On a clear, cold winter evening, the sun begins to set at Lost Lake Farm near Jewell, Iowa, and Kevin Dietzel calls his 15 dairy cows to come home. "Come on!" he hollers in a singsong voice, "Come on!"
Brown Swiss cows and black Normandy cows trot across the frozen field and, in groups of four, are ushered into the small milking parlor.
Unstable milk prices that rarely get very high have forced most dairies to grow their herds to sufficient sizes to make money on volume. In general, farmers rarely keep the one or two cows in a red barn so often depicted in children’s books. But Dietzel, with 15 milking cows, is among the small dairy farmers in the U.S. trying to turn a profit without having to churn out substantially more milk.
“My business plan for that was to add value to that milk by making cheese,” Dietzel says.
Increasing demand for upscale, local foods has created a market for on-farm cheesemakers like Dietzel. Profit is not guaranteed and the up-front investment is significant, but it’s the model Dietzel has chosen.
Dietzel had always been interested in dairy farming. But when he finally decided to give it a go, he found himself here in central Iowa, where land is expensive and dairy herds are few. He and his wife built a custom-made cheesery, with a milking parlor on one end and, through a separate entrance, a near-sterile looking room filled with stainless steel and food-grade plastic. At the entrance, Dietzel trades his warm hat and coat for a hairnet and apron and gets to work massaging curds into wheels of cheese.
His signature product is Ingrid’s Pride, named for one of the cows. It’s a cheese related to provolone, but made using Dietzel’s own technique and featuring a unique flavor related to the grasses his cows eat. Dietzel’s hand-made, small batch processing means he can sell it for more than a big company, like Kraft or Cabot.
“We have to do something that’s a little bit more original and is also going to be worth that money,” he says. “So hopefully we’re doing that.”
Dietzel is not the only one. Iowa State University dairy scientist Stephanie Clark says over the past seven years she’s seen about one to two new start-ups make the investment in cheese each year.
“It's amazing the history that we have in Iowa on its own,” Clark says, “and then we have quite a lot of success throughout the Midwest.”
The math can make sense. With a back-of-the-envelope calculation, Clark says one cow’s milk might yield a farmer $13 a day. Turning that milk to cheese could gross the same farmer $105. Obviously, there are expenses beyond what a milk-only dairy has. But small, all-in-one businesses make money with cheeses that fetch a premium.
In the past 15 years, membership in the American Cheese Society – a national group of home and on-farm cheesemakers – has more than doubled, to 1,700 members today.
“We are talking about specialty cheese,” Clark says. “We're talking about smaller farms – (they) can be artisan, can be farmstead.”
They’re places making cheese on the same site where the cows are raised and milked. The key to their success is specialty or niche markets. Places like The Cheese Shop in Des Moines. The small storefront in a strip of shops is crowded with a cheese case, wine displays and a handful of tables for the cheese-centric lunch menu. A cheesemonger greets everyone who enters and all customers are encouraged to taste samples before buying anything.
Owner C.J. Bienert was newly enamored of the tastefulness and variety of American cheeses when he opened the shop five years ago. He combs the Midwest for the best ones, even stocking a small amount of an apple cider-washed goat cheese from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula that he offers for $50 a pound.
“But it sells,” Bienert says with a laugh. “You buy a tenth of a pound, $5 worth, a very small little taste, and it’s a treat.”
Still, that’s ten times what you might pay for a simple block at the supermarket. Many of Bienert’s other offerings are still special, but more reasonable. Right now, he says about 70 percent of the cheeses in the shop are domestic.
“I really do believe in the next five years we’ll be able to be 80-90 percent American artisan and we’ll have at least half a dozen, if not a dozen, more producers here in Iowa,” Bienert says.
The Cheese Shop also features cheeses from Missouri, Nebraska, Colorado and other regions of the country.
On a grey day with a wintry mix falling outside, comfort, cheese-heavy foods like macaroni and cheese and grilled cheese sandwiches attract a lunch crowd.
“I’m a big blue cheese fan, but anything soft and stinky is what I like,” says Cassie Valek of nearby Newton Iowa. “I like the Prairie Breeze cheddar; I think those are probably my two favorites. I’m fairly new to Iowa, so I like to get out and explore and try all of the options here.”
Parady Boatwright stops in almost once a week, she says.
“There’s a lot of misconception that great cheese can only happen in one country,” says Boatwright, who grew up in France but has been in Iowa for more than 20 years. “But when you come here, The Cheese Shop, it reminds you that great products can come from anywhere and are made by people who love what they do.”
And those people rely on customers like Boatwright and Valek.