CLEAR LAKE — Rama Hoffpauir will be the first to admit that making and marketing farmstead cheeses is not for the faint of heart.
“We’re still figuring some things out, still learning,” she said. “We’re still beginners.”
But after several years of hard work, Hoffpauir said she and her husband, Josh Bryceson, who operate Cosmic Wheel Creamery on their Turnip Rock Farm in southern Polk County, are getting a handle on it.
“We have a better understanding. We’re getting more efficient every year. I feel good about the flavor of the cheese,” Hoffpauir said.
Community-supported agriculture vegetable growers since 2009, Hoffpauir and Bryceson relocated their Turnip Rock Farm from the New Auburn area to a more spacious property near Clear Lake in 2013 with the goal of milking some cows and making raw-milk farmstead cheeses in their own micro-creamery.
Hoffpauir, a Louisiana native, said Turnip Rock Farm is appropriately named after the rough, rocky farm they left behind.
“We couldn’t use a tiller, basically,” she said. “Every time we turned the soil, we turned up a rock.”
Integrating livestock such as cattle and pigs into their vegetable operation just made sense because of the fertilization benefits, she said. It also helps distinguish them from other vegetable CSAs.
“Josh worked for Heifer International and is passionate about having animals on the farm,” she said. “We got a family cow and milked by hand and made cheese for fun.”
As things got more serious, they purchased some used dairy equipment and Hoffpauir enrolled in a rigorous series of classes in order to obtain her cheesemaker’s license. She did her apprenticeship at Castle Rock Organic Dairy in Osseo.
“The more that we learned, the more we wanted to do it,” she said.
But first, the barn, which hadn’t been used for milking since 1992, had to be completely remodeled and a pit parlor installed, she said.
Hoffpauir said they began making cheese in 2015, and as they wrap up their fourth season in the farmstead cheese business, they enjoy a loyal following for their cheeses.
This fall, the farm is milking 11 cows — a mix of Holsteins and Jerseys, mostly purchased from other grass-based dairies. Herd size is down from 20 last season, but they plan to be back up to 20 cows next year.
“We had a dud bull, so a lot of cows didn’t get bred,” Hoffpauir said.
She said they milk their herd from the spring, when they freshen, through November, or until there’s too much snow for the cattle to graze properly. Cows are dried off during the winter, as the hay quality isn’t high enough for their cheeses, she said.
“The cows are really picky. They want it just right,” she said. “They’re pretty spoiled.”
Cows are milked once a day. Nurse cows are provided for calves. Hoffpauir said they switched from twice-a-day milking to once a day this year due to difficulty finding labor. The farm has four full-time, seasonal employees.
With the reduction in milkings, they’ve noticed about a 20 percent drop in milk production.
“But it’s really been fine. It’s OK for what we’re doing,” she said. “When you figure in the time and paying for labor for the second milking, it’s working out fine.”
Hoffpauir said they don’t push cows for high production, preferring to focus on animal longevity and milk quality that’s just right for artisanal cheesemaking.
“We’re trying to move in a direction where cows are able to thrive on grass and breed back and maintain condition,” she said, adding that cows from most conventional herds would not do well at their farm.
“Not just any cows can come into this situation,” she said. “If we were shipping milk, it would be a different focus. … We can select for the traits we want on the farm.”
From April through November, Hoffpauir makes cheese about every other day. A recent Monday morning cheesemaking session, using milk from Friday through Sunday, yielded eight wheels, each weighing 12-13 pounds.
CSA boxes include cheese
The couple’s efforts now are paying off, as their cheeses fetch about $20 per pound at farmers’ markets, mainly the Mill City Farmers’ Market in St. Paul, Minn., and a few winter markets.
Cheese is an option in their CSA baskets, too, along with produce, beef and pork. They partner with Dancing Hen Farm to offer eggs.
“Since we’re making cheese here and value-added on the farm, we can set our own price for the cheese, set it where it needs to be,” Hoffpauir said. “There’s definitely a certain point at which people aren’t going to pay so much for cheese, but we’re on par with a lot of the artisanal, handmade, farmstead, small producers.”
They make a variety of aged cheeses, including gouda, jack and alpine styles, as well as a popular cow’s milk manchego called Antares and a few of their own original recipes, such as an herbed Circle of the Sun touted as “a taste of the farm.” All cheeses are in a natural rind.
“It makes a lot more work, but I like the quality of it,” Hoffpauir said.
Because she makes raw-milk cheeses, 60 days is the minimum for aging. Her “youngest” cheese goes to market at three months.
“I usually don’t get the flavor I want at three or four months,” she said.
They also make fresh cheeses from pasteurized milk, such as curds, ricotta and feta. When conditions are just right, Hoffpauir says, she also does a brie style.
Hoffpauir said they must carry a variety of cheese for their CSA customers, who receive boxes from June through October or November. Of Turnip Rock Farm’s 180 CSA customers, about 100 take cheese in their baskets. The farm also makes their cheeses available to other CSA farms.
They’re beginning to focus on a few cheeses for wholesale availability, as well. Their cheeses are on shelves at a couple grocery stores in the Twin Cities area, including the Wedge Community Co-op and Linden Hills Co-op. They also ship cheese to a few restaurants in the Milwaukee area.
Demand for Cosmic Wheel Creamery cheeses outpaces their supply — especially frustrating this year, Hoffpauir said, because milk supply was down due to some cows failing to breed back.
“We could do more wholesale,” she said. “Our goal is to try to do a little more wholesale and just keep doing what we’re doing.”
Herd growth probably isn’t in the cards because of the size of their cheese vat and limited land base. Their 80-acre farm includes 5 acres of vegetables, along with woods and pasture. More intensive growing practices have allowed them to convert more acres from vegetables to pasture in recent years.
“Twenty-five cows would be our max,” Hoffpauir said. “We might do close to that, but since I’m the only cheesemaker, that’s a limiting factor.”
Turnip Rock Farm also is home to some pigs who feed on the whey left over from cheesemaking, along with waste vegetables from the gardens. Hoffpauir said they also have brought in some feeder lambs as part of their rotational grazing system.
Pastures feature a mix of grasses and clover, with some annual forages provided for the drier months.
While their vegetables are certified organic, Hoffpauir said, they don’t see much advantage to certifying the dairy, although they follow organic principles very closely. More important to them is their relationship with customers.
“They trust us,” she said.
Hoffpauir knows as well as anyone that getting established in farmstead cheesemaking requires “a huge investment and a lot of time.” Those are stumbling blocks for many farmers looking for creative ways continue in the dairy business.
“I wish that this were an easier thing for more people to do, but it’s a ridiculous amount of time,” she said.
With the down dairy market the past couple years, more people than ever have reached out to her and Bryceson to learn more about what they’re doing and how they’re doing it.
“A lot of people were looking into bottling their own milk,” she said, adding that they don’t plan to explore this option because of the more perishable nature of the product.
“With cheese, we can wait and it just gets better,” she said.