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

Two Illinois farms team up to tap yogurt opportunity

Windcrest Dairy yogurt feeding Saint Louis market
Low-fat, Greek-style and frozen yogurt are made by Windcrest Dairy. All the styles are available at the farm’s retail store, while low-fat and Greek yogurt are delivered to stores and other outlets in and around St. Louis, Mo.<br /><!-- 1upcrlf -->PHTOO SUBMITTED
Low-fat, Greek-style and frozen yogurt are made by Windcrest Dairy. All the styles are available at the farm’s retail store, while low-fat and Greek yogurt are delivered to stores and other outlets in and around St. Louis, Mo.<br /><!-- 1upcrlf -->PHTOO SUBMITTED

By By Ron Johnson- | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

TRENTON, Ill. - Two dairy farmers, two herds, one dream. That's how Windcrest Dairy yogurt came to be.
Combined, the Bizenberger and Eickmeyer families have farmed in southwest Illinois for more than a century. Each family plugged along on its own, buffeted by the winds of change and at the mercy of erratic milk prices.
"At our family farm, we were pretty much going broke from the pricing," said Kurt Bizenberger, a third-generation dairyman who milks 80 Holsteins and Jerseys near Trenton, Illinois. "The late '90s through the last 10 years have really been a struggle. I knew we had to do something."
A few years ago, Kurt's nutritionist introduced him to Steve Eickmeyer. He's a fourth-generation dairyman who milks 160 Holsteins near Hoyleton, Illinois, 35 miles south of the Kurt's place. Both men sought a way to add value to their farms' milk. After two years of investigating various ideas, they decided to make yogurt.
"Now, after a little more than three years in the yogurt business, sales have risen nice and steady. We've seen a little bit of growth each month," Kurt said.
Their initial plan called for packaging milk in glass bottles. But they scrapped that idea when they penciled out the high cost of bottles, the complexities of taking the bottles back and reusing them, and the small profit margin.
Then, Steve and Kurt met a Wisconsin yogurt maker. He gave them all sorts of advice and helped them set up their yogurt plant on Kurt's farm, Windcrest Dairy.
Along the way, Kurt and Steve took some classes on milk culturing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
"It's pretty simple to make," Kurt said. "You just heat the milk, cool it down, put some yogurt culture in it and put it in a cup."
While it might be comparatively simple, making yogurt does take a fair bit of time. The milk must be heated six hours before it's poured into a yogurt cup. Once in the cup, the bacteria that make up the culture are given six more hours to grow.
During that time, the yogurt slowly transforms from a liquid to a firmer state. While Kurt and his crew of four employees in the yogurt plant wait for the culture to develop, they take equipment apart, clean it and put it back together again.
Unlike cheesemaking, which generally yields 10 pounds of cheese for every 100 pounds of milk, there's no shrinkage with yogurt. Start with a hundredweight of milk and you'll pretty much end up with 100 pounds of yogurt, Kurt said.
Of course, the yogurt isn't finished until the flavoring or fruit is added. Wind
crest Dairy makes its low-fat and Greek yogurt (thicker and higher in protein) in four flavors - vanilla, peach, raspberry and blueberry - plus plain. It's packaged in colorful six-ounce and 24-ounce tubs that all bear the brand's windmill logo.
It's hard to beat the freshness of Windcrest Dairy yogurt. The cows at Kurt's farm provide all the milk used to make yogurt, and the processing facility is right next to where the cows are milked.
Kurt said, "We can milk in the morning, make yogurt that same morning, and have it in stores the next day. It's one day out of the cow."
Only about 10 percent of Windcrest Dairy's milk is made into yogurt. The rest is sold through Dairy Farmers of America (DFA). Steve, meanwhile, markets his milk through Prairie Farms Dairy, another cooperative.
Steve and Kurt have divvied up the labor in a way that suits them both. Steve handles the corn, wheat and soybean work at both farms, while Kurt helps make yogurt and handles all the deliveries and invoices.
Windcrest Dairy lies 30 miles east of St. Louis, Missouri, so that's the biggest market. Five to six days a week find Kurt in his Ford van, taking yogurt to food co-ops, hospitals, universities and mom-and-pop grocery stores, and a handful of homes. A distributor was recently hired to supply the Schnucks supermarket chain.
Kurt is back at the farm by 1 or 2 p.m., to help make yogurt for the next day delivery. He enjoys his delivery work, too.
"It's fun to meet people," Kurt said. "Usually when I'm stocking shelves I can sell a lot of product when people walk by."
He tells shoppers that Windcrest yogurt is 100 percent milk, does not contain fillers, is less than a day old when it reaches the store, and that they can taste the freshness.
Kurt also invites people to the farm, to see yogurt being made. While they're at the Clinton County operation, they can pet the donkeys, sheep, goats, chickens and geese and learn about the life of a cow.
Visitors are also welcome at the farm's retail store. Not only can they buy yogurt, but also farmstead milk from northern Illinois, plus cheese made from the milk from an Illinois Jersey herd. Windcrest Dairy also offers bison meat from an area farm, along with its own pork and beef.
Kurt and Steve hope to expand their dairy offerings by soon making butter. They've applied for a grant through the USDA, to help pay for equipment.
Farm visitors can also buy Windcrest's frozen yogurt. Kurt said it's only available at the farm, since it costs more to make, due to the extra yogurt in it. He said the higher price of the frozen yogurt keeps it from competing well with its cheaper rivals.
One of Kurt's concerns is rising farmland prices not far from Windcrest Dairy. Farmers from the St. Louis metropolitan area have moved eastward and pushed prices up to $13,000 an acre. That's a result of their land near the city rising to $50,000 an acre, for development.
Kurt and his father moved to their present location 20 years ago, bought bare land for $2,500 and built the dairy from scratch. That, he said, makes his biggest concern keeping the yogurt supply going and trying to dig out of the (financial) hole.
He's optimistic that the yogurt business will keep growing as more people try the Windcrest product. Kurt said that his yogurt is locally made and fresh. And it tastes really good, too.[[In-content Ad]]


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