Goat tower, greenhouse take LaClare to new heights
PIPE, Wis. – On a sunny Saturday afternoon at LaClare Family Creamery, a crowd gathers to watch a pair of dairy goats deftly navigate a spiral walkway encircling a 26-foot tall wooden silo. As the duo finishes their lofty trek, a cheer breaks out below celebrating their feat.
Taking in the excitement is dairyman Jim Ostrom, a partner in the premier goat cheese operation located outside the small outpost of Pipe, Wis., nestled along the east shore of Lake Winnebago known as the Goat Capitol of the U.S.
Ostrom is especially fond of the 110-year-old silo which he helped transport – in pieces – from his mother's Watertown farm where it has stood for a century, protected inside the barn. The iconic structure was then reconstructed from it's original tongue and groove stave timbers fashioned out of Douglas fir harvested over a century ago from the forests out West.
The silo is the centerpiece of the latest visitor's experience at the creamery, coming on the heels of a $10 million expansion between the Hedrich family and Kaukauna-based Milk Source.
"We asked, what can we do to extend our agricultural heritage and to show more people about agriculture? We decided to build a very small visitor experience and it kind of grew," Ostrom said with a smile.
Upon arrival, visitors are immediately drawn to the goat climbing silo which sits in a courtyard flanked by garden center featuring historical, antique industrial displays, greenhouse filled with hanging baskets, planters, bedding and vegetable plants, and animal displays along a crushed granite walking path.
"It's a little out of the ordinary but it's going to be both family friendly and budget friendly," Ostrom pointed out.
Near a large metal barn cupola sits the Chevre Shack where guests are invited to purchase award-winning cheeses including the soft, spreadable goat cheese.
Ostrom was adamant about creating a comfortable, family-centered atmosphere where guests of all ages could take in the sights, shop or wander inside to the cafe’, grab a sandwich and then find a bench or table under a rustic pergola outside and relax - enjoying good food and more.
"It's a whole new way for our visitors to meet our goats," Ostrom said. "And if someone decides to visit for several hours, we'd be happy as we want people to truly enjoy this experience."
The grand opening is set for Friday, April 30. The garden center will be open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and the Cafe and Cheese Shoppe from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Retail Manager Jessi Schoofs says that while the priority at LaClare has always been the cheese experience, she says the new outdoors addition is just an extension of what they already do. The creamery, located just south of the Calumet-Fond du Lac County borderline, already hosts craft classes as well as a series that allows visitors to meet and interact with local business owners and sample their products.
And it's not uncommon to see guests of all ages mingling with goats during yoga or craft time.
"The pandemic definitely made us think a little bit more outside the box than we did. As a result, we kicked up the events to really utilize our grounds," Schoofs said.
Events are already planned for the new outdoor facilities including special craft time on Mother's Day. Schoofs said kids can immerse themselves creating rainboot garden planters for mom while she's busy browsing out in the greenhouse or garden center. Families can also shop for mom picking out a "Box of Love" - wooden crates filled with an assortment of specialty gifts from bedding plants to wine or even gardening accessories - available at a range of price points.
Plant manager Greg Hedrich says the family business has come a long way since it was established in 1978 by his parents Larry and Clara Hedrich. Today the creamery which has more than doubled its operational footprint with the recent 28,000-square-foot addition works exclusively with a number of northeast Wisconsin family-owned goat farms that produce milk that is the hallmark of the clean tasting goat cheese product.
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"“We always knew that goat products, especially the cheeses, would catch on,” said Hedrich, “But none of us could have imagined how quickly northeast Wisconsin would become the country’s goat milking capital. We’re excited to be on the vanguard of that trend.”
What's growing as fast as the business is the passion for goats and their products.
"People really didn't think much about goats before but now they're excited about just trying different kinds of cheeses or dishes that they've seen on cooking channels," Hedrich said. "With the pandemic the retail sales of cheese just exploded. Life literally took a pause for a minute and people tried new things and explored different recipes while cooking at home."
From the beginning, the creamery has been committed to educating the public about their goats and the foods that they produce. The large area that houses the Chevre cheese production features a visitor center filled with interpretive displays along with observation windows that provide guests with an up-close look at every step of the production.
"From farm to fork, every step of the process is transparent. And the edge that we have on our competitors is what's inside the product. Our secret ingredient is the freshness of milk, what we feed the goats, how we care for the goats, presentation of products in the marketplace," Hedrich said. "Just look around. Everything we do has been done intentionally to look a certain way, because that's how we do things."
While the pandemic forced the cancellation of many events last year including June Dairy Month celebrations, LaClare Family Creamery is once again on the calendar to host the 2021 Envision Greater Fond du Lac Area Agri-Business Council for Breakfast on the Farm from 8 a.m. to noon Sunday, June 27. The year hiatus has allowed for the outdoor experience to come to fruition just in time for the event.
"Most Breakfast on the Farm events have largely been held at dairy farms here in northeast Wisconsin, and to have something unique that most people have never experienced will be a thrill for a lot of folks," said Ostrom, who estimates a large turnout of several thousand.
And for Ostrom, Hedrich and Schoofs, it all comes down to sharing the passion and story of agriculture with the public.
"We all know that farmers of my grandparent's era were a large part of agriculture when it was a large part of society. Now it's so small, with about 2% of us involved in agriculture," Ostrom said. "So, we have to tell our story. And for us, all of this is part of telling that story.