EAST TROY, Wis. – The long-term profitability and sustainability of their third-generation family farm is on their minds, say brothers Frank Henningfeld and Ron Henningfeld. But they aren’t expanding their 65-cow dairy herd in order to produce enough income to sustain their two families. Instead they have started a new income stream. The “stream” is comprised of cheese – primarily curds and Cheddar from their Hill Valley Dairy.
The family farm was established in 1942 by their grandparents, Roman and Marion Henningfeld. After the senior Henningfelds retired their son and daughter-in-law – Roman and Carol Henningfeld – operated the farm. Now Frank Henningfeld and his wife, Colleen Henningfeld, run the farm while his brother Ron Henningfeld operates the cheese operation.
Every other week about 4,500 pounds of milk are hauled from the farm to Clock Shadow Creamery in Milwaukee; the creamery provides the hauling services. Every Monday at the creamery Ron Henningfeld uses the milk to produce cheese curds, Cheddar cheese and other cheese products. The remainder of the farm’s milk is sold to a dairy cooperative.
Ron Henningfeld said the cheese business helps to capture the margin in the middle. The cheese business helps generate income but the farm itself is financially sustainable, Frank Henningfeld said.
The herd averages about 70 pounds of milk per cow per day, with 4 percent fat and 3.1 percent protein content. Colleen Henningfeld helps milk cows and do other farm work. But she also has an off-farm job working as a nurse for an urgent-care clinic in neighboring Waterford, Wisconsin.
Frank Henningfeld graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, earning in 1996 bachelor’s degrees in agriculture business as well as soils and crops. After graduation he worked contracting acres and crop scouting for a vegetable-canning company, before returning to the family farm in the late-1990s.
“I realized I wanted to be my own boss so I came back to the farm,” he said. “It was a successful business and I saw a future in it.”
But he acknowledged that milk prices in recent years have been difficult. To manage through lean times he’s worked to reduce production costs in about every aspect of the farm.
“We also do our own mechanic work, and grow and harvest almost all of our own feed,” he said.
About 50 percent of Hill Valley’s cheese production is sold wholesale to retailers around Walworth and Racine counties. And from May to October the Henningfelds sell cheese at farmers markets in neighboring villages of Burlington, East Troy, Lake Geneva, Mukwonago, Muskego and Delavan, Wisconsin. The next step is to sell Hill Valley cheese online, Henningfeld said.
“We’re still getting our feet under us, but it’s a growing business,” he said.
Bob Wills owns Cedar Grove Cheese of Plain, Wisconsin, as well as Clock Shadow Creamery, where he shares space with Ron Henningfeld. Wills has been making cheese for 31 years. He’s well-known in the cheese industry, particularly for sharing his cheesemaking facilities and mentoring novice cheesemakers.
“Someday I’m going to retire,” he said with a smile.
In the past three decades he estimates he’s helped more than 20 cheesemakers. Some are more-experienced cheesemakers with whom he’s collaborated. Others are working to earn their license; he’s helped them in that endeavor.
“Ron’s still a young cheesemaker, but is anxious to learn and experiment,” Wills said. “And it’s great that he wants to stay connected to his family’s farming operation.”
Wills said he understands how challenging it can be for a farming operation to provide enough revenue to support two or three families. Ron Henningfeld said cheesemaking can help with that.
“(But) the successful value-added businesses are generally based on having a successful farming operation to begin with,” he said.
Frank Henningfeld shared a piece of advice to dairy farmers thinking about adding a new income stream.
“Be really good at what you’re doing and see if there’s room to add on,” he said.
Ron Henningfeld will talk about value-added farming during the Resilient Farms Conference hosted by Compeer Financial. It’s being held in conjunction with the University of Wisconsin-Division of Extension. The conference will be held from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Dec. 12 at the Kalahari Resort, 1305 Kalahari Drive, Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin. Advance registration is requested. The registration fee is $20, which includes lunch.