care
Small farmers skip the middleman by packaging food themselves -- and make good money doing it.
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Nick Kirch of Blue Marble Family Farms.
Nick Kirch of Blue Marble Family Farms.
Credit:Eric Tadsen

On a bitterly cold February morning, Barneveld farmer Nick Kirch and a couple of his employees are filling half-gallon bottles of whole milk. The refurbished stainless- steel equipment they're using is partially automated, but it's from another age. After each glass bottle is filled, a worker manually sticks a clean empty on the small carousel of nipples that dispense the milk. When a bottle is full, another worker places it in a plastic milk crate bearing the name of Kirch's food company, Blue Marble Micro Dairy.

As soon as the bottling is over and every case of milk is in the dairy's large walk-in cooler, the real work begins. Blue Marble (www.bluemarblefamilyfarm.com) may be small, but it's a real food-processing plant. Everything needs to be sanitized obsessively. And today, with a visit from the health inspector scheduled for the afternoon, the scrubbing and hosing down will last at least three hours.

To the outsider, all this looks a lot like tedious factory work. But for the 41-year-old Kirch, it's the culmination of a dream. He used to be a traditional Wisconsin dairy farmer, selling his raw milk to a cheese factory for whatever the commodities market would bear. Whether it became bulk mozzarella for frozen pizza or ho-hum cheddar was beyond his control. He produced a raw material, and that was fine.

But in 1992, his attitude changed. Monsanto had won government approval for the use of bovine growth hormone on state dairy farms, and Kirch realized there was something deeply wrong with treating cows like milk machines. "That really left a sour taste in my mouth," he says. "Squeezing every drop of milk out of the cow until she dies - that wasn't what I wanted to do."

On-farm processing was the answer to Kirch's dilemma. Instead of supplying a food manufacturer, he'd become one himself, controlling his milk every step of the way as it moved from his cows to the micro-dairy a hundred feet away and then on to market.

It took 10 years and a $1 million investment to get Blue Marble off the ground, but since 2006 Kirch has been free of the industrial food cycle. He doesn't cut corners, and, as a result, he makes high-quality products that he knows he can stand behind. His cows are largely grass-fed and never given animal products. To preserve the taste and nutritional benefits of his milk, he pasteurizes his milk at relatively low heat and eschews homogenization. The latter decision means that cream rises to the top of each bottle of Blue Marble's old-fashioned "cream-line" milk, but a vigorous shake is all it takes to blend the rich flavor of the contents.

Better still, whenever Kirch sells another case of his custom-made, fresh-from-the-farm milk products, he gets to keep all the profits. There is no middleman.

Just as important, Kirch now has direct contact with the people who are consuming his cow's milk. He's no longer an anonymous farmer producing a bulk commodity. He's a human being with a face and a story, and so are his customers. "We've lost so much of that farm-customer connection in the last 50 years," says Kirch. "With Blue Marble, I'm trying to bring that back. "

Kirch is part of a bigger trend in Wisconsin agriculture. Over the past decade, more farmers have decided to take over the processing of crops and animal products like cow's milk.

Some simply want to add value to what they sell. In 2006, the Wisconsin Agricultural Statistical Service reported that over 58,000 Wisconsin farms (more than two-thirds of all farms in the state) had under $100,000 in annual sales. And at a time when rapidly rising energy costs and competition from mega-farms in California and elsewhere have put a pinch on family farms, upping that income is often the difference between selling out or preserving a unique way of life for the next generation.

Bringing processing onto the farm isn't just about the money, though. The real bottom line, for farmer-entrepreneurs like Nick Kirch, is the pride that comes with offering consumers food products that meet high standards of quality, wholesomeness and sustainability.

Wisconsin consumers are clearly hungering for this very local form of processed food. "This isn't a fad," says Jeanne Carpenter, communications director for the Dairy Business Innovations Center, a nonprofit founded by the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection that promotes the state's dairy economy by helping farmers develop specialty products.

"The way that the consumer opinion is going, more people want to know where their food is coming from," says Carpenter. "That's a farmstead product. You can totally trace the supply chain."

Quality is key, however. Farmers may catch a break from their customers early on. But to prosper in the small-scale food-processing business, they have to develop products that will excite the interest of consumers who want to eat healthy, locally produced foods but also want to eat well.

"You can't have a mediocre product and expect people to buy it," says dairy farmer turned cheese maker Mike Gingrich of the Uplands Cheese Company (www.uplandscheese.com), who has made award-winning specialty cheese on his Dodgeville farm for the past 10 years. "But if you work on it and provide a quality product and are environmentally responsible and are good to your animals...if that's what you give them, the consuming public will buy it. That's what they want. You can't be offering them something that they can get at the supermarket or is distributed by Sysco."

Gingrich has a developed understanding of this food-savvy (and often moneyed) segment of the public. Together with his wife, Carol, and farming partners Dan and Jean Patenaude, he's turned Uplands' Gruyère-like cheese Pleasant Ridge Reserve into a favorite of connoisseurs across the country.

