September 5, 2017 at 3:32 p.m.

Say cheese

Swansons expand farming operation by starting cheese making business
Kris Swanson tests the pH level of the whey while making a batch of cheese on their farm. This past spring, she and her husband, Scott, attended a week-long farmstead cheese making school in Burlington, Vt., where they learned about the chemistry of cheese production.<br /><!-- 1upcrlf -->PHOTO BY JERRY NELSON
Kris Swanson tests the pH level of the whey while making a batch of cheese on their farm. This past spring, she and her husband, Scott, attended a week-long farmstead cheese making school in Burlington, Vt., where they learned about the chemistry of cheese production.<br /><!-- 1upcrlf -->PHOTO BY JERRY NELSON

By by Jerry Nelson- | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

CROOKS, S.D.- Farmers typically expand their operations by adding more land or by increasing their livestock numbers. But Kris and Scott Swanson are anything but typical. At middle age, the couple decided to expand their operation by going into the cheese making business.
"This farm was homesteaded in 1873 by my great-great-great grandfather Gunder Gunderson," said Scott. "Our kids are the seventh generation of our family to farm this land."
The Swansons farm about 1,500 acres and have three children: Olivia (23), who is married to Ethan Amundson and is majoring in animal science at SDSU; Levi (22), a general ag student at SDSU; and Lane (19), who is studying diesel mechanics at Lake Area Technical Institute in Watertown.
In addition to their cropping operation, the Swansons have about 200 head of beef cattle and custom feed dairy heifers for nearby Boadwine Dairy. Until recently, that was the extent of their involvement with the dairy industry.
"I grew up on a small dairy farm at Westbrook, Minn.," said Kris. "Dad milked about 30 head. And when I was in high school, I was the Cottonwood County Dairy Princess."
After high school, Kris became a Registered Nurse. She then worked for many years in the nursing home industry.
The seed for the Swansons' cheese making venture was planted some time ago by a neighbor who owns a winery.
"We farm some land next to Strawbale Winery," said Scott. "A couple of years ago its owner, Don South, began to ask when we were going to start making cheese that he could sell at his winery. I thought he was joking."
"I thought it was a great idea," said Kris. "I have always been interested in making cheese. Levi wants to join the operation, but it's hard to find additional land to farm. We realized that starting a cheese making business was a way to help make room for the next generation."
Kris and Scott took a long, hard look at cheese making before taking the plunge.
"We prayed over it and talked about it for a quite a while," said Kris. "Making cheese was pretty much my idea, but Scott has been 100 percent supportive."
They sought advice from a cheese maker friend in Texas and visited his operation. Later, the Swansons attended a week-long farmstead cheese making school in Burlington, Vermont.
"The cheese making school was more about chemistry than anything else," said Scott. "I didn't even take chemistry in high school, so it was quite an education for me."
The Swansons next contacted state inspection officials.
"We wanted to make certain that we were in compliance with all regulations," said Kris. "The inspectors were very helpful and gave us a lot of good advice. This was especially true of Scott Schelske, who had once been a cheese maker himself."
Permitting the new farmstead cheese operation at the Swanson farm was also a novel experience for inspection officers.
"The state inspectors told us that we were both their test case and their poster child," said Scott. "We were the first farmstead bovine cheese operation they had permitted. We are extremely grateful for all their help and guidance."
A 1930s-era machine shed that had been previously updated and insulated was chosen as the site for their cheese making facility. A small addition to house their cheese making equipment was built onto one side. A cheese vat was then purchased from a seller in Holland and installed in their new cheese room.
One problem that had to be overcome was how to press the fresh curds into the cheese forms.
"Lane built a stainless steel cheese press table for us," said Scott. "We can adjust its angle to get just the right combination of gravity and pressure from the air cylinders."
Scott and Kris purchase 400 to 600 gallons of milk per week from SDSU. Their milk is hauled in a homemade rig that consists of a trailer mated to a 600-gallon Mueller bulk tank.
The Swansons produced their first batch of cheese on June 18. As with many new enterprises, there was a learning curve at the start.
"One of the first cheeses we made was Gruyere, a Swiss cheese," said Kris. "We had all kinds of problems and the finished product looked rough. But we let some friends try it and they said it tasted wonderful."
Not all of their efforts have turned out so well.
Said Kris, "Some of our early cheeses were simply awful. We hauled them out to our bury pit, but our Red Heeler dog started digging them up and eating them. She's gotten to like cheese so much, she's beginning to put on weight."
While Kris obviously hopes to minimize mistakes, her anxiety over such things is reduced by the fact that she financed their cheese making operation with her savings.
"It's nice that we don't have the pressure of a bank loan," she said. "Dad lost his farm during the mid-1980s farm crisis and I wished he could have fought harder for his farm. I see our cheese making operation as a way to fight for the future of our farm."
The Swansons named their enterprise Valley Side Farm Cheese, owing to the picturesque valley where Gunder Gunderson homesteaded. Their logo includes a painting of their 1899 gambrel roof barn and the slogan, "A major departure from the usual and the norm."
Once they had gotten a handle on the cheese making process, Kris and Scott began to look for ways to market their product.
"Strawbale Winery was one of the first places to carry our cheese," said Scott. "We began to sell it at our farmer's market and pretty soon we had local stores asking if they could also carry our cheese."
"In the beginning, I was really nervous about being at the farmer's market," said Kris. "But after a while I began to get repeat customers and built a rapport with many of them. A lot of our sales are from word of mouth."
The Swansons are already making plans to enlarge and improve their cheese making operation.
"Long-term, we hope to move the cheese making equipment to our gambrel roof barn," said Scott. "We're close to Sioux Falls and think that people would enjoy coming out to our farm to watch the cheese making process. We have several old buildings that contain old farm implements, so it would be like a day at a farming museum. Visitors could sit on a deck we have planned for the east side of the barn. The Pasture Patio would be a place where folks could sample our cheeses and enjoy a glass of wine and watch the cattle graze."
"Olivia wants us to start milking a few cows so that we can control the product from start to finish," said Kris. "I don't know if we're ready for that. But I love what I'm doing now. I love being home and I love being on the farm."[[In-content Ad]]


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