Laura Klock holds a wheel of Gruyere cheese in the cheese aging room at Farm Life Creamery near Ethan, South Dakota. Klock and her partner, Chad Blase, began to make on-farm artisanal cheeses last October.
PHOTO BY JERRY NELSON
Laura Klock holds a wheel of Gruyere cheese in the cheese aging room at Farm Life Creamery near Ethan, South Dakota. Klock and her partner, Chad Blase, began to make on-farm artisanal cheeses last October. PHOTO BY JERRY NELSON

    ETHAN, S.D. – With years in the dairy business and two generations earning a living from the dairy, the Blase family needed to look for other ways to keep their small farm going. Adding value and diversification was their answer.
    Gary and Amy Blase and their son, Chad, constructed an on-farm milk processing plant on their 110-cow dairy where they milk registered Holsteins in a robotic dairy facility near Ethan.



    Chad worked as a salesman for C & B Operations in Mitchell for several years before he decided to join his parents’ dairy operation.
    “It has been a struggle to make a profit in dairy farming,” Chad said. “It’s tough to see your equity shrink. We got to the point where we knew that we had to do something. We had been kicking around the idea of adding value to our milk by processing it on the farm. About 2.5 years ago, Laura and I decided to take the plunge.”
    Chad and his partner, Laura Klock, investigated the options available to them. They got in touch with South Dakota Value Added Agriculture Development Center and learned of a farmstead cheesemaker who wanted to sell her cheesemaking equipment.
    “Kris Swanson had been making artisanal cheese on her family’s farm at Crooks, South Dakota, since 2012,” Laura said. “Kris wanted to get out of the business, so we purchased her equipment and her inventory.”
    But stainless-steel and wheels of aging cheese were not all that came with the deal.
    “We didn’t know much about cheesemaking, so Kris agreed to help us for the first three months,” Laura said. “Not only did Kris have experience with her equipment, she had also attended a farmstead cheesemaking school in Vermont. It was a blessing to be able to tap into her wisdom and use her recipes.”
    Chad and Laura installed their processing equipment in a former dairy barn.
    “For the past 100 years, this farm was known locally as the Miller dairy farm,” Chad said. “My parents purchased it about 15 years ago and began raising their calves here.”
    After they took out the old double-8 milking parlor, Chad and Laura had the parlor pit filled in and a new concrete floor installed. The former milking parlor now houses wheels of aging cheese.
    The milk room was repurposed into a space for making cheese and bottling milk. A modest addition on the north end of the milk room holds cheese cutting and wrapping equipment along with a small retail counter.
    “None of our equipment is new,” Laura said. “It’s all used or is something that’s been repurposed. Members of our families come out and help us on the days that we cut and wrap cheese.”
    Once they decided to get into the dairy processing business, Chad and Laura had to come up with a name for their new enterprise.
    “We went through several iterations of the family name, but none of them struck a chord,” Laura said. “One day, we were struggling to get some equipment installed and Chad said, ‘That’s life on the farm.’ It was a eureka moment. We soon settled on the name Farm Life Creamery.”
    Laura and Chad designed the logo for Farm Life Creamery.
    “I have training in graphics and design,” Laura said. “I grew up in a small town in Wisconsin, and many of my friends were dairy farm kids. There was a creamery right next door to my grandmother’s house.”
    Laura is accustomed to the travails of running a business. For some years, she was involved with Klock Werks, a leading manufacturer of aftermarket motorcycle parts. Laura is also no stranger to taking risks. She and her daughters, Erika and Karlee, all hold land speed records that were set during motorcycle speed trials held at Bonneville Salt Flats.  
    Chad and Laura made cheese at the Swanson farm for several weeks while their farm’s facilities were being made ready. Laura and Chad made their first batch of cheese on their own farm Oct. 28, 2019.
    On cheesemaking days, milk is hauled the 3.5 miles from Gary and Amy’s farm to the Farm Life Creamery facility. Laura and Chad make cheese about four times a week, although that could increase with growing demand for their products.
    Deciding to make artisanal farmstead cheese is one thing. Developing a market for this cheese is another.
    “We immediately began to make fresh cheese curds,” Chad said. “We took some of our curds to County Fair Food Store in Mitchell and asked them if we could hand out samples. County Fair Food Store has been extremely supportive of us from the very beginning. After we introduced our cheese curds to their shoppers, County Fair went from selling five packages of cheese curds per week to selling more than 100.”
    Just as Farm Life Creamery was beginning to hit its stride, the novel coronavirus pandemic swept across the globe.
    “I think the pandemic opened peoples’ eyes regarding how fragile our food chain is,” Chad said. “If there’s an upside to COVID-19, it’s that it has increased interest in buying local. People have become removed from the sources of their food. We hope to change that.”
    Laura agreed.
    “We aren’t just selling cheese,” Laura said. “We’re educating our consumers.”   
    Farm Life Creamery was awarded a $16,514 grant by the Dairy Business Innovation Alliance. Laura and Chad have used the money to purchase a vertical cheese press and a manual cutter. The vertical cheese press has enabled them to expand their product line.
    “Retail outlets want their cheeses to be a uniform weight, which is hard to do when you make cheese in a wheel,” Laura said. “Producing uniform blocks of cheese is much easier when you make cheese in rectangular slabs and cut it with a machine.”
    Farm Life Creamery products are available at 15 retail outlets located across the region. Laura and Chad are making 13 kinds of block cheese and 40 flavors of cheese curds.
    “I’ve been selling at the Falls Park Farmer’s Market in Sioux Falls every weekend throughout the summer,” Chad said. “This has enabled us to get to know our customers. Some of our customers have made cheese curd flavor suggestions. We’ve tried some of their suggestions and a few have turned out quite well.”
    While cheese is the only dairy product available from Farm Life Creamery, that is about to change.
    “We purchased a milk bottler and will begin bottling milk very soon,” Chad said. “We will sell only whole, unhomogenized milk. Nothing will be put into our milk and nothing will be taken out.”
    The milk will be bottled in clear, plastic bottles.
    “Our customers will be able to see the cream line,” Laura said. “