He never intended to be a cheese maker. But after he and Dan Patenaude instituted a rotational grazing plan for their 200 cows, Gingrich realized that the exceptionally sweet milk the grass-fed herd gave in spring and summer would be worth more if it formed the basis of cheese or some other value-added product. In the end, with help from family and friends, he hit on the idea of using it to produce a European-style cheese by hand, employing traditional cheese-making methods.

Gingrich knew next to nothing about traditional cheese making when he started, nor had he ever marketed a specialty food product. He had moved back to Wisconsin and purchased a small dairy after spending years working for Xerox in California. But he took the UW's cheese technology short course, started small and increased his customer base by sending samples to well-known gourmet food shops like Murray's Cheese in New York City.

That methodical approach paid off in a big way. Today, eight years after Uplands Cheese commercially produced its first wheel of cheese, Gingrich makes 70,000 pounds of Pleasant Ridge Reserve each summer on his Dodgeville farm. (He hopes to expand that amount by 30,000 pounds in the near future.)

The sought-after cheese is available throughout the Madison area. However, most of Gingrich's production is shipped out of state. The essential ingredient of Uplands' remarkably refined, hand-made farmstead cheese? Well, the fresh, sweet milk from the Gingrich and Patenaude cows is key, of course. But Gingrich also admonishes that farm-based processing isn't for slackers. It's all about putting about in long hours, paying attention to detail and cultivating clients: "It's a lot of work. A lot of people don't understand what it takes to make and market a product. There's a lot of customer service."

Nick Kirch's Blue Marble Micro Dairy is a much newer business than Uplands Cheese. In some ways, it's also a more ambitious one. Gingrich makes just one product, but Kirch offers a whole range of dairy items. The dairy bottles heavy cream, whole milk, two percent, skim, chocolate milk and a raspberry smoothie. More products are in the offing.

Kirch's volume is much higher, too. Blue Marble can fill up to 2,000 bottles of an item in one bottling run.

Moreover, the territory for his milk is very local, with most sales coming from deliveries to restaurants and grocery stores like Metcalfe Sentry in Madison and Roy's Market in New Glarus. Between mid-April and early November, a growing customer base also flocks to his booth at the Westside Community Market in the parking lot of the Hill Farms Department of Transportation building.

That means maintaining a delivery vehicle that can transport a lot of cold milk at one time, keeping an eye on delivery routes to make sure that they're cost effective and pushing sales high enough to maximize the efficiency of the dairy itself. (Because of rising fuel costs, Blue Marble spent the month of March re-evaluting its home delivery service.)

For Kirch, the hard work of growing his business doesn't end in the barn or the dairy. It's a 12-hour-a-day job to make and distribute his creamy, full-flavored products. Sometimes more than that.

Plus, both his startup costs and ongoing investment in sustainable features like the solar panels he plans for Blue Marble's roof mean that he's always in a scramble for dollars.

When it comes to finances, the state of Wisconsin offers some relief to farmers who, like Kirch, have made the switch to value-added processing. The Value Added Dairy Initiative, a federally funded program developed by the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, has given away over $2.51 million to dairy farmers since its inception in 2004.

Jeanne Carpenter of the Dairy Business Innovations Center adds that a new $50,000 state tax credit, applicable to tax bills between 2006 and 2012, can also be a big help to farmer-processors. Although it's not easy to quantify in dollars, Carpenter also notes that her organization has offered free technical advice about marketing plans, and much more, to over 200 farmers, many of whom have gone on to develop new products.

Kirch is grateful for any support he can get, and emphasizes that he benefited tremendously from the DBIC's expertise in product development and marketing. On the other hand, he's found that snagging government funds is another matter.

"I've received a $9,000 grant from the state," he says. But given his million-dollar investment in Blue Marble, roughly twice the value of his original dairy farm, "it's pretty minimal."

George Crave and his brothers Charles, Mark and Thomas didn't get much support either when they built a 6,000-square-foot cheese factory on their Waterloo dairy farm in 2001. But that was no surprise. Like Uplands' Gingrich, the Crave brothers were pioneers of on-farm processing. "We were out in front of this movement," George Crave says, inside his office at the bustling plant. "The state and the university were very skeptical of a [dairy] producer getting into manufacturing."

Despite the skepticism from experts and government funders, George Crave says the early development of Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese (www.cravecheese.com) was "very exciting and rewarding for the whole family." Between them, the brothers had put together a large dairy operation, and cheese making was a logical way to expand the family business and provide the public with a healthy products. At the same time, they were giving the next generation of Craves a stake in the evolving dairy industry.

Unlike Uplands' Gingrich, George Crave already had some insight into the realities of dairy marketing, thanks to the years his wife, Debbie, a former Alice in Dairyland, had spent at both the state agriculture department and the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board. Consequently, he wasn't shy about picking the brains of major cheese marketers, who suggested that the Craves concentrate on fresh mozzarella (then something of a rarity in Wisconsin and elsewhere), mascarpone and a rope-style cheese.

It was a good suggestion. In 2002, just months after making their first cheese, the Craves won second place from the American Cheese Society for their fresh mozzarella.

By the standards of big commodity cheese makers, Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese is still a small company. But with a couple dozen employees turning out 10,000 hand-packed containers of cheese every workday (or up to 50,000 pounds a week), it's much bigger than Uplands.

