An original Wisconsin cheese made in Oconomowoc

Carol Spaeth-Bauer
Wisconsin State Farmer

OCONOMOWOC - With the push to get corn harvested behind them and machinery put away for the winter, John and Kim Koepke are in the midst of the final year end push at Koepke Family Farms - cheese gift boxes. 

The last quarter of the year is the busiest time for cheese sales. By Christmas Eve, the last gift box of LaBelle cheese, an original Wisconsin cheese, should be packed and delivered.

John and Kim Koepke display a box of LaBelle cheese wedges inside the walk-in cooler where cheese is aged on the Koepke farm in Oconomowoc. The cooler was an insulated freight container from the Port of Milwaukee that was transformed into a large stainless steel cheese cave.

They've had a couple of gift box requests "come down to the wire," in past years, which required "all hands on deck," to get orders filled.

"It takes a special group effort to get it done," said Kim. "We push really hard in these last couple of months."

But they know when they hit the sales drop off in the beginning of the year - once the time of holiday indulgence is over, football season is done and people are hitting gyms to work at New Year's resolutions - the Koepkes will have more time with family. 

Farming survival

Why is a fifth generation dairy farm family packing cheese holiday boxes? As the LaBelle website says, "in a word, survival."

Their "insanity," as John jokingly calls the endeavor, began in about 2010, with an idea they had been kicking around for a few years. Being dairy farmers in Oconomowoc, soccer fields give way to farm fields. Living in Waukesha County where there used to be 60,000 dairy cows and now is home to more than 380,000 people, "doesn't always go hand in hand with operating a farm," John explained. 

"If we were going to have a future here, we needed to look at expanding our business upward as well as outward," said John. "That's why we started with the cheese production."

John and Kim worked with Clock Shadow Creamery in Milwaukee where about 2 to 3 percent of the milk from their 350 head of Holsteins, is shipped a couple of times a month to the creamery to be custom made into LaBelle cheese, named after Lac La Belle Lake, which lies a few minutes south of the farm. 

"It's a very small portion of our business, but it's one we are proud of," explained John. "It's a product out there with your name on it. You want it to be the best it can be."

The cheese is made with only Koepke Farms milk, shipped in small amounts and segregated, which adds to the cost of production, but also adds value to the cheese. 

"It's identified as only a one herd milk source and that's us," Kim pointed out. 

Clock Shadow Creamery worked with Koepkes to "create a flavor for LaBelle that is at once familiar and slightly unexpected," with "a texture that is pleasant at room temperature and delightfully smooth when melted," according to the LaBelle cheese website

Koepkes worked with Master Cheesemaker Bob Wills to create a cheese that reflects the quality of the Koepkes' milk and upholds the concept of a "Wisconsin Original." 

Winning the 2011 Leopold Conservation Award and 2011 World Dairy Expo Dairymen of the Year Award, John said, "We try very hard to be the best we can be. Hopefully that shows in the cheese product too." 

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The cheesemakers show the same dedication to quality and the Koepkes' goal of making sure the cows are cared for well.

"Any time the cows are well cared for, you're going to see the results in high quality milk products, that will also hopefully be reflected in the flavor and quality of the cheese," said Kim. 

Wedges of LaBelle cheese are ready for purchase. LaBelle cheese is sold at farmers markets and about 50 stores in southeastern Wisconsin.

After the cheese is open cured at the creamery for up to two weeks, it heads back to the Koepke farm where it is stored in a walk-in cooler and aged. 

Marketing lessons

The venture has taken John and Kim out of their comfort zones at times, as they learned about cheesemaking and marketing. In the process, they've developed a strong local following at area farmers markets. 

"Certain people have been very committed and that's really pretty cool," John said. "Maybe that's as much a role of the product as it is adding income. It's about establishing local connections."

John hopes LaBelle cheese will help consumers draw a connection between community and farmers, creating understanding of the "big silver trucks" that leave the farm, helping people realize that farmers "aren't just somebody making noise and dust and smells." 

"It's a brand relationship building with our community," said Kim. "We would like to build that type of personal relationship with our friends and neighbors and community members about the farming existence and why we are here."

The farmers market provides an avenue where people can try the product and get their questions answered about what's happening at the farm. 

"That level of transparency is a good way to build some confidence in the public about what we are trying to accomplish at the farm," Kim added. 

While farmers need to listen to and understand what consumers want also, John hopes Koepke Farms and LaBelle Cheese will help get the message out to the public regarding what farmers do and why they do what they do.

A wheel of LaBelle hickory smoked cheese with bacon is ready for sale at Koepke Family Farms in Oconomowoc.

For Koepkes, "just about everything we do comes down to, it's the best way we see fit to either take care of our cattle or our land," said John. 

"It's about taking care of our resources, whether that's our livestock or our farm land or consequently the water and air that surrounds us," John said. "Those are all important things to us. We live here. We try hard to take care of things. Hopefully that message spills over into our marketing message."

The amount of LaBelle cheese made each year varies depending on how sales are going.

"That's one of the challenges that maybe we didn't see when we started," John explained. "It's easy to get people to try something new. It's more difficult for the product to stay a regular part of their diet."

People are always interested in trying something new, which adds to research and development costs when coming up with different varieties of cheese. 

Even with the interest in new varieties of LaBelle Cheese, consistency is key with consumers, Kim pointed out. 

"They want to know that when they are buying a product, like your flagship (original cheese), they want to know that when they taste it, it's going to be pretty much the same as they remember," Kim said. " That's sometimes a challenge with the small batch process. There are nuances that may change a bit."

Throughout their cheesemaking endeavor, John and Kim have stepped out of their reserved comfort zone in dealing with the public and developed more respect for the traditional food industry and the challenges of balancing everything - marketing, surpluses, shortcomings.

"That's a lot bigger challenge than it looks," said John. 

Elmo Wendorf milks cows at Koepke Family Farms in Oconomowoc. Elmo is a critical part of marketing the cheese in area stores that carry LaBelle Cheese.

That's where Elmo Wendorf comes in, making person to person connections outside of the farmers markets. 

While Elmo has milked cows for 53 years, he defies the quiet, introverted description befitting many farmers, visiting about 40 of the nearly 50 stores that carry LaBelle cheese to do demonstrations and taste testings. 

Elmo visits stores three day a week, in the summer, four times a week, to promote LaBelle Cheese. He sets up a display and "basically educates people about farms and cows and products." 

"They don't believe I milk cows, but they buy it because they support local," said Elmo. "I've always been good at engaging with people. It always amazes me how little people know about agriculture."

Elmo knows the logistics of retail cheese sales where two-thirds of the sales occur between 4 and 6 p.m. when people are coming home from work hungry. He keeps pushing store demos because "it's the best type of advertising you can get," and stores know he is reliable and will help sell the product. 

His favorite opportunities come when a mom walks into the store with a few young children.

"I will encourage them to try cheese and if they like it they will buy it because mom is happy they liked the cheese," Elmo said. 

Creating a new, original cheese in a state known for cheese may seem daunting, but it's helped the Koepke family gain more revenue from every gallon of milk produced. It's allowed the family farm to remain a small, family farm in a suburban county while tending to their cows and land the way they think is right.