Terry Beckman has found a niche in the cheesemaking business. He builds and repairs curd knives for artisan and farmstead cheese makers, as well as the cottage cheese industry.
His passion for crafting things with his hands goes back to his days in high school.
"My senior year in high school, I spent about five hours a day in Mr.Belke's metal shop class," Beckman said. "I was one of his shop foremen. I helped other students with their projects, and it really gave me an appreciation for doing metalworking and creating things by hand."
Richard Belke encouraged him to become an industrial arts teacher, but Beckman chose to take a one-year welding class at Lakeshore Technical College after graduating from New Holstein High School. In 1976, he signed on at Stoelting in Kiel and remained there for 25 years, leaving in 2001.
After working a year or two at Stoelting, Beckman decided he wanted to work there until he retired because of the positive work environment. He started out working on the assembly line as a welder. By 1979, he had advanced to a machine-building position and started to go out on the road installing, repairing and setting up cheese equipment and industrial parts cleaning equipment for Stoelting's customers.
"Stoelting would send out the equipment, and I would go out with a crew to set it up," Beckman said. "Once the equipment was installed and working properly, I would stay on site with my supervisor or an engineer until they were making good quality cheese."
As the years went by, he traveled more and more. While it was a great opportunity to see many parts of the United States, it meant being away from his family. In 2000, while waiting for a flight home from a job on the west coast, his wife, Nancy, suggested he quit his job to stay home with the kids. The idea came as quite a shock because despite the long hours and time away from home, he loved what he was doing.
After some serious thought, Beckman saw it as an opportunity to fill a niche in the cheese industry repairing curd knives for cheese makers in Wisconsin, and spending more precious time with his family.
Beckman started his business, Dairy Fab LLC, in their garage at home and worked there for six years. In the beginning it was really a family business. His wife helped with the accounting, his high-school-age daughter, Kim, would call potential customers getting contact information on her days off from school and his son, Chris, still in middle school, designed a website for the business. The site now has visits from all over the world.
His business grew from using part of their garage to all of it. He and Nancy got tired of parking their vehicles outside over winter so in 2006, Beckman purchased a former gas station/car repair shop in Calumetville, 2 miles from their home. With more available space to work, he expanded his business by tapping into the growing artesian cheesemaking industry and started making new knives, in addition to doing repairs.
"I really love the cheese industry," he said. "People are so nice. I also like working with my hands and being my own boss. Our business has really grown. I have probably doubled the business in the past five years."
Even after he started his own business, Beckman continued to do work for Stoelting for a few years. Stoelting's dairy division has since been purchased by Relco, LLC of Minnesota. At the time of acquisition, Beckman was already manufacturing their knives. He continues to work with Relco.
Global customer base
Today, Beckman's customer base is almost 200 strong and covers 40 states. He has also shipped knives to Canada, the United Kingdom, Panama and Australia. In addition to the typical cheese companies, Beckman has also supplied cheese knives to several universities and to a Norbertine Convent in California and a New York Greek Orthodox Monastery.
Also showing interest in Beckman's cheese knives are the home cheese makers or hobbyist cheesemakers that make cheese at home in small batches on their kitchen stoves for personal consumption. These are the same types of people that often make their own beer or wine or bake artisan breads.
For those that are not familiar with a curd knife, it is a stainless steel frame, strung with wires, that is pulled through the vat of coagulated milk, to separate the curds from the whey. Although it is called a cheese knife, there are really no knives or blades involved. They are also known as cheese harps.
The size of knives Beckman builds vary greatly, with the smallest being 4 inches square and the largest 4 feet square. Because everyone seems to make cheese in all different sizes and shapes of vats, there is not a standard size to any of them, so he really does custom build each knife for that particular customer's equipment and process. He has built knives that are square, rectangular, round, half round and one that was built to match the contours of a beat up bulk tank used by an Amish customer in Pennsylvania.
"It was a pretty ugly knife, but it matched the contours of his vat perfectly," Beckman said, smiling.
Beckman builds and repairs a lot of knives for the production of cottage cheese in addition to artisan and farmstead cheese makers. This past year, it totaled 140 knives, with an even split between new knives and repairs. The size of his customers' operations vary as well. Some of his customers have as few as three or four cows and others have up to several hundred cows.
He also works with a lot of dairy goat farmers, some dairy sheep farmers and even a water buffalo mozzarella creamery in Cost Rica. His cottage cheese customers are some of the largest in the country.
Many cheesemakers have their own maintenance department to repair their knives, but the quality of their work isn't always up to the standards required by food industry inspectors. Since he spends all his time making and repairing knives with an attitude of perfection, he has even received referrals directly from the inspectors. He doesn't know of anyone else whose focus is only the manufacture and repair of curd knives. Beckman said the business has gone far beyond where he thought it would go.
To accommodate the growth in business and Beckman's desire to retire at some point in the future, he hired his daughter's brother-in-law, Stefan Severson, of Arcadia to help in the shop this past May. Severson also likes to work with his hands and takes great pride in converting a pile of stainless steel into a finished product. Both Beckman and Stefan realize no shortcuts are allowed in the process. If the knife isn't what it should be, it doesn't go out the door to the customer.
Beckman's goal is to get Stefan trained in all aspects of the operation so the business can continue to grow and serve existing and future customers when he decides to retire. There are few resources out there that cater to the needs of small-scale cheesemakers, and he is proud to help fill that need.
Beckman said the cheese industry is a close-knit group that is always willing to share knowledge and help new cheese makers as they come into the industry. He is always amazed that artisan cheese makers come from all walks of life and finds that many times they leave a previous hectic lifestyle to slow down and get a little closer to nature.
"Everyone is so nice and welcoming," he said. "You make friends for a lifetime. Because I have customers all over the country, when we travel on vacations, we often look at the map and plan our route so we can visit cheesemakers who have told us to stop by to see their farm if we are ever in their area. It gives us a lot of unique opportunities in our travels."