You don't sell that volume of production at farmers' markets or to a strictly local customer base, and the Craves never intended to be a tiny artisanal farm. Thanks to contracts with cheese distributors, semis regularly pull up to the plant's loading dock to transport 80% of Crave Brothers' cheese out of state.

But even though the Craves represent the upper end of farm-based processing, they remain very responsible producers. All the growth-hormone-free milk used in their cheese is still pumped fresh each day from their dairy barns, across the road from the cheese factory. All the electricity used in the plant is generated by a methane digester that uses manure from their 600-plus cows. Currently, the whey left over from cheese making is recycled through the farm as fertilizer and feed, but after a plant expansion is finished, much of it will be turned into dry whey protein, a food product that's in demand around the world.

"It's a very sustainable model," says George Crave. "We were doing it before it was fashionable."

Sustainable, green, natural. Whatever you call it, the Crave brothers' approach to cheese making syncs up directly with the concerns of consumers who want to pull away from the country's industrialized food system.

The Craves haven't forgotten about the gourmets, either. Les Frères, a boutique, European-style farm cheese that's aged in a man-made cave beneath the factory, is a favorite of discerning outlets like Murray's. Creamy in texture, complex in flavor, and just strong enough to pair well with bread, fruit and wine, it, too, has won national awards.

Although the factory makes just 400 pounds of Les Frères each week, it's an important part of the company's farmstead profile. "We kind of joke that we don't get invited to the Radisson in Chicago to speak about our string cheese," George Crave smiles.

While farm-processed milk, cheese and other dairy products represent a big part of Wisconsin farmers' move to value-added businesses, they're far from the only foods being manufactured and packaged on family farms. Fruit butters, pesto, maple syrup and more are all products of the Madison area's farm-based facilities. And Eugene Woller's Mount Horeb-based Gentle Breeze Honey (www.gentlebreezehoney.com) is one of the brightest and longest-lived of these nondairy success stories.

Woller, 61, qualifies as a wily veteran of Wisconsin farm-based processing. He began selling his honey on Saturdays at the Dane County Farmers' Market in the early '70s, when, as he puts it, "You could roll a bowling ball down the sidewalk and not hit anyone."

Back then, Woller was still a part-time beekeeper. He'd caught the bug while taking a short course on bees as an undergrad at the UW, and his passion for them never left him. In the '60s, after starting a family, he purchased 20 hives from a guy in Merrill who was getting out of beekeeping. Woller was in the honey business.

Even when Gentle Breeze was a small, backyard affair, Woller was something of a processing maverick. While many hobbyists sold their fresh honey in bulk to bigger concerns like Hauke and Honey Acres, he packaged and sold what he produced. "Beekeeping is too much work for someone else to make a profit," he says while showing a visitor around Honey Breeze's facilities in rural Mount Horeb.

From the first, Woller also followed processing practices that preserved his honey's taste and nutritional value. Instead of using high heat to extract it from the combs, he warmed it. Rather than force-filtering the liquid honey, he strained it, leaving in grains of pollen and bits of beeswax that added to its food value and flavor. For Woller, the quality and taste of his product was always paramount. He adhered to government standards of food safety, but he kept his honey as natural as possible.

Eighteen years ago, Woller decided that part-time beekeeping wasn't enough. So he quit his day job and began producing honey full-time. When his kids were still at home, it was a family business. But as it grew, he began employing retired farm people from the Mount Horeb area.

Today, when you walk through the large, white metal building where he warehouses and processes up to 51,000 pounds of honey annually, his gray-haired workers are busy extracting honey, making beeswax candles and filling glass bottles and plastic honey bears affixed with Gentle Breeze labels. Like Nick Kirch, he's really the supervisor of a small factory.

But he's also a deliveryman with a widening territory that extends from Woodman's in Madison to the margins of Milwaukee County. And he's Gentle Breeze's primary beekeeper, too, overseeing and maintaining about 600 hives placed at 20 locations in rural Dane County. That translates to a workweek that always stretches well over 40 hours.

Fortunately, good beekeeping practices have helped Woller avoid colony collapse disorder, the mysterious syndrome that's taken a large bite out of the national honeybee population in recent years. But he's lost bees to mites in the past, and when he inspects his dormant hives at the end of every winter, he knows that he may be confronting another bout with parasites or disease.

Could a catastrophe overtake his hives? Sure. But Woller enjoys his job too much to be stressed out by it. "Everything in agriculture is a gamble," he says philosophically.

Besides, as with many other farm-based processors, he gets enormous satisfaction out of providing customers with the freshest, most healthful food products around. Furthermore, he says, as consumers become more educated about healthy, safe farm practices and healthy, nutritious food, he's only giving people what they're demanding.

"The honey I sell has a lot good things left in it, and that, over the years, [is something big companies] have gotten away from," he explains as he surveys the dozens of oil-barrel-sized containers of bulk honey stacked in the warehouse portion of his new building.

"The people we talk to at the farmers' market are all concerned about what they're eating," he says. "I think that's why people are looking more towards local foods. They know what they're getting from us."

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