"We’ve really been waiting for this to happen," Fond du Lac County executive Allen Buechel told the crowd at the ceremonial groundbreaking on Dec. 15 for the LaClare Farms new farmstead dairy operation.
The operation is located at the intersection of Highway 151 and County HH in the northeast part of the county near the east shore of Lake Winnebago.
Buechel was referring to the 18 months since he learned about what he described as the "impressive plans" for the facility at which about 600 dairy goats will be milked, cheese will be made and aged, a retail store and cafe will be open to the public, and an educational center will be included.
It took even longer than that to put "all of the pieces of the puzzle" together for the multi-million dollar project, co-owner Larry Hedrich observed.
Hedrich, his wife Clara, and their five adult children are the co-owners of the project, which is being sited on 13 acres of the farm.
The farm was purchased and operated by Larry’s grandparents and has been owned by his relatives ever since. His cousin John Jenkins, who will be a partner in the new enterprise, had already renovated a shed in which the program for the groundbreaking event was staged.
For the Hedrich couple, the journey toward a new facility really began with a purchase of a farm just to the southwest of Chilton in 1978, Clara Hedrich told the groundbreaking ceremony crowd.
The farmstead at which 330 goats are being milked today came with two milking goats, two peacocks, and a flock of laying hens.
As the Hedrich children became old enough to show goats at fairs and other events, the size and quality of the goat herd were improved.
By the mid-1990s, the family began to sell goat milk into the commercial market as a way to obtain value from the goat herd. Making soap from goat’s milk has also been an enterprise for the family.
By 2001, Larry Hedrich left his job as an area superintendent for a construction company to tend to the goat herd fulltime and later became the manager of the Quality Dairy Goat Producers Cooperative of Wisconsin.
Clara has been a high school vocational agriculture teacher for 37 years — most of them at West DePere and previously at Chilton.
During the intervening years, all five of the Hedrich children siblings earned university degrees, found professional employment off the farm, and helped at the farm as time and availability allowed.
Katie Hedrich pursued cheesemaking from the goat milk and quickly earned national acclaim for her entry of fenugreek Evalon cheese (named for Larry’s grandmother), which won first place among the 1,604 entries in the United States Cheese Championship Contest in March of 2011.
But the impetus for the long-awaited new farmstead facility was the decision by all five of the siblings to become involved in the new venture either full or part-time.
Greg Hedrich is the business manager, Katie the production manager, Anna (Zastrow) a herd manager and computer specialist, Jessica a marketing and labeling specialist, and Heather the human resources manager for more than a dozen employees.
"This is how we can continue the family farm," Larry Hedrich told the crowd attending the groundbreaking. Although it took nearly 35 years to evolve, his wife Clara is convinced that "God has a plan for us."
The LaClare Farms milking herd contains the Alpine, Lamancha, Nubian, Saanen, Toggenburg and recorded grade breeds. The Zastrows have been raising goats to be added once the herd is expanded at the new facility, which is scheduled to open by late spring or early summer of 2013.
Business plan evolves
For the business plan, Larry Hedrich credited the role of James Gage at Wisconsin’s former Dairy Business Innovation Center (DBIC), which closed at the end of September due to a termination of federal earmark funding.
Today, Gage is a private value-added consultant, grant application writer, and business feasibility analyst based at Waterloo (email@example.com).
Hedrich also mentioned cheese industry pioneer and promoter Dan Carter, who was a founder and last chairman of the DBIC. He commented that the business plan consisted of "40 pages and a lot of discussion."
Excavation of the former farm field began during the second week of December and construction will proceed throughout the winter, according to representatives of Keller Structures of Kaukauna, which is the general contractor for the project.
Larry Hedrich credited Steve Klessig and others in the company for "putting together what we wanted."
Two placards detailing the layout of the facility were on display for the open house that accompanied the groundbreaking on a rainy afternoon.
They were accompanied by a color display of the front of the building, which will face to the north (Highway HH).
The 35,000 square foot facility will be constructed as one unit that includes the housing, feeding area, and milking parlor for the goats, the creamery and cheese aging room, the retail store and cafe, and locations from which visitors can see the parlor, production plant, and cheese aging room through viewing windows.
A video describing the steps of cheesemaking will also be shown to visitors.
Either separately or as a mix, milk from goats, sheep, and dairy cows can be processed in the production plant. The plans also call for making cultured products and bottling milk (presently bottled at Lamers Dairy in Appleton).
The Hedrichs will also offer rental space to other dairy processors and help them to launch new products.
Since February of this year, goat milk from LaClare Farms has been taken to Willow Creek Cheese near Berlin in Waushara County for making its Evalon, Fresh Chevre, Cheddar, Fondy Jack, and American Originals (Ziege Zack Blue and Chandola) cheese varieties.
A cheese variety crafted from four recipes is made for the Kelley’s Country Creamery in southern Fond du Lac County. The 2011 championship Evalon cheese was made at Saxon Creamery at Cleveland in Manitowoc County.
Katie Hedrich also goes to a cheese plant at Shullsburg in southwest Wisconsin once a month to make batches of cheese.
In brief comments at the groundbreaking ceremony, she noted that excellent cooperation is hallmark among the makers of specialty cheeses, whose facilities make about 22 percent of all the cheese produced in Wisconsin.
"The aging room is where the cheese really comes to life," Katie Hedrich remarked. She said that flipping the wheels once a week for five months is a tedious but very necessary chore.
Since beginning to make cheese from goat milk in 2008, LaClare Farms has established a national market and even had a few international sales for its product.
With the increase in product volume that the new facility will accommodate, the resources of the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board will be used to expand the marketing opportunities.
Funding a major task
Arranging the funding for the totally new site project was a major task — one that significantly delayed the start-up of the construction, Larry Hedrich acknowledged.
LaClare Farms worked closely with the Fond du Lac County Economic Development Corporation (FCEDC) to secure funding from several sources.
For a $2.3 million industrial revenue bond, the Fond du Lac County government authorized the use of otherwise unused federal funds which were awarded as part of the Midwest disaster relief package in the wake of floods in 2009.
This required approval by the county board of supervisors, which had to determine that the monies would be used for a worthwhile public purpose, according to county executive Allen Buechel.
Final approval of the bond issue was on the agenda for the Fond du Lac County board’s meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 18. According to Buechel, this merely involved a few updates and wording changes on a similar resolution approved a year earlier.
The bonds are being purchased by other investors, principally the Calumet County Bank, which has its main office in Brillion. Larry Hedrich praised the bank’s agricultural loan officer Paul Meier for being a strong backer of the project since it was first contemplated in 2010.
FCEDC president Steve Jenkins also noted that LaClare Farms received a $300,000 loan from the county’s Special Allocation Revolving Loan Fund. That fund receives a portion of the county’s .50-cent per $1 sales tax.
In addition, the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation and the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority combined to provide $100,000 for the project.
The project also has some silent partner investors, according to Greg Hedrich.
Clara Hedrich hopes that her family’s project, which relies on a combination of its members’ talents, will also serve an example and inspiration for others.
She also mentioned the importance of trying to restore a connection between consumers and the food that they eat. Buechel believes the facility will draw people as visitors and customers and bring added attention to the county adding to its employment and economic base.
The official groundbreaking ceremony, held in a wind-blown light rain at the edge of an already excavated plot of land, was preceded with a prayer and blessing conducted by Father Bob Kollath, the pastor of Good Shepherd Catholic parish at Chilton in neighboring Calumet County. The Hedrichs are members of that congregation.
For more information about the history of LaClare Farms, to learn about its lineup of products, or to find out where those products are sold, go to the www.laclarefarm.com Web site or call Larry Hedrich at 920-849-2926.