September 5, 2017 at 3:32 p.m.
"Whatever we feel like throwing into that ice cream, we'll do it," said ice cream maker Al Bekkum.
Al is allowed to concoct such outrageous creations because he and his wife, Sarah, own the business, Nordic Creamery, a few miles north of Westby, Wis. Besides ice cream, Al is known for his assortment of butters and cheeses.
As if crafting dairy products isn't enough, the Bekkums and their children stay plenty busy keeping the retail store that shares a building with their processing facility open seven days a week.
And let's not forget the 120-acre farm that Al and Sarah purchased from her parents. It's home to an assortment of 30 cows that provide much of the milk for the Bekkums' cheese and butter. Al, Sarah, their children, and a part-time employee share the load of milking the herd twice a day.
The dairy herd also provides bull calves that the Bekkums raise for their growing grass-fed beef market. Can't forget the pigs, either. They feast on the buttermilk Nordic Creamery produces.
Just to top off a busy summer, the Bekkums take a truckload of cheese and butter to the Green City Farmers' Market in Chicago's Lincoln Park each weekend. Meanwhile, Scott, the Bekkums' oldest, heads off to La Crosse, Wis., for a Friday night farmers' market.
But Al likes being busy. That's because he and Sarah are fulfilling a dream that has been several years in the making.
Al is the first generation in his family to make cheese and butter. He grew up in town and worked in construction. When he was laid off, Al started working in the make room at Westby Cooperative Creamery.
After a while, he began to enjoy turning milk into cheese. He especially liked getting compliments about the cheese.
Later, Al managed a cheese plant in Ohio, and then the cheese factory at Mt. Sterling, Wis. From there, Sarah and he founded Nordic Creamery, in 2006.
Until two years ago, it was a creamery in name only, with Al making cheese and butter in vat space rented from other plants. They built their facility on Sarah's home farm, just a hundred or so yards from the family's house.
Now two years later, Al said, "Business is good. Busy, ever-expanding, so it's nice that way."
Sales have been beating projections, growing 15 to 20 percent a year. Things have been so busy that the Bekkums' non-family workforce has gone from one to six.
Al and his crew make a wide variety of cheeses and specialty butters. Nordic Creamery's mixed-milk cheeses - made from both cow and goat milk - have been honored for their quality.
Capriko is one of his best-selling cheeses. Another is Grumpy Goat, an aged product made from goat milk.
The Bekkums buy the goat milk they need. And they buy sheep milk from a nearby Amish farmer. They also end up purchasing a bit of cow milk, but the bulk of it comes from their own herd of Holsteins, Jerseys, Guernseys and Ayrshires.
They delayed their plans to breed an all-Norwegian Red herd that blends well with their Scandinavian heritage. Now the first Norwegian Red calves are due to arrive in about six weeks.
Plans also call for boosting the herd to 40 head milking by this fall.
"Every time we add a few more cows, we use up that milk pretty quick," Al said.
Since their part of Vernon County is quite hilly, the Bekkums pasture their cows as much as possible, moving them to new ground every few days. The family's crops consist only of alfalfa for hay and corn for silage. During the grazing season, the cows get just a small handful of corn to get them into the barn.
In the winter they're fed dry hay and silage. On that simple ration, the cows are averaging about 12,000 pounds of milk each.
Nordic Creamery's marketing plan taps into the fact that the cows are on pasture as much as possible. That's because more and more people want to buy dairy products made from cows that eat mainly forages. A high forage ration is reputed to boost the beta carotene content of the milk.
"That's a huge thing for us," Al said. "That is the marketing we really focus on - that these animals are doing what they're naturally intended to do."
Since the Bekkums' cows eat a bit differently in summer, compared to winter, the milk changes with the time of year.
"There's a huge difference between winter milk and summer milk. When the cows first hit that pasture, after just a few days, the milk goes from white to yellow. And the taste is wonderful," Al said.
Admittedly, Al has a soft spot in his heart for good butter.
"It's a challenge just like the cheese is, but it's rewarding once you have a great-tasting butter," Al said. "You can't beat the taste of fresh butter. To get that true, fresh quality, I really, truly think you should consume it within a month of it being made. We put a manufactured date on it, instead of an expiration date."
From some of the milk the cows produce during the grazing season, Al makes what he calls a summer butter. It's a naturally deep yellow that's higher in fat than his other butters.
Al churns a sheep milk butter that's sold under another label. And, he makes goat milk butter that he and his family market.
"We're probably the only people in the United States who make all those kinds of butter," Al said.
Nordic Creamery's cheeses change with the seasons, too. Among them is Oslo, made from the milk of pastured cows. Another is a cheddar made strictly from the milk of the Bekkums' small herd.
Winter time and its distinct milk give Al time to make normal cheeses such as Parmesan and cheddar. He figured he makes well over 20 kinds of cheeses annually.
Back to that interesting ice cream. Al said he has made more than 50 flavors of the frozen treat, including "Hot Chocolate." It's so named because of the addition of jalapeno peppers that give it an extra zing.
Nordic Creamery's ice cream is made in much smaller volumes than its butter and cheese. What's more, it's only available right at the creamery. Al invites people to stop by on warm summer days and sit on the deck with an ice cream cone and enjoy a wonderful view.
The creamery's cheese and butter is available in many retail stores. Al credits the buy local movement with helping his business.
"We are blessed that we have a lot of support to buy local here in the Midwest," Al said.
He said his wife and children are key in making the business grow and work. Scott (19) is the oldest, and just finished his first year at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he is majoring in business. Then there's Mark (17), Torger (15), Dustin (13), Evan (8) and Kaylee (6).
As for Sarah, who comes from a long line of dairy farmers, Al said, "My wife is pretty much the heart and soul of this operation. She milks in the morning, then goes home and gets the kids ready for school. Then she gets ready to go to her part-time job in town and comes back here to the factory. At night, she's back in the barn again to milk. Then she makes supper and gets the kids to bed. She does not sit down."[[In-content Ad]]
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