Marketing cheese from their milk keeps this Hustisford family farm competitive

Gloria Hafemeister

HUSTISFORD - Consumers these days want to know where their food comes from.  When they buy particular varieties of Prairie Pure Cheese they know exactly where it comes from: Hildebrandt Family Farms at Hustisford.

The Hildebrandt family and their nutritionist Brian Gerloff (left) are part of a venture creating cheese from the milk produced on the Hildebrandt farm at Hustisford.  Cheese is made by artisans in four different southern Wisconsin cheese plants and direct marketed at farmers markets and to restaurants in the Chicago area and southern Wisconsin.  From left, Gerloff, Jared Hildebrandt, Al Hildebrandt, Roger Hildebrandt, Ty Hildebrandt and Brett Hildebrandt

It’s one way the Hilderbrandt family is able to support several families that are involved in the 90-cow dairy that is now in its third generation who are actively involved in the farm full-time.

The family milks their registered Holstein dairy cows in a stall barn, and animals enjoy a lush green exercise lot where they can move around freely and get plenty of sunshine, something consumers driving past the farm like to see.

Besides visiting with customers, the Hildebrandts provided that assurance by becoming certified through the American Humane Association. To become certified, the family provides written protocols for every aspect of animal care and goes through third-party intensive inspections and checklists on an annual basis.

Parents and grandparents of the current owners, Gene and Millie Hildebrandt, developed their herd of registered Milgene Holsteins in 1960. The farm is now owned by their sons, Alvin and his wife Karen and their son Jared; Roger and Fay and their two sons, Ty and Brett.

The family also grows over 1200 acres of corn, soybeans, alfalfa, winter wheat and oats.

“Farming is an exciting lifestyle,” Roger says. “Busy days with long hours of commitment but a very rewarding experience. Remember, it is not a sprint but a marathon…if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.”

Cheese venture

They got started in the cheese business by investing in a small cheese company based in Belvidere, Illinois.

Prairie Pure Cheese was started in 2004 by the Hildebrandt family’s nutritionist, Brian Gerloff, who sought out some dairy farmers looking to add value to the milk they produced.

Gerloff says, “We weren’t interested in building a plant because that’s a huge investment.”

Instead, they sought cheese plants in southern Wisconsin that would be willing to make cheese on contract.

The cheese venture was popular in the Chicago market but the Illinois producers discontinued providing milk for the cheese due to objections from the plant where they sold the rest of their milk.

That’s when the Hildebrandt family got involved. Foremost Farms, where they ship their milk, did not object to the family redirecting a portion of their milk into Prairie Pure Cheese.

The Hildebrandt’s now send about a truckload of milk a week to the cheese plants where it is processed and labeled under Prairie Pure Cheese. Milk is picked up late at night and arrives early in the morning at the plants where it is immediately processe

The freshness of the milk contributes to the good taste of the cheeses.

Milk from the Hildebrandt farm now goes to several locations, depending on the type of cheese that will be made. Plants are located in Monticello, Monroe, Auburndale and Plain. They produce Butterkase, White, Cheddar, Swiss, Fetta, Blue and Gouda.

Butterkase is the most popular, being a creamy, brick-style cheese that is great for snacking, melting on sandwiches and burgers, or for cooking.

Alvin, who sells the cheese at farmers markets, says “Our milk is the only milk that goes into these cheeses so the consumer knows exactly which farm the milk is produced at.  Consumers like that.”

He admits he was a little worried about how much cheese he might be able to sell at farmers markets but he was pleasantly surprised to know how popular it is. Customers try the samples he brings with him and take some home to try it. The next week they are back for more.

He has also had interest among upscale restaurant owners who want the unique tasting varieties.

In the Chicago area, one restaurant uses it for their popular Gayle’s Best Ever Grilled Cheese that earned that restaurant the honor of being voted as having one of the top grilled cheese sandwiches in America earlier this year by the New York Post.

The right feed is key

Gerloff had his own veterinarian practice in Illinois for 25 years before he decided to direct his time toward nutrition work.  As a nutritionist he understands the importance of the right feed balance in making good components in milk and it is those components that contribute to the good taste of cheese.

The cows on the Hildebrandt farm are housed inside during the winter, going outside just for a little exercise. In summer, they get their balanced ration of feed during the time they are in for milking and then they go out into the pastures near the barn to eat some grass during the day.

Ty points out, “The grass is a part of their ration but most of it is in their TMR. They do get exercise and sunshine outside, though.”

All of the family members are involved in the care of the herd. They also care for about 100 heifers and 100 steers and market the genetics from their herd.

During the busy planting and harvest seasons the family puts in some pretty long hours, sometimes pulling all-nighters to get the work done. Other times the family finds time to be involved in numerous farm organizations, church and community including Farm Bureau, 4-H, FFA and cooperative boards.

While each family member has a particular routine, they change jobs around to break the monotony and fit the schedule and needed time off by family members. Brett says the farm is at its current size by choice.

“We don’t really want to get that big where you’re managing people compared to managing yourselves,” he notes.  “We like the whole family aspect.”

 A venture such as making and marketing cheese from their milk is one way they are able to add value to their production and remain competitive in a time when smaller farms are struggling. It may not be for everyone, but for the Hildebrandt family, it fits into their plan just fine.