Wisconsin brothers use farm to make cheese

Christina Lieffring
The Journal Times
Ron, left, and Frank Henningfeld stand outside the barn at Romari Farm in rural East Troy. Ron uses some of Frank's milk for his cheesemaking company, Hill Valley Dairy.

ELKHORN (AP) — The local food movement emphasizes knowing where food comes from, which is not a problem for Ron Henningfeld, owner of Lake Geneva-based Hill Valley Dairy.

After tasting some of his cheese curds at the Burlington Farmer's Market, which takes place every Thursday from 3 to 7 p.m. through October, if you drive up to Romari Farms in rural East Troy, you'll pass Hill Valley Drive, which the dairy is named after.

That's because Ron grew up on that farm and now his brother, Frank, is the third generation to farm the land and milk the cows. And since last fall, Ron has used their milk to make his cheese.

Ron and Frank's grandparents bought the 240-acre farm in 1942, The Journal Times reported. In those days, most farms had a little bit of everything and Romari Farms was no different. When the farm, located more than 5 miles west of Waterford, was run by their parents, they raised dairy, beef, pork, chicken and horses.

As the oldest (Frank) and the youngest (Ron), the two book-ends to the seven children their parents raised with 10 years in between them. Frank studied agriculture at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville then worked for a few years on another farm.

"Then I decided this was a place that I'd really like to work at for myself instead of for the place I was at. So I came back here," Frank said.

When Frank decided he wanted to work the family farm and someday take over, Ron was just graduating from high school. He received a college degree in education and taught for a few years but kept coming back to help out in the summer.

Cows pasture at Romari Farm in rural East Troy, west of Waterford. If you've eaten cheese from Lake Geneva's Hill Valley Dairy recently, odds are the milk came from one of them.

And it was during a visit home that he found cheesemaking. He'd bought a cheesemaking kit and thought it'd be a fun thing to try.

"In our mom's kitchen on her stovetop with some milk from the farm," said Ron. "(It was) for family enjoyment, just to see what would happen ... It fueled my curiosity."

From there he took a cheesemaking class, got an apprenticeship and then worked as a cheesemaker for eight years. Last year, he took the leap and started his own company, Hill Valley Dairy, based in Lake Geneva.

Since Frank took over its operations, the farm has become primarily focused on dairy and beef. What corn, soybeans and alfalfa they raise goes into the cows.

"Everything that leaves the farm is either meat or milk," said Frank.

He estimated they have about 175 cows at any given time with 68 milking cows they milk twice a day. A dairy operation that size is almost an anachronism in modern day farming.

In addition to farms getting bigger but fewer and far between, the same is happening with processors — Frank's milk is collected and shipped out to Richland Center, northwest of Madison.

"There used to be small creameries dotting the countryside all over the place," said Frank. "(His milk) is on a truck for two hours before it gets unloaded."

"When we were growing up here milk used to go to Waukesha," said Ron. "There used to be a processing plant right there."

Since fall of last year, Ron has used one day's worth of Frank's milk — about 4,500 pounds — per week for his cheese operation. He said his business has seen steady growth and as he grows he hopes to use more of Frank's milk. He hopes that can help provide some stability for his brother in a volatile dairy market.

"The farm and cheese business will continue to work together," said Ron. "If we can continue to stabilize and support each other more, that's one of the goals."

Frank said at this point selling to his brother isn't affecting his bottom line one way or another, but he's happy to help.

"I'm just happy to know he's making headway with his cheese business and I'll be a supplier for it because he knows where the milk comes from," said Frank.

Ron said having a story behind the cheese and direct connection to the farm is one of the selling points for using his brother's milk.

"The other selling point is that because I get good milk, I can make good cheese," he said.