Cheesemaking is a family affair at Hill Valley Dairy
Growing up on a dairy farm near East Troy, Wis., Ron Henningfeld loved working alongside his family members, caring for the animals and farmland.
"I grew an appreciation of the entrepreneurial side of business by watching my parents, Roman and Carol, work hard on the farm every day," Henningfeld says. His grandparents, Roman and Marian founded Romari Farms in 1942, and the dairy farm is currently owned and operated by Frank and Colleen Henningfeld, Ron's older brother and sister-in-law.
The idea for Hill Valley Dairy, named after a nearby crossroad of the farm property, was born out of Henningfeld's affinity towards the family farm and wanting to find a way to stay involved at some level. Today Ron makes a variety of artisan cheeses with Romari Farms fresh milk. He remains passionate about making quality cheese using quality milk and connecting local people to local food products.
While an ag education and biology student at UW-Madison, Henningfeld became curious about cheesemaking and started experimenting on his stove-top at home. Upon graduating in 2007, he taught agriculture at Delavan/Darien High School. In 2009, he chose to actively pursue his interest in the craft of cheesemaking with an apprenticeship at Babcock Hall's dairy facility at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
From there, Henningfeld accepted a job at Uplands Cheese Inc. in Dodgeville before becoming a manager at Clock Shadow Creamery in Milwaukee, which he helped open in 2012. In July 2016, Henningfeld and his wife Josie took the first steps to launching their own business, Hill Valley Dairy, making and selling their own cheese to local markets in East Troy and Burlington.
Henningfeld made an arrangement with Clock Shadow Creamery to create small batches of his own cheese, and continues to do so today under the Hill Valley Dairy label. Every Sunday, a milk truck from Clock Shadow Creamery arrives at Romari Farms to pick up fresh milk and haul it back to the creamery where Ron makes cheese every Monday.
What started as an amateur interest quickly blossomed into a potential career that would allow Henningfeld to produce something that's strongly connected to his family’s farm.
According to Henningfeld, he makes about 500 pounds of cheese every week, as well as performing all of the cutting, packaging and labeling. Hill Valley Dairy specializes in cheese curds, gouda, cheddar and flavored cheddars.
"Cheese curds have to be sold the same week they are made," Henningfeld explains, "but we have a cheese aging facility at the farm I use to age the cheddars and goudas." He says that cheddar typically needs to age from one month to approximately three years for longer-aged cheddars. Gouda cheeses require a 9- to 18-month aging process.
Henningfeld says he develops Hill Valley's cheese flavors to be flavorful and fun; from the ‘squeaky’ cheese curd, to the whiskey gouda. Ron says his favorite cheese of the Hill Valley Dairy products is "Luna," a cross between an alpine-style cheese and a gouda. "I always wanted to make a cheese that tastes like the moon, and "Luna" is a result of that goal and vision."
In fact, Henningfeld says that "Luna" recently won third place in an open class at the World Champion Cheese Competition.
The Retail Store
Due to increasing popularity and demand for their products, the Henningfelds recently opened a retail store in Lake Geneva, located at 510 Broad St., in order to expand their business. "My wife, Josie, and I had been talking about opening a storefront for quite some time." Henningfeld says. "We have built a strong customer base by selling at farmers markets and to local businesses, so we thought it would be a great opportunity to have a permanent location where customers can find us and also introduce our products to new customers."
The Henningfeld's kept their eyes open for a location and were thrilled to find one in such a great spot, within walking distance to the lake. Also, 'the timing worked out great as we were eligible to apply for a Main Street Bounceback grant," Henningfeld adds.
The Main Street Bounceback program provides grants to approved businesses opening locations in vacant commercial spaces. Grants were designed to assist with costs associated with leases, mortgages, operational expenses and other business costs related to a newly-opened location. The Wisconsin Economic Development Consortium (WEDC) administers grants across the state of Wisconsin
Grants to businesses provide immediate recovery funding from the American Recovery Plan Act (ARPA) and lead to improved odds of a business opening or expanding and remaining open long-term.
“We were were eligible to apply because we opened up the cheese shop during the window of time they were supporting businesses due to the pandemic,” Henningfeld says. “We received the grant in the summer of 2021 and utilized funds to renovate the space, pay rent and also hire staff and pay wages. The grant helped us tremendously as a small business."
Since its February launch, Henningfeld says the Hill Valley Dairy retail store has received a very enthusiastic welcome from Lake Geneva community residents and visitors.
Therefore, the Henningfeld's made the decision to expand the retail space into an adjacent storefront at 512 Broad St., which will house a cheese-tasting bar expected to open in a few weeks.
“This will provide extra space and seating where people can enjoy cheese onsite in a relaxing atmosphere. Customers will be able to purchase a variety of menu items including a cheese flight or cheese-tasting board,” he says. “We also have received a permit so customers can order a glass of wine or beer with their cheese or charcuterie."
As part of the ongoing June Dairy Month celebration tour, Gov. Tony Evers visited Hill Valley Dairy's cheese shop on June 2 to see the production and design renovations utilized with Main Street Bounceback grant funds.
"Supporting fledgling small business entrepreneurs like Hill Valley Dairy through initiatives like the Main Street Bounceback Grant Program is an important economic development tool for Wisconsin," says Evers. "The MainStreetBounceback Grant Program has provided more than 4,500 small businesses and nonprofits across all 72 Wisconsin counties $10,000 grants to help them move or expand into vacant commercial spaces."
In addition to its retail store, Henningfeld says Hill Valley Dairy sells its small-batch artisan cheeses through area retailers, specialty shops and grocery stores across southeastern Wisconsin, as well as some in Madison and Milwaukee. They also continue to sell their products at farmers markets and a variety of area restaurants. You can also purchase cheese on their website at www.hillvalleydairy.com.
In true family style, the Henningfeld's say that their daughters Rayla and Leni love helping out when they can, offering samples at the shop, helping out at the farmers markets and even assisting in labeling the cheeses.
"We've been extremely fortunate to build great relationships with our customers and community members. Our family looks forward to offering quality cheese products for many years to come."