BOYCEVILLE, Wis. – YouTube was Casey Sutliff’s go-to source when she started making cheese for her family 12 years ago. Since then she’s been amazed at the trove of resources available to aspiring cheesemakers, she says.
One such resource is a grant program that enabled her to make a down payment on a vat pasteurizer to start a small business – Taste and See Creamery. She plans to open the business in summer.
“We’re in the processing of constructing the cheese plant now, and expect to have the vat pasteurizer soon,” she said.
She plans to make Cheddar, Colby, Pepper Jack and Gouda cheese. She’ll have a store on the small farm she owns with her husband, Kyle Sutliff. She also plans to sell cheese to area retailers as well as at farmers markets in nearby Menomonie and Baldwin, Wisconsin.
The Sutliffs rotationally graze 10 cows and have about another half-dozen head of young stock. They graze cattle and raise hay on 25 acres they own as well on another 20 acres they rent.
“We get so much more production out of our pastures by rotationally grazing,” Casey Sutliff said. “We can graze more animals per acre.”
The cows calve on a seasonal basis; they’re milked in a small parlor twice daily. Sutliff makes cheese from mid-March to November.
“We started grazing cows to provide milk for our kids and for cost savings,” said the mother of five young children – with a sixth on the way. “And we think cheese from grass-fed cattle tastes better.”
If demand for the cheese grows, the Sutliffs plan to purchase more cows. With a start of Holstein cows bought from an area farmer, they’re working to incorporate into the herd other breeds – Brown Swiss, Ayrshire, Jersey and Guernsey.
Sutliff started the process to become a licensed cheesemaker three years ago; she’s currently waiting to obtain a creamery license. Some of the biggest challenges related to starting a creamery are the licensing requirements and regulations, she said.
“They’re a bit overwhelming; there’s a lot to know about food safety,” she said. “But I served an apprenticeship and took classes.”
She served an apprenticeship with Meg Wittenmyer of Bifröst Farms near Boyceville. Wittenmyer made cheese with milk from her Miniature Nubian goat herd. The principles are the same whether one is making cheese from goat milk or dairy-cow milk, Wittenmyer said.
“We covered the basics of pH, coagulation, cooking and draining cheese, as well as packaging,” she said. “I loved Casey’s attention to detail and trusted her to complete a task I gave her. I hope she felt that by the end of her apprenticeship she had learned enough to feel comfortable starting her own operation.”
To obtain a cheesemaker’s license one needs to be prepared to invest time due to apprenticeship requirements, Wittenmyer said.
“There are very few operating creameries that will allow someone to do their required hours unless the apprentice commits to working full-time,” she said. “Many people trying to obtain their license are already working another job while they do this. There also are state licenses. Requirements for all of these must be considered when planning and designing a creamery.”
The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection provides information about cheesemaker-license requirements on its website. A small creamery would need a dairy-plant license and a pasteurizer-operator license.
A plant also would need to obtain licenses-permits for any assigned patrons to the creamery. A bulk-milk weigher and samplers license is required for the person weighing and sampling milk.
Wittenmyer closed her creamery in 2019. She has since turned her focus to boarding dogs and renting her commercial kitchen to food entrepreneurs. She sold her creamery equipment and reduced her herd from 45 goats to 15 goats.
“Ideally I'd like to have just 10 or so, but there are some goats that just steal your heart and you can't part with them,” she said. “So they'll live their lives out here on the farm whether I use them for milk or not.”
Webinars provide resources
In addition to her internship and classes about cheesemaking, Sutliff said she’s learned a great deal about started a creamery from the Dairy Business Innovation Alliance.
“I watched all eight of their ‘Let’s Get Started’ webinars,” she said. “From every one of them I took notes of contacts and other information.”
The Dairy Business Innovation Alliance’s webinar series provides information on local resources and technical assistance. The webinars help dairy farmers and processors who are starting new dairy businesses, diversifying existing businesses or are developing new products. The webinars feature presentations, breakout sessions and interviews with farmers and processors who discuss their experiences.
Sutliff’s advice to others thinking about starting a creamery is to ask a lot of questions.
“People are willing to share, and I didn’t realize how many resources are available,” she said. “The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, the Dairy business Innovation Alliance and others want to help you succeed.”
She recommends touring other farms with cheesemaking facilities. Walking through a facility makes it easier to visualize one’s own, she said.
Wittenmyer said milking animals and selling that milk is much different than keeping the milk, processing it and selling a value-added product.
“But it can be done with a lot of thought and help from the state,” she said.
There are workshops about value-added dairy products. Those programs will help aspiring cheesemakers and others gain understanding about what’s involved, she said.
Lynn Grooms writes about the diversity of agriculture, including the industry’s newest ideas, research and technologies as a staff reporter for Agri-View based in Wisconsin.