In a picturesque scene of quintessential Wisconsin, the Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese farm sprawls across 1,700 acres of green pasture — but it is not your typical dairy farm.

Crave Brothers exemplifies the growing farmstead cheese industry, where cheese is made on the same farm milk is produced.

According to Dean Sommer, cheese technologist at the University of Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research, farmstead cheese makers like Crave Brothers take part in the entire cheese-making process, from growing their own crops to feeding cows to packaging the final product. Artisan cheese makers, he explained, only make the cheese and don’t partake in the farming process before it.

Crave Brothers, located 30 miles northeast of Madison in Waterloo, Wisconsin, produces award-winning cheeses. Fifteen hundred Holstein cows contribute to the business’s most signature product: fresh mozzarella.

But Crave Brothers wasn’t always in it for the cheese. It first began as a dairy farm. Mark Crave, who co-operates the farm with his three brothers, said the business his brothers began in 1978 evolved over a few decades. He said Crave Brothers wanted to set itself apart from the “big guys” in the cheese-making industry.

“They can make a lot of good cheese a lot cheaper than we can,” Crave said. “The big part of it is what works with our milk.”

They chose to produce soft mozzarella in multiple shapes and sizes because they knew their milk was consistent, Crave said. So fresh cheese, produced a day after milking, became their niche.

The growing artisan cheese industry

John Lucey, director of the Center for Dairy Research, said artisan cheese-making continues to grow from the small industry it was 30 years ago.

According to Lucey, artisan cheese — meaning small, hand-crafted varieties — accounts for 23 percent of all cheese made in Wisconsin, and the state’s artisan output accounts for 50 percent of total specialty cheese production nationwide. The farmstead cheese industry is growing with it, he said.

The artisan industry grew because, like Crave Brothers, Lucey explained, a lot of cheese makers turned to specialty cheese, rather than a commodity-type product, to stay in business.

“[The artisan cheese movement] started from very humble beginnings in small volumes,” Lucey said. “I think it has grown because we obviously have a lot of great cheese makers in the state.”

How artisan products can be better for you

A number of farmstead cheese makers graze their herds, meaning they allow cows to eat fresh pasture during the growing season more often than other dairy farmers do, Sommer said.

Eating green pasture increases nutrient content in those cows’ milk, Sommer said. While artisan cheeses are not necessarily healthier across-the-board, some of them do have nutritional advantages, he said.

“All cheeses have lots of nutrients, but some of the farmstead cheeses are even … higher [in nutrients],” he said.

UW’s commitment to improving the dairyland

Lucey said one of CDR’s goals is to help cheese makers adapt to the evolving specialty cheese field. He said the center provides them with educational programs and short courses so they can become experienced in different varieties of cheese.

“It’s been a transition for them, but of course we’ve got such great cheese makers, they were able to adapt and learn new things and move onto new varieties,” Lucey said.

Crave said his business works with CDR to develop the types of cheese the farm makes, as well as research what consumers are looking for in dairy products. He said they also modeled their barns based on guidelines from the Dairyland Initiative.

The Dairyland Initiative, which operates in connection with UW’s School of Veterinary Medicine, is a web-based effort to provide easy-to-access information to farmers on welfare-friendly housing options for cows.

Courtney Halbach, an instructional specialist for the initiative, said it started off with a grant from UW and has turned into an international resource for farmers around the world.

Dairyland Initiative to help farmers improve cattle conditionsThrough its website offering recommendations on improving cow housing environments, University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine’s Dairyland Initiative is Read…

Halbach said the up-to-date, cost-efficient housing methods for cows help them produce more and higher-quality milk.

“When cows are comfortable and happy, they’re going to produce more milk,” she said. “We want to maximize their daily routine.”

Kent Weigel, UW department of dairy science chair, said in terms of the department focusing their research on artisan cheeses specifically, it is too early and that food processors mostly deal with specialty cheese industries.

Crave Brothers: Farmstead sustainability personified

One of the Crave Brothers’ renowned successes is its commitment to sustainability, which directly correlates UW-related research.

“We try to conserve wherever we can,” Crave said.

Besides adapting to the Dairyland Initiative’s housing recommendations, Crave Brothers’ efforts at maintaining a totally green facility are seen throughout the entire farm — from cooling milk with just water to using millions of gallons of manure to power electricity.

But heeding conservation efforts is not a cheap endeavor, Crave admitted.

“We’re in this for the long haul,” Crave said. “Production agricultural is not a get-rich-quick scheme. It may not be as cost-effective or as profitable up front, but we know over the long run a lot of those systems will pay us back.”

All dairy is good dairy

Despite Crave Brothers’ success, Crave said there will always be competition in the farmstead cheese industry.

He said the artisan and specialty cheese businesses have certainly gotten bigger, and Wisconsin specifically has been a significant part of that niche.

“Wisconsin’s smaller regionalized cheese plants have found a new life in the specialty and artisan cheese movement,” Crave said.

The Sargentos and Krafts of cheese making will not go away, he said, but there is room for all types of cheese who cater to different audiences.

But running a farmstead cheese business, Crave said, is not easy. Beyond knowledge of cheese and dairy industries, it requires more management and staff than just operating one business or the other.

“It’s not anything that anybody should take lightly that looks into it,” Crave said. “But I think in general, it’s all good for dairy. It’s all good for dairy consumption, and it’s all good for the consumers because they’re going to get a nutritious product in a lot of different fun ways, shapes and forms.”