Organic Broadcaster

Rama Hoffpauir and Josh Bryceson, pictured with their kids, Otto and Sadie, run a vegetable CSA and recently started making artisanal cheese. They’ll host a MOSES Organic Field Day May 23 to share how they started their farmstead creamery. See mosesorganic.org/organic-field-days. Photo submitted

Vegetable CSA farm expands business with farmstead creamery

By Rachel Henderson

If you were at the MOSES Organic Farming Conference this year, you may have noticed Rama Hoffpauir running around to make sure volunteer posts were staffed. If you live in the Twin Cities area, you may have known Hoffpauir and her husband, Josh Bryceson, for years as the Turnip Rock CSA vegetable farmers from Clear Lake, Wis. Now, Hoffpauir and Bryceson are becoming locally famous for the artisanal cheese they’re making in their farmstead creamery, Cosmic Wheel.

When Hoffpauir and Bryceson started milking cows, they planned to ship milk off-farm and make cheese. Once they saw the way things are going in the dairy industry and after talking to buyers, they realized that selling milk wouldn’t help them meet their financial goals.

Groups such as Wisconsin Farmers Union (WFU) have been working to address the causes of the current crisis, and believe that it’s not only possible but essential to have a dairy industry that supports farmers, processors, and consumers. Their current initiatives explore solutions based on supply management and stable pricing.

WFU Policy Associate Bobbi Wilson said, “While the overall state of Wisconsin’s dairy economy is bleak, direct market creameries are keeping some farms afloat by offering higher prices than farmers can find through conventional channels. Creameries like Cosmic Wheel occupy a niche in the marketplace by appealing to consumers’ love for the family farm and desire for locally sourced artisan cheeses.”

Clearly most dairies in Wisconsin don’t have the option to suddenly become artisan creameries, but Cosmic Wheel represents something to be optimistic about when it comes to the state of our cheese.

Aside from the advantages that come with direct marketing, many see grass-based dairy farms, like Cosmic Wheel, as a way of staying in the marketplace by managing costs. In a 2009 study, the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems at the University of Wisconsin-Madison identified high-quality pasture as the least expensive feed source for dairy cows, in a business where feed is the biggest share of expenses. At Cosmic Wheel, they only produce cheese during the grazing season, with the exception of some hay in the early spring. They see their farm as a complete ecosystem, with each part interdependent on others.

While their small farmstead creamery can feel like a world apart from the turmoil of the dairy industry in Wisconsin, Hoffpauir said she feels the heartbreak of the consolidation that’s happening all around them and feels allied with other family farms.

“The other small farms in our area are important to our survival,” she explained. “Finding hay, et cetera, doesn’t happen unless there’s other small farms—having families in our town with children in the schools, and all the other things we want in a thriving small town.” These sentiments tie into WFU’s work.

“Dairy Together is a movement to rebuild a viable dairy economy for family farmers and rural communities,” Wilson said about Farmers Union’s current multi-state initiative. “Specifically, we are looking at federal policy options to manage overproduction and return a fair price to farmers.”

Dairy Beginnings
Hoffpauir and Bryceson started farming as Turnip Rock Farm in 2009 with their vegetable CSA, but had a vision for a farm and business that included more. They had an interest in grass-based livestock that stemmed from Bryceson’s work with Heifer International, a global nonprofit that distributes animals and provides training for agriculture-based community development. Working for them in Arkansas, he developed a love for livestock, and saw a potential for real balance on farms that include animals on pasture. The fertility complements a vegetable farm, and the benefits of having a diversity in markets seemed essential for a family farm.

He spent a season milking at Poplar Hills Farm in Scandia, Minn., to gain some direct dairy experience, and learned more about grazing through MOSES workshops, Grassworks, and UW Extension. They both spent time talking to other dairy farmers, visiting small-scale farms, and reading all they could.

Meanwhile, on their own farm they started with one family cow, then three, making cheese for fun beginning in 2010, and developing recipes. At the time, they had 5 full-time employees and used cheese to help feed the greater farm family, and for gifts. They continued developing this hobby dairy until they could gather the financial resources to put in a licensed creamery.

Cosmic Wheel was born when Turnip Rock started offering Cheese Shares as part of its offerings in 2015. Since then they’ve been milking up to 20 cows at a time, and have grown to making about 8,000 pounds of cheese per year. For reference, the FDA designates a small creamery as those making less than one million pounds of cheese each year. Hoffpauir refers to their operation as a “micro dairy,” a term that doesn’t have an official definition.

The CSA model remains the primary vehicle Hoffpauir uses to market cheese. Their existing CSA was a big part of what helped them make their creamery successful: it gave them an income stream that helped as they developed their dairy, and allowed them an instant market for the finished product. Since their vegetable farm was already well established, they also had the confidence of experienced farmers to make a budget that they could have faith in, and a knowledge of what they could sell.

Turnip Rock has mostly marketed their vegetables directly to consumers, so marketing wholesale has been a new world for Cosmic Wheel. As their cheese business has grown, they’ve looked to wholesale to keep it viable. Twin Cities co-ops, specialty cheese shops, and a few restaurants have been receptive customers, excited about their product and story. They also have a handful of customers who love the cheese so much they buy whole wheels at a time at wholesale pricing.

Cheesemaking Education
Wisconsin, with its identity rooted in dairy, is the only state that requires a license to make and sell cheese. For Hoffpauir, getting that license amounted to required coursework on cheese making and sanitation through UW Dairy Learning Center, Center for Dairy Research, and the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, as well as an apprenticeship with Castle Rock Dairy in Osseo, Wis. With farm and family already taking a lot of time, she said it took about 5 years to get through it all. During that time, she also engaged in informal education, doing research and reaching out to organizations. The Wisconsin Artisan Cheesemakers Guild and American Cheese Society were helpful, and she also worked with consultants.

They found that the state doesn’t have a clear path or web of resources for really small-scale dairy. Instructors in all of the courses wanted to be helpful, but they seemed perplexed by the extremely small scale. It was challenging to figure out how to take some of the rules that are geared toward an industrial scale and apply them to a farmstead creamery. Working directly with other small farms, who are doing what they were striving for, provided some of the best information.

Enrolling in some of the required courses, Hoffpauir was surprised that there was a handful of other very small producers interested in farmstead artisan cheese. She found herself in the minority, but definitely not alone. A growing interest in this type of farming brings with it a network of support – small dairies that help each other answer questions, share resources, call each other with licensing questions or when they’ve suddenly run out of supplies. As they experienced with vegetable farming, this was an important resource to help them in the early stages.

Adding a creamery to their farm brought new complexity to the business. Like many farm couples, Hoffpauir and Bryceson started out sharing all of the work on their farm. As it grew to include livestock, Hoffpauir assumed that would continue.

“I wanted to milk the cows! Then I realized I’d have to worry about cross-contamination,” she said, talking about going in and out of their cheesemaking facility. Now Hoffpauir is in charge of anything cheese related, while Bryceson takes care of all of the livestock, as well as managing the vegetable production. This way, they avoid stepping on each other’s toes too much and each could focus on one aspect of the operation during the intensive learning process.

To maintain a healthy balance among their distinct farm enterprises, Hoffpauir emphasized the need to communicate well and often.

“Ok, are we pumping milk or not? How much is in the tank? Do we have to take a cow out of production? We keep working on getting better at that,” she said. “Making peace with our roles can be challenging, but is getting easier the more we embrace where we are.”

Future Plans
With their commitment to producing high-quality, grass-based, artisanal cheese, Cosmic Wheel is unlikely to get much bigger. They see themselves as “at capacity” on their available pasture, and their creamery is not large enough to support much more production. Hoffpauir said they feel good about the size of their business. Her goals for the future are to continue to improve recipes, tweak their markets, and make sure they can make wonderful cheese and raise happy cows.

Far from seeing their niche industry as fiercely competitive, Hoffpauir is excited about connecting with other cheesemakers. Thinking about the potential for more farmstead creameries in Wisconsin, she urges people considering it to really focus on potential markets, since that was one of the most important ingredients in Cosmic Wheel’s success.

 

Rachel Henderson is an organic specialist for MOSES. She and her husband have a certified organic orchard and raise pastured livestock.

 

 

From the March | April 2019 Issue

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