Mozzarella has been a boon for Wisconsin’s Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese.
In the early 80s, a group of four brothers acquired a farm in Waterloo, WI and started raising and milking 90 cows on a 200-acre property.
Today, the farm is still run by brothers Charles, Thomas and Mark, while brother George and his wife Debbie now serve as cheesemaker and manager of the farm’s cheese operation, Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese.
“We had a big family meeting, decided this was best for the family, so they stayed farming and we now run the cheese business,” George says. “We started out in 2001 with about five employees; most are still with us, and we’re really proud of that. Today, we have 45-50 full-time employees.”
The company expanded in 2005, then again in 2007, adding more equipment and a big mozzarella room, and in 2017 it added another expansion on the west end of the factory, expanding its packaging, dry storage and cold storage.
“It’s been a logical, methodical growth that made sense and that we can handle,” Debbie says. “We started with fresh mozzarella, but we added a few other mozzarellas, including variations and all different sizes, and we also make a sweet cream Mascarpone, Oaxaca and cheddar cheese curds.”
The Idea Takes Root
Creating a cheese business was not something anyone in the family had considered before.
Debbie had worked in marketing for the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture for approximately 17 years, moving on to the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, now Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin, for three years. She would often come back from work and talk to George, a dairy farmer, about ways to add value and opportunities on the farm.
“One day, George came up with this idea to make our own cheese unique to us,” Debbie says. “We had first thought we would go to somebody else’s factory, which was common. But that didn’t seem to work at the time.”
“We built it large enough to handle the milk of 400 dairy cows, and we can handle that milk at our cheese factory today,” she says. “We now use the milk from our 2,000 cows.”
So, they did the next best thing—they built their own cheese factory right on the farm, and Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese was born.
Being a life-long dairy farmer, George notes he wasn’t sure what he was going to do for the latter part of his career, as he wasn’t looking to continue making commodity milk. That’s why he was so excited by the idea of running his own cheese factory.
“We started the conversations in 1999 and by February of 2002, we had our first milk in the cheese factory,” he says. “We’re approaching 20 years of Debbie and I being in the cheese business.”
In the Beginning
Although George is now a licensed cheesemaker today, early on the company needed to bring in someone because of Wisconsin law [requiring cheesemakers to be licensed], and Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese was fortunate enough to hire two local, licensed cheesemakers, one being Kurt Premo, who has been with them since the beginning.
Of course, there were challenges. As George says, there’s a big difference between farming and making cheese.
“We always assumed that because we have milk, we can make the cheese, and because we have a field and some bales of hay, we can milk cows, but there’s a big gap between having milk and making cheese,” he says. “Plus, taking it to the market is a challenge. Having a commercial, viable, saleable product is a big step from making milk on the farm.”
Things that took time to learn and perfect include developing the cups and label, doing research on sell-by-dates, dealing with nutritional labels and barcodes—everything you don’t think about early on.
“After a month or two, once you’re into all of it, you realize there is so much paperwork and detail with the HR and SQF certification we have now, the paperwork you have to do with tracking, COAs, etc.,” George says.
Early on, Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese made three sizes of mozzarella but quickly learned that consumers wanted the cheese in all sorts of sizes.
“That’s part of the experience,” Debbie says. “The customer wants something, and you do it. You think you have what they need, but there’s always more.”
Through the years, the company has won numerous awards, including taking first place in the 2019 United States Cheese Championships for Fresh Mozzarella Medallions; first place at the 2018 Wisconsin State Fair for Marinated Fresh Mozzarella; and first place and Best of Show at the 2018 Dodge County Fair for Fresh Mozzarella.
Trophies are nothing new for the company, with its most notable achievement coming three years ago.
“In 2017, we swept the fresh mozzarella category in the U.S. Cheese Championships, placing first, second and third, and our fourth entry tied for fourth,” George says proudly.
What’s really unique about the cheese company is that it uses 100% green power and practices water conservation and recycling. It has a big system—a biodigester that produces methane gas. This powers a generator, which turns a turbine that produces electricity.
“We’re a carbon-negative company, too, which means we produce more power with our biodigester than we use for our dairy and cheese plant,” Debbie says. “Our cheese is made from our farm-fresh milk and produced on a state-of-the-art farm with sustainability practices that help preserve the environment for future generations.”
The biodigester system not only provides electricity, but the material that comes out of it is recycled into cow beddings so the fibers provide for a really good clean bedding, and eventually everything is recycled back to the fields for the nutrients to grow the following year’s crops.
“People really care about our green story so we really try to promote it,” Debbie says. “We developed a green logo, ‘Produced with renewable energy’ to tell the story. It is on all of our packaging.”
Since the farm emphasizes conservation and sustainable practices, with consideration given to what is best for the environment, the cows and the consumer, the company milks 2,000 Holstein cows, which are fed homegrown, nutritious forages consisting of corn, alfalfa, grass and soybeans.
“Our pampered cows receive plenty of exercise, fresh air and individualized care,” Debbie says.
Staying a Family Business
To keep up with the latest and greatest in the cheese industry, Debbie and George attend a lot of farming conferences and cheese events, and are big on trends and what’s new.
“We are always looking forward,” Debbie says. “We are building this business not to sell, but so our family members can join it.”
Looking ahead, George would like to bring in more automation to the process and make things simpler, streamlining operations.
“My fault has always been that I think the business will stagnate and we won’t need these improvements, but the last two to three years, we have really grown, and I realized we needed to work a little bit smarter also,” he says.
One of Debbie’s favorite parts of running the business is finding people who appreciate and value their story.
“Our story is about family, farmstead and green energy,” she says. “We want to work with customers who value our philosophy.”
George adds that the company subscribes to the four C’s, “from crops to cows, cheese to consumer”.
“That’s what we’re about, and we really value the consumers who value us and what we do,” he said. “It’s what our action is, not just a story.”
With members of the next generation now involved in running the farm and cheese factory, the Crave family is poised to continue being a success. “You have different owners, personalities and key staff who challenge themselves to do better and use science and technology in the right ways,” Debbie says. “They have a lot of responsibility to each other, to the customer and to the land, and they are all really proud of that.”