A small-scale dairy producer in Wisconsin, US, has built a state-of-the-art cheese-making facility that has turned a once floundering business into a success.
The eternal problem facing small to mid-size farms in both Europe and the US is how to stay ahead. In today's ever-competitive market it is often a case of sink or swim. Three years ago, George Crave faced this dilemma with his 640-cow dairy farm, when flat milk prices had caused the business to stagnate.
How could the operation grow?
The answer, Crave decided, was to get a higher return for their milk.
The farmstead decided to invest in two speciality cheeses: fresh Mozzarella, offered in two oval sizes, and mascarpone.
A new cheese factory was built within a year, just across the road from the Craves' dairy, and now represents the future of the family farm.
"I feel it's our responsibility to look first of all at survival and how we can ensure a good quality of life," Crave said.
Crave's farm is the first in the state to build a full-scale cows-milk cheese factory on their farm. They use their own milk to make the cheeses.
Crave mastered dairying before expanding into cheese, which was the only way forward.
"We had to get more room for our employees to expand their careers on the farm," Crave said. "You look at the long-term low milk prices and realise that this is the way it is."
Early on, Crave forged a partnership with Dan Carter, a Wisconsin company that is one of the largest marketers and procurers in the national cheese market. Owner Dan Carter knew right away what he wanted.
"We as a company were buying our fresh mozzarella from California, and we were anxious to have it made here," Carter said.
He also guided the Craves' addition of mascarpone and is helping the Craves develop a third cheese, Les Freres, a rind-washed French-style cheese that is expected to be the company's signature product.
Crave was smart to start by looking at the marketing aspect, experts said.
"Marketing is often overlooked by farmers who try making cheese on the farm," said Brian Gould, a UW-Madison dairy economist.
"Sometimes making the cheese is the least of your problems," he said. "You've got to make sure you can get it into the store shelves," Gould said.
Craves' cheese will be carried soon by restaurants, wholesalers and food markets throughout the state and there are future plans to expand nationally.
"Putting up a fully-fledged cheese factory is an expensive proposition," said John Jaeggi, an associate researcher at the UW-Madison Center for Dairy Research.
"It's a substantial risk for them. Cheese factories are closing in the state. It's not like he's guaranteed success," said Jaeggi, who helped the Craves set up their operation.
But as the farm is now receiving higher returns from cheese, as opposed to the sale of fluid milk, it now seems that the investment in the cheese facility has paid off.