Crave Brothers adds value through farmstead cheese

More dairies are seeking value-added activities as a way to increase income

WATERLOO, Wis. – Making cheese from farm-fresh milk is how Crave Brothers Farm in Waterloo, Wis., adds value to its dairy operation. Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese was started in 2001 across the street from the dairy farm. Since then, this mozzarella cheese factory has grown to 40,000 square feet and 70 employees. Their award-winning cheeses are sold coast to coast and at popular retailers like Whole Foods Market, Hy-Vee and Woodman’s.
Visitors partaking in a value-added dairy tour sponsored by the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin had the opportunity to tour the Crave cheese plant and sample a variety of cheeses Oct. 23.
“I wanted to get off the commodity treadmill,” George Crave said. “It was time to stop chasing my tail and try something different, something out of our comfort zone.”
George and his wife, Debbie, manage the cheese business while George’s brothers, Charles, Thomas and Mark Crave, run the dairy farm. The cheese plant and farm are two separate business entities.
Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese has mastered the art of mozzarella making, producing the Italian favorite in curds, string, rope and balls. They also make mascarpone – an Italian cream cheese ideal for desserts and other sweet culinary applications. Made with milk piped in directly from Crave Brothers Farm, the cheeses are truly farmstead.
The Crave’s value-added, on-farm cheese plant has allowed the family to bypass unfavorable milk prices by turning the milk into cheese. Crave Brothers Farm milks 1,900 cows – 1,100 on the main farm, which supplies milk for the cheese plant, and 800 cows on another farm.
Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese markets itself as a family-owned and operated, carbon-negative company using 100 percent, renewable green power. The Craves produce their own electricity through the farm’s biodigester, creating enough electricity for the farm, cheese factory and over 300 homes. Crave Brothers are proud their cheese is produced with renewable energy – a fact they make known by the logo that appears on their products.
“If you’re thinking about making cheese, you need a good story to tell,” Debbie said. “That’s really the first step. Our story revolves around family, farmstead and green energy.”
Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese has several licensed cheesemakers onsite, including George, who attended a cheesemaking short course at the Center for Dairy Research in Madison, Wis. Because he buys milk directly from Crave Brothers Farm, George also has a milk handler license.
“We use 155,000 pounds of milk every day to make our cheeses,” George said.
Cheese is made Monday through Friday, with up to 20,000 packages of cheese being produced daily. The Craves have foodservice customers as well.
“June through August is our busy season,” George said. “For example, a salad featuring fresh mozzarella is a more popular item in the summer than in winter.”
From pasteurizing to packaging, George said there are many things to consider when making cheese.
“You don’t just decide to make cheese one day and then start making it the next,” George said. “It takes a great deal of upfront research. For us, it was about a year-and-a-half process.”
George said getting up and running is a big challenge.
“We limped along the first two to three years making a lot of cheese in order to get it just right,” George said.
This well-decorated cheese manufacturer swept the mozzarella division in the U.S. Cheese Championship last year, taking first through third prizes. They have also won awards for their cheese at World Dairy Expo and the Wisconsin State Fair.
“Entering competitions is a great form of marketing,” Debbie said. “It gets your name out there, and any time you win a prize, it’s free publicity for your business.”
George and Debbie told PDPW tour participants to think about their goals and objectives when exploring value-added propositions.
“Decide what you want to do,” George said. “Is it agritourism? Bottled milk? Cheese? You also need to know your market. Is it large retailers like Walmart? Or, do you prefer to sell to smaller customers? Another thing to keep in mind is that if the customer grows, you have to grow with them. For example, one of our customers grew from 200 stores to 450 stores, which meant we had to be prepared to fulfill their larger orders.”
Debbie encouraged prospective cheesemakers to take advantage of all the resources that Wisconsin has to offer.
“Places like the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board are so helpful to farmers and cheesemakers,” she said.
Also present on the tour was James Gage, a value-added agriculture consultant, grant writer and business feasibility analyst. Gage wrote a grant for the Craves in 2004. After the tour, he shared some of his expertise on value-added cheese manufacturing.
“Starting a business like this costs a lot of money,” Gage said. “But, rarely does it come out of your own pocket. Rather, farmers take advantage of state and federal programs, like the value-added producer grant. I know people with as many as seven different funding sources.”
Debbie said that running a cheese plant is the type of work in which you always have to stay on top of.
“For example, when we go out to dinner, we analyze the menu, looking for ways that cheese is being incorporated, and then we talk to the chef,” she said. “You always need to look for the next opportunity to market your cheese.”

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