Pandemic brings about change to agri-businesses

Gloria Hafemeister
Tony Zgraggen's Alp and Dell artisanal cheese store is one of the few places that sells Limburger cheese.

Many farms and cheese plants have diversified their businesses by delving into the agri-tourism sector by bringing consumers right to their businesses for tours and products.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought about changes for these businesses including store closures, discontinuing public tours, and other restrictions. Now some of the restrictions have been eased a bit and businesses have had an opportunity to make some changes in order to re-open while addressing the health-care concerns of their customers. 

Patty Koenig of Carr Valley Cheese says, “We did close our stores for much of March, April and then opened them up again in mid-May. We aren’t doing tours or offering samples. All staff are wearing face masks and we have a strict COVID policy for staff with temperature taking and cleaning directives.” 

The company has definitely seen an impact on the number of visitors to their stores, but they are optimistic about the future.

Tony Zgraggen of Alp and Dell Cheese store in Monroe says, “The store is open but customers are limited to 12 at a time – they have been courteous and understanding.”

Dairy industry advocates, Esther and Tony Zgraggen, center, chat with Trisha Pernot, left, chairman of the 2019 Alice in Dairyland finals in Green County and Kaitlyn Riley, 2018 Alice in Dairyland.

Alp and Dell Cheese is open 7 days a week but did shorten the hours a bit because customers have been mostly local. As more tourists return to the area they will likely extend their hours again.

He says that as a common practice they sanitize a lot, noting that the local ethanol plant has been making sanitizer and donating it to the cheese plant and store.

Zgraggen and his wife Esther immigrated in the 1980’s to the United States from Switzerland. At that time they had a dairy farm and for five years took cheese to the farmers market in Madison. After being absent from the dairy industry for several years, they found the way back to the “cheese” with the purchase of the Alp and Dell Cheese Store in April 2009.

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Alp and Dell offers 150 different cheeses from 15 different cheese companies including their own. Tony says, “We were affected very much in the very beginning. March we were down 40% in sales and April 42% down compared with sales last year. May came back and we were down about 30%.

"We are open for customers to come in but we are not offering samples or tours as we always did in the past. People can call and we will get their orders ready and take them out to their car. They can also order on line and pick up at our store. We also continue to ship cheese as we always did,” Zgraggen added.

The most recent cancellation that will affect their business was the cancellation of the very popular Monroe Cheese Days later this summer.

While the traditional June Dairy Month promotions have changed with the cancellation of most farm tours Zgraggen continues to promote and talk about cheese on a weekly radio talk show.

Customers order lunch at the café inside the retail shop at LaClare Family Creamery in Fond du Lac County. The area was reopened to the public on May 22 with social distancing guidelines and upgraded sanitary standards.

Marji Lechner, supply chain manager for LaClare Family Creamery in Fond du lac County, says tours and samples have not been offered since the initial “safer at home” order was initiated.

“We are resuming normal operations with additional safeguards in place. We have implemented a vigorous team member self-screening process as well s scaled up sanitizing in our retail and production areas," Lechner said. "We continue to assess the best recommendations from numerous sources, including the CDC, in order to ensure a ‘flexible’ response to the coronavirus.”

Lechner says they closed the retail store from March 19 and reopened the store (not the café) on May 1. The café re-opened May 22 with social distancing (6-feet between tables), hand sanitizer, additional cleaning and disinfecting, and monitoring occupancy rates.

“It has impacted the number of visitors, however, we are seeing things pick up,” she says. “We are grateful to the farmers, truck drivers and grocery workers who continue to work hard to keep the supply chain going from field to fork.”

Lechner says she is optimistic about the dairy industry and consumer’s appreciation for Wisconsin dairy.

“We hope our fellow Wisconsinites will do their part in supporting the dairy industry by maybe picking up an extra gallon of milk, a wedge of cheese, a scoop of ice cream.  Whether farmers work with cows or goats buying their products is a great way to support your neighbors and home towns,” she said.

Sassy Cow Creamery of Columbus is again open during normal hours of operation. The Farmhouse Kitchen Cafe is open for dine-in or carry out.

Due to the many hardships families faced during the COVID 19 pandemic, Sassy Cow opened a “kindness cooler” to help people suddenly struggling to make ends meet. The cooler was outside the store and was filled with milk and other dairy products - free for people to take as needed.

They say things have returned pretty much to normal again with the exception of their own practices within the business. In light of continued concerns about COVID-19 they are frequently cleaning and sanitizing anything customers can touch and staff continues to wear face masks.

Farm Tours are available again on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Reservations are required and must be booked in advance online.

Due to the many hardships families faced during the COVID 19 pandemic, Sassy Cow opened a “kindness cooler” to help people suddenly struggling to make ends meet. The cooler was outside the store and was filled with milk and other dairy products - free for people to take as needed.

That cooler was greatly appreciated by the local community and also drew attention to the fact that the Baerwolf family that are owners of the creamery and dairy farms that provide the milk for it care about their community.

When the cooler was established outside co-owner James Baerwolf said, “It's all about taking care of people in the community. We just make sure it's full. It's not a matter of who's in need or how much they need.”

While the cooler is no longer outside the store the family continues to donate to the local food pantries so those in need are able to have access to real dairy products.

Sassy Cow Creamery is a farmstead dairy owned and operated by James and Robert Baerwolf and their families. On the family farm they pride themselves in bottling milk, making award-winning premium ice cream and grilled cheese sandwiches. A diversified farm, they are unique in that they offer both organic and traditional milk, over 50 flavors of ice cream and other menu options from the Farmhouse Kitchen Cafe.

Gouda at Thorp is the home of Farmstead, Artisan, Raw Milk, Authentic Dutch Gouda made from the Penterman family’s own cows’ milk.  The cheese store and café is located right on the farm so customers can easily tour the barn while buying their favorite cheeses.

Acclaimed gouda cheesemaker Marieke Penterman, left, of Thorp says it was a struggle financially during the early weeks of the pandemic but things are starting to pick up again.

Things were a struggle for a while but are beginning to pick up again.

Tour season is starting up again at the Penterman Farm. On June 8 they started offering tours again at 9 am and 1 pm Monday through Saturday.

“We are very excited, but continue to take health concerns seriously,” says Kim Rabach, who works with public relations at the plant.

She says, “Sales in April and May were down considerably and somewhat in March, too. Things are picking up some but with the cancellation of so many festivals, music in the park, and local activities in Thorp we also have fewer people coming into our business.”

“Our café closed through the end of May but our store remained open throughout the whole thing. We maintained strict sanitary practices on a daily basis but we have always done that," Rabach said. "The food industry in America is the safest in the world. I think because of all of this more people are beginning to realize that.”

She notes, “We are grateful to our dedicated staff and for the help we received from the PPP for our payroll.”

The company actually added one staff person in the shipping department with the increase of on-line sales. They have always shipped out product but the pandemic has brought about increased interest in on-line shopping.

It has been business as usual for Kelley’s Country Creamery at Fond du Lac but with some changes.

Customers sit out on the porch at Kelley's Creamery where they enjoy ice cream made with the milk of the family's herd of cows just across the field. Since opening this spring, the family only offers outside service and carryouts.

Karen Kelley says, “We opened as planned this spring but we have only outside service. We have actually seen an increase of business as people are eager to get out.”

The family needed to make some changes inside their ice cream shop and eating area to accommodate the service at the window. They also needed to rearrange things a bit on their outside patio eating area but people still seem to enjoy it, she says.

Karen and Tim Kelley, and their five children – Amie, Betsy, Heidi, Molly and Clark – operate this 200-acre farmstead dairy and tend the 65 Holsteins that provide the Grade A milk for their Creamery. The farm is located on Kelley Road, a country road near Fond du Lac that has been the location for 39 Kelley families who have lived in this Irish community during the past 150 years.

With the warmer weather more customers are coming to enjoy ice cream while watching the cows from the Kelley’s farm graze nearby.

Customers miss coming inside to view the ice-cream making but they still have the opportunity to choose from the wide variety of flavors featured there. They can still order ice cream and cakes for carry out for special occasions. 

Even with changes due to the pandemic, the Kelley family is still planting a 1.6 acre parcel near the ice cream store with sunflowers. Last year they raised over $20,000 in sales of the flowers for the Honor Flight for veterans.

“Even with these changes we are still planting our 1.6 acre Honor Flight field of sunflowers," Kelley said. "We are grateful to our veterans and hope that the Honor Flight will be able to resume soon.”

In 2019 the family raised over $20,000 for the Honor Flight with their sunflower patch near the ice cream store.