The idea for Farm Life Creamery near Ethan, S.D., began as a way to pump new life into an existing dairy farm, but Laura Klock also sees it as a way to educate the public about agriculture.
Laura with Chad Blase began artisan cheese production at the end of 2018, after learning the trade and buying out Valley Side Farm Cheese LLC from Kris and Scott Swanson near Crooks, S.D.
In addition to acquiring the Swansons’ cheese recipes, Laura and Chad purchased cheesemaking equipment from them, which was a major step in Farm Life Creamery becoming a reality.
Chad grew up milking cows, and his parents, Gary and Amy Blase, continue to milk registered Holsteins just 3.5 miles down the road from the creamery. The creamery gets its Grade A milk supply from the Blase dairy, with the farm’s surplus milk sold to Associated Milk Producers Inc.
Laura and Chad envision that their creamery’s growth will intersect with the downsizing of the elder Blases’ dairy herd, getting to the point when the entire herd’s production will be turned into artisan cheeses and bottled milk at the creamery.
The Blases currently milk about 100 cows using two robotic milkers, down from about 200 at the family’s peak.
Building a dream
Farm Life Creamery is a reality of a dream Amy had at one time. Chad says his family frequently batted around the idea of some venture that would add value to the farm’s milk.
“We all kind of saw the writing on the wall,” he says. “Probably 15 years ago we saw that things were starting to change, whether we wanted them to or not. We thought we would be able to get through it by just milking cows, but what it came down to in probably the last five, six years, is it’s very difficult to make a living.”
The creamery dream resurfaced when Chad and Laura started seeing each other, and the Blase family dairy was still at the crossroads of get out or add to what the dairy could offer. Chad brings the dairy background, and Laura brings business and marketing skills from her ownership and marketing of Klock Werks, a custom motor sports shop in nearby Mitchell, S.D.
Laura has “skills that have been extremely beneficial to us,” Chad says. “She’s doing so many things that would have cost us thousands of dollars to hire someone to do for us.”
Testing business plan
Most business startups hit some hiccups, and Farm Life Creamery has had to overcome flooding in 2019 that delayed processing at the current location, only to be followed up with the slowdown of business brought on by COVID-19.
Laura and Chad were able to start manufacturing cheese in their facility in October 2019.
Laura, a Wisconsin native, relied on her business sense to decide that the fledgling creamery had to offer what competitors weren’t. She saw a void of cheese curds. She tells of how County Fair Foods in Mitchell “allowed us to come in to give samples and sell cheese curds.”
Laura was told the grocery store normally sold five curd packages a week, “and one Wednesday, we sold 300 packages of our cheese curds. They are one of our better customers.”
Farm Life offers more than 40 flavors of cheese curds, which make up about 70% of the creamery’s sales. In addition to various flavored curds, they produce 8-ounce cheese blocks. “Not all flavors of cheese curds translate well into the blocks,” she says. “Some of the seasonings don’t let the curds mesh together” to form a block.
That doesn’t mean they won’t keep trying new flavors to mix in with their current offerings such as Sassy Sesame, Five Pepper, Chocolate Cheddar, Bloody Mary or Dill. One of their recent achievements is recreating Cotswold, a British pub cheese that ages a minimum of three months, and one that Chad requested as a cheese he had tried years ago.
In addition to Kris Swanson’s cheesemaking knowledge and her processing equipment, Laura and Chad acquired molds for making Gruyere, as well as the inventory of the wheel cheese. Gruyere ages for a minimum of four months, and they now have some wheels of cheddar in the “cheese cave” inventory that has been stored for eight years.
Farm Life Creamery cheeses can be found in about 20 retail locations in South Dakota and Nebraska, and can be shipped anywhere.
After close to a year delay in the schedule of their business plan, Laura and Chad, along with his son, Jonah, started bottling fluid milk at Farm Life Creamery in late-March. They now offer 16-ounce, 64-ounce and 96-ounce bottles of white and chocolate whole milk that is pasteurized, but not homogenized.
Regardless if they’re talking about their numerous cheese flavors or the bottled milk, Chad sees the importance of a quality product, starting with using Grade A milk. Cheese can be made from Grade B or even manufacturers grade milk, but “Grade A milk is a selling point. It’s one of those little things that isn’t so little; you’re starting with a superior ingredient,” he says.
Soon Farm Life Creamery milk will be found in stores, but it can be purchased at their on-farm store in the meantime.
Not only do they want to fill people’s stomachs, but the Farm Life team hopes to soon fill people’s minds. Visitors looking to buy dairy products on-farm will be greeted to the farm by Rex, a 3-year-old St. Bernard, but he is only part of the menagerie the couple has accumulated. Other animals include a llama, pony, pigs, donkey, goats, chickens, duck and Laura’s prized horse. All of this to satisfy their vision to educate people about agriculture and where their food originates.