It was back in 2003 when Wes Jarrell and Leslie Cooperband traded in their urban and academic life in Madison, WI and ventured on a new agriculture journey in Champaign-Urbana, IL.
“I came to cheesemaking through my love of cheese eating,” Cooperband says. “I was a professor of soil science, and we would stop at the downtown Madison farmers market every Saturday. I fell in love with beautiful French-style goat cheeses that were being made by a woman named Anne Topham of Fantome Farm, who was one of the women pioneers of French-style cheese in the 1980s.”
Cooperband was smitten by the cheeses and wanted to learn how to make them herself, so she asked Topham a lot of questions and gathered information that she planned to use later in life.
She and Jarrell moved, bought a small farm and the pair began transforming their land from cash grain agriculture to perennial production, with a lush cover crop of buckwheat. A year later, they planted a small organic fruit orchard and purchased their first four Nubian goats (three does and one buck). In 2005, the farm was licensed as a Grade A goat dairy and farmstead creamer, and Prairie Fruits Farm & Creamery was officially born.
“It was in 2005 when we made the commitment to go commercial,” says Cooperband.
Today, Jarrell and Cooperband own a herd of more than 100 Animal Welfare Approved certified milkers and manage nearly 80 acres of perennial crops, from pasture to prairie to silvopasture. Using the milk from its pastured herd of Nubian and La Mancha goats, the company produces mostly French-inspired cheeses that have their roots in the deep dark prairie soils.
Keys to Growth
Prairie Fruits Farm & Creamery was the first in the state of Illinois to produce French-style goat cheeses, so it was not only new charted territory for the owners, but for the regulators, as well.
“We had a lot of conversations about our design, and they were very skeptical that we could milk animals and make cheese in the same building, so we just put one foot in front of the other and started with a small herd of 20 goats,” says Cooperband. “We were just making fresh goat cheese at that point. By 2006, I was learning how to make bloomy rind cheeses and some harder raw milk cheeses.”
Early on, Prairie Fruits Farm & Creamery started selling at the local farmers market, but in less than a year’s time, it was selling to Chicago retailers and expanding to other markets throughout the state.
“We grew our herd an,d at our highest number, we milked about 120 goats,” says Cooperband. “Last year, we made around 50,000 pounds of cheese. We are fairly small and pretty regional in that most of our cheese is sold in the state of Illinois or the upper Midwest.”
A lot of the growth can be attributed to the addition of new land and the duo’s commitment to their animals and land. The mission of the farm is a noble one—to produce the highest quality dairy products from goats raised in regenerative silvopastures with the highest welfare standards.
“We want to change the face of commercial goat dairying in the U.S. to embody regenerative agriculture practices, exceptional animal welfare, product quality and care for local communities,” says Cooperband, noting the importance of practicing radical transparency, accountability and sustainability.
At one point in the evolution of the farm, the two helped an Amish family get licensed to milk dairy sheep, so it was also bringing in some sheep milk to make sheep-milk cheeses and mixed cheeses. That lasted for about four years, but it ended because of the challenges of inconsistent milk quality.
“Growth has also come by being able to improve our equipment so that we could be more efficient,” says Cooperband. “We started with one 50-gallon vat pasteurizer and then we got another 50-gallon vat and updated to 100-gallons.”
She also credits having a strong customer base and network of chefs interested in the cheeses as being key to the cheese company’s success.
“In 2008, we were one of the first in the Midwest to offer dinners on the farm. We put in a commercial kitchen, and we were inviting high-end chefs from Chicago to come down and do slow-food-style meals. All of that was creating more awareness of the farm and cheeses.”
Customers today are comprised of mostly the local community and the retail community nearby.
“It’s an ever-changing landscape,” says Cooperband. “COVID really wreaked havoc on the foodservice world and is still wreaking havoc, so we are constantly looking to find new ways to get our product to the marketplace.”
When COVID hit, Prairie Fruits Farm & Creamery launched an online store, which it still operates, so now it will ship cheese to anywhere in the lower 48, so more people are learning about the great cheeses.
Prairie Fruits Farm & Creamery is known best for its chèvre and bloomy rind cheeses.
“Those are the ones people know and appreciate best,” chèvre,” Cooperband says. “What I think people like about our cheeses is the incredible flavor profile. We attribute that to the fact that we are pasture-based and Animal Welfare approved. All of that contributed to the cleanliness and flavor of our milk and that really shines in those styles of cheese.”
In 2022, the company’s chèvre won a Gold Medal in the fresh unripened goat cheese category at the American Cheese Society competition. One of its bloomy rind cheeses also took home a gold in the farmstead all-milks category. In addition, the company has done well at the Good Foods Awards in recent years.
“I don’t enter a lot of competitions, partly because of resources, and the fact that we are not national in terms of sales, but we enter in some because it provides validation to ourselves that we’re doing a good job,” says Cooperband. “Any time we have entered the competition, we’ve always won.”
A Winning Team
Cooperband describes her team as a “small but mighty” group of people, with a dairy team comprised of those who do the milking, take care of the animals and ensure everyone stays healthy; and a creamery team of four who do the making and packaging and getting cheese out the door.
“It’s pretty much a seven-days-a-week, 24/7-kind of operation,” she says. “The keys to success are being true to our values, being transparent in how we do things and creating a really high-quality product.”
She notes people who have been to Europe and enjoyed great cheeses will come to the farm and tell Cooperband that the cheeses remind them of those same cheeses—especially in France.
“To me, that’s the ultimate compliment,” she says.
At the end of the day, Cooperband still loves her goats, the cheese and making cheese, but admits it’s so hard to run a small business that she doesn’t get the time to enjoy other cheeses the way she once did.
“When you’re dependent on other food businesses for your livelihood and they are struggling, it makes it even harder,” she says. “Plus, now you have to wear a lot of other hats that you didn’t have to wear 18 years ago — social media, marketing, HR and a lot of things that are now required that weren’t necessary back then.”
So much has happened since Prairie Fruits Farm & Creamery began 18 years ago, but one of Cooperband’s favorite anecdotes is from the very beginning, when they purchased those first four goats from a breeder in Kansas.
“I knew nothing about goats; I grew up in Boston, so I’m not really a farm girl,” Cooperband says. “I had done a lot of reading and research about goats and the seasonal breeding. So, we had our buck with our does, and they arrived in June. We didn’t separate them until August, because we thought they wouldn’t breed until the fall. We had no idea that he had bred two of the three in July. They were getting fat, but we had no clue they were pregnant until they had their babies the Monday after Thanksgiving.”
That was a humbling lesson, but one that paid off in the long run.
“The silver lining was I got to have winter milk that I could experiment in the house with cheesemaking and test out the cheese with some friends and family to see if it’s a viable product,” Cooperband says.
Jarrell and Cooperband are at a point in their lives where they are looking for a successor for
Prairie Fruits Farm & Creamery.
“We have an employee who has expressed interest, and we are gradually going to help her take over the business,” Cooperband says. “She’s probably going to have a very different business model than what we’ve had because the landscape of wholesale artisan cheese has really changed, and she has different kinds of ideas in how she wants to put her mark on the place. But she shares our values of high animal welfare, and we think there’s a future for the scale she envisions.”
For now, Cooperband is enjoying her time with her goats and cheese and loves when people come to the farm for visits.
“We create a really welcoming environment for people to come and see what we do,” she says. “We’re open on weekends and do cheese boards. We have a liquor license, and we do a lot of events. We take people on goat hikes in our pasture along the creek of our property, and we’re hoping people will seek out our cheeses in the marketplace. It’s important to support farms of our scale.”