September 5, 2017 at 3:32 p.m.
"This is something we never really dreamed we would be doing 10 years ago," Kathy said. "... Most people that dairy farm do it because they like cows. I found out I really do like cows and I care about them."
Marv and Kathy, along with four of their children - Janette (17), Sara (14), Chester (12) and Andrew (7) - milk 11 Jersey cows and make several varieties of artisan cheese on their farm, Fruitful Seasons Dairy, near Holmes City, Minn. Their oldest children, Jeffrey (21) and Matthew (20), work off the farm.
The Hoffmans are in their third year of being in the dairy and cheese-making business. What ultimately led the self-proclaimed health food nuts to start milking cows was a book, "The Untold Story of Milk," by Ron Schmid, ND.
"It was a journey," Kathy said of how they got into milking cows. "We bought milk from stores, and for awhile we made soy milk."
After learning the health benefits from 100-percent grass-fed, raw milk - including the presence of good bacteria and intact enzymes found in raw milk and the high amounts of Omega-3 fatty acids and CLA (conjugated linoleic acid), a cancer fighting fat - the Hoffmans purchased a Jersey cow and began milking her. When the cow produced more than the family could consume, Kathy dabbled in making cheese. Another book, "The Cheesemaker's Manual" by Margaret P. Morris, was her guide for recipes and understanding the process. When her trials turned into delicious successes, the idea of a home-based cheese-making business emerged.
"We prayed about it and visited people [in the cheese-making business]," Marv said. "We felt it would be a good fit for us because we wanted to do something that we enjoyed and wanted to provide a good, wholesome product."
Their first step was building the facilities needed for milking their cows and processing that milk into cheese. They retrofitted an existing shed to house a 4-cow flat parlor, milk room and cheese-making facilities (processing room, aging room and store).
"We worked very closely with our dairy inspector and Elaine Santi [of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture's Dairy and Food Inspection Division] to make sure things were in line," Marv said. "They were very helpful."
Finding equipment for small scale production was a challenge. They started with a 240-gallon bulk tank but downsized to a 150-gallon tank. Marv, who has been working as an engineer for ITW Heartland for nearly 30 years, designed the 150-gallon cheese vat and press. While they needed a dairy license like all dairy farms, the Hoffmans also needed to get a plant license, which is renewed yearly.
In 2009, the Hoffmans began making cheese to sell with milk from four Jersey cows.
"For their size they produce the most solids, so - theoretically - they are more efficient," Marv said of Jerseys.
To reap the benefits of grass-fed milk, the Hoffmans are a seasonal dairy, calving their animals in early May. Cows are milked twice a day until November, when they cut down to once-a-day milking until dryoff later that month.
The Hoffmans rotationally graze their herd on 40 acres of pasture. The cows are moved to new grazing ground three times a day - after each milking and around noon. Their calves are also rotationally grazed but have access to a shed for shelter.
That first year of cheese making was a learning experience.
"I think the first year I didn't realize how important milk quality is," Kathy said. "Now our cows are constantly checked [for somatic cell count] and we make sure only good quality milk is in the tank.
The Hoffmans now milk 11 cows which produce enough milk to make 60 pounds of cheese twice a week. Cheese curds are formed into rounds and pressed, with the byproduct - whey - fed to four large black hogs that the Hoffmans are raising.
"They are a piece of this puzzle," Kathy said of the hogs. "It's good to have a good purpose for the whey."
The pressed rounds are soaked in brine for 48 hours. The brine, Kathy said, is a key factor in producing quality cheese.
"I've been told that in Europe the brine is guarded with their lives," she said.
After brining, the rounds go to a drying rack. Once dry, they are painted with a wax coating and put on a rack to age for a minimum of two months.
"Most of the cheese is consumed between two and 10 months. Some is at its prime at 10 months ... and if you did the work, right it's still good at two years," Marv said.
Kathy regularly makes six varieties of cheese: Gouda, Tomato Basil Gouda, Holmes City Spice (Gouda with chili pepper, onion and garlic), Farmhouse Cheddar, Caerphilly (a dry, crumbly cheese) and Colby. Although marketing was another hurdle for the Hoffmans, their cheese is now sold primarily at farmers' markets and at stores in Alexandria, Long Prairie and St. Joseph. That first year, however, they kept to selling it in their on-farm store and from Schonberg Produce trucks in Alexandria.
"I told Marv I would milk the cows and make the cheese but he would have to do the marketing," Kathy said, laughing. "... [Now our cheese] is shooting out the door as fast as I can make it."
Growth is the goal for the Hoffmans, but only to a size suitable for their farm and equipment.
"Part of our strategy is to enjoy the process of growing," Marv said. "... We want it to be something manageable as a family and that fits into our lifestyle."
They plan to milk around 20 Jersey cows, growing their herd from within using semen from a grass-based Jersey herd in Nebraska. They are also striving to become a 100-percent A2 herd.
"The bulls we use are always A2/A2, so we are gradually trying to get [our entire herd to have the A2 factor]. Half of our herd are carriers," Kathy said.
Although it's something they never imagined they would be doing, the Hoffmans have met success as small-scale cheese makers over the last three years.
"I love it when people come to buy cheese and they just love the cheese, and I can look them in the eye and say, 'My wife is doing a great job making cheese,'" Marv said.
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