Diversity and sustainability pave way into the future for Crave brothers

Colleen Kottke
Wisconsin State Farmer

This is the final part in a three-part series "Farming into the Future" that explores the opportunities for farmers to be successful in this industry despite the economic challenges

.About 18 years ago, George Crave and his brothers, Charlie, Mark and George wondered how they would take their farming operation into the future.

Cheesemaker George Crave holds ciliegine (cherry-sized balls) of fresh mozzarella, the signature cheese produced at the family's on-site cheese plant, Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese.

Call it a mid-career evaluation of the farming operation, but George didn't like the prospect of just milking cows for the next 20 years.

"We knew we were at the point where we had to grow the business in order to support more families," Crave said. "Instead of just milking cows and farming more land, we decided to take the business in a totally different direction, and that was to build our own cheese factory on the farm."

Back in 1978, George and brother, Charlie Crave, started milking a herd of 57 cows on a rented farm near Mount Horeb. Two years later, the brothers bought farmland in the rural Waterloo area in southwest Dodge County and began to grow the family business. Brothers Tom and Mark, came on board in 1981 and 1988, respectively.

A new direction

Crave says the plan was to first concentrate on establishing the cheese plant.

"Our initial goal at the time was to use 80 percent of our milk from our herd of 400 cows to make cheese," Crave said.

Along with wife, Debbie, who at the time worked for the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board (now known as Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin), began the process of developing the cheese business, meeting potential marketers and exploring contacts to help narrow their focus on a niche product that would take its place among the growing market of handcraftedartisan cheeses.

In the end, the Craves decided to produce European style cheese such as les frere and fresh, soft mozzarella in multiple shapes and sizes. Crave says he then stepped away from the farm to give his full attention to learning the ropes in crafting a signature cheese for the family's on-farm cheese business.

Crave Brothers Farmstead's fresh mozzarella  has garnered many awards in state and national competition.

"Gaining experience, understanding how to make the cheese, and honing those skills was challenging," Crave admitted. "Now it's second nature, like anything you do for awhile."

Crave credits the Center for Dairy Research at UW-Madison for assisting him in reaching his goal. The center provides educational programs and short courses to cheese makers and provide them with experience in working with several varieties of cheese. 

The center also helps in product development and research, so that cheese makers can take a product to market successfully.

"We got to know a lot of cheese makers that were willing to lend us some advice and help us out," said Crave who is one of several licensed cheesemakers at the family-owned business

Crave also holds a milk handler license as he buys milk directly from the family farm..

Added value

As the cheese plant came online, it began adding value to the family's milk production. Each day, the plant produces 10,000 pounds of cheese, using about 155,000 pounds of milk.

The cheese plant runs Monday through Friday, producing around 20,000 packages of cheese each day. In addition to retail sales, Crave says they also serve food service customers.

According to the family, all of the artisanal Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheeses are sustainably produced in a facility that practices water conservation, recycling and uses 100 percent green power.

As the cheese plant's customer base began to grow, it was time to expand and modernize the 2500-acre farm. That business move included expanding herd numbers up to 2200 cows, building three calf barns and constructing a biodigester that produces enough electricity to power the Crave Brothers Farm, the farmstead cheese-making plant, and over 300 homes in their community.

Young heifer calves will someday produce milk that will be make into cheese on the family's on-site cheese plant. The Crave brothers build three new calf barns recently.

The digester also adds value to the farm by separating the fiber solids, and putting the dried material back into bedding for the cows. The cows also benefit nutritionally from the cheese plant. While whey protein concentrate from the cheese-making process is sold offsite, a separate pipeline from the plant returns whey water to the farm where it is mixed into the feed for the cattle—keeping the profits on the farm.

"I like to tell people that farmers are the original recyclers," Crave said.

Diversification pays off

The Craves admit that milk prices were more robust when they began their venture into the cheese-making business and subsequent farm expansion. Crave says the business decision made nearly 18 years ago to diversify the farm has helped both operations to remain viable.

"The original strategy was this: We have two mail boxes out on the road—one for the farm and the other for the cheese plant. Our goal was to have one of those addresses serving as a positive cash flow and a positive business," he said. "When milk prices are good, the farm can stand on its own. When the milk prices aren't so good, the cheese plant stands on its own. The improvements are certainly paying off during this downturn."

George and Debbie Crave attend the Fancy Food Show each summer in New York city to meet with current buyers and distributors. The Craves have also earned honors in prestigious cheese circles, sweeping the mozzarella class at the U.S. Cheese Championship in 2017.

Today the family-owned and operated cheese plant produces produces prize-winning cheeses such as  fresh mozzarella, mascarpone, part-skim mozzarella, Oaxaca, farmer’s rope string cheese, and fresh cheddar cheese curds that are distributed from coast to coast.

"You can find our cheese in stores and restaurants all across the country," Crave said of the Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese brand. "This is something that we're really proud of."

Crave says that many farms have tried to break into the cheese-making business with mixed results. In order to be successful, Crave says the venture involves a lot of research and asking the hard questions.

"I know a lot of people have looked into this and there's a lot of value-added grants out there, but this isn't for the weak of heart, I'll tell you that," he said. "It's a very different level of professionalism when you start dealing with customers and consumers and regulations that keep increasing."

Today the four brothers each manage a division on the family operation. On the dairy farm, Charlie handles the bookkeeping and feeding while Tom oversees crop production and maintenance. Mark Crave serves as the farm's herd manager/personnel. Charlie's sons, Andy and Jordan, along with George's son, Patrick, have also come on board as partners. Across the road, George and Debbie, manage the cheese factory, with help from their son, Brian, and niece, Beth.

Patrick Crave exhibits Sun Made Crave DRM Diane at the World Dairy this fall. Patrick, along with his cousins, Andy and Jordan are now partners in the Crave Brothers Farm.

According to the family's website, the number of employees has grown from four to nearly 80—35 employees on the farm and 40 at the cheese factory.

"Debbie and I talk about retirement and I think it's on the horizon, but it isn't on the horizon yet for me," Crave said.