September 24th, 2006
Name: Crave Brothers Dairy Farm
Owners: Charles, George, Thomas, and Mark Crave
Location: Waterloo, WI
Animals: 550 milking Holsteins with additional replacements
Cheeses/Products: Mascarpone, Fresh Mozzarella, Farmer’s Rope, Les Freres, Oaxaca
More info: www.cravecheese.com
We hit the ground running when we arrived at Crave Brothers. Debbie and I had met briefly in July at the ACS conference. George was part of a panel about the terroir of the dairy cow. It was definitely one of the more interesting things I attended at the conference because it covered the areas that are not usually discussed by cheese retailers and enthusiasts but are integral to the production of cheese: animal and land management. Crave Brothers is run by four brothers: Charles, Thomas, Mark and George. They grew up on a 40 cow, family-size farm in Wisconsin. In the current operation each brother has an area of responsibility best suited to their interests and skills. Charles manages crops and equipment upkeep, Thomas monitors animal health and compiles the feed, Mark is responsible for milking operations, and George runs the cheese operation.
George and his brothers rented a farm in Southern Wisconsin, Mt. Hoereb, where they milked just under 60 cows. The landscape was largely rolling hills and they were finding it challenging to farm the land efficiently. So in the early 80’s they bought land in Waterloo, WI- a flat expanse of 300 acres that was appropriate for their plan to operate a larger scale, modern dairy operation and farm most of their own feed. They sold fluid milk for years until they got the notion to get into the cheese business. In 2001 the Craves broke ground on their cheese facility which is directly across the road from the free-stall barns and milking parlor. The pipes that move milk from the parlor to the cheese room were laid under the road that separates the two buildings. George produced his first vats of cheese in the spring of 2002.
Talking to George during a short break he took from morning cheesemaking, we realized that he and his brothers are interested in taking advantage of the development of new technologies to improve their farm. For example, they are planning to install a manure digester which will take in the manure from their 600+ cows and separate it into three usable materials: liquids, solids, and methane gas. The liquids will be used to irrigate Crave Farm fields, the solids will be used as fertilizer on the farm’s fields (excess can be sold to other farmers), and the methane gas will be converted to fuel which will be sold back to the local power grid.
George returned to the cheese room and we tasted cheese with Debbie, learning about the production schedule and volume that Crave produces. For a farm milking over 550 Holsteins and putting almost all of it into their cheese facility, Crave Brothers is nimble. Their cheese production schedule is determined by orders for that week. When we were there it was the beginning of the late summer tomato craze so the primary make was fresh mozzarella. Debbie commented that when the first freeze hits in October they see a dramatic shift in orders for mozzarella and an increase in demand for their other products.
The cheese room has three vats, two of them hold 26,000 lbs of milk and are used for the production of the fresh cheeses and dairy products. the smaller vat holds 5,000 lbs and is used to produce Les Freres. When we walked through the production room with George the team was in full mozzarella swing. The milk is cultured and set in the large vats, cut and then the hot curds are pumped with the whey over to a trough-like table where they are kept warm. The hot curds are drawn out of the water by hand with buckets and then put into a machine that stretches curd for all styles of pasta filata (stretched curd) cheeses. It does this through a series of internal augurs. This allows the Craves to switch easily between various sizes of mozzarella and also to produce the more intensely stretched Farmer’s Rope and Oaxaca.
Les Freres is the most involved cheese make at Crave, the curds are ladeled by hand and also the cheese is the only one they produce that requires aging. Debbie has been managing the construction of a new in-ground cheese cave and tasting room beneath the cheesemaking facility. The cave will allow the Craves to produce more Les Freres and the tasting room will enable them to host events and to have a more spacious gathering place for the numerous groups who come to the farm for tours. It is wonderful to know that a facility like Crave will be open to visitors regularly so that people can not only taste their product but that they will also be able to see the farm that is the heart of this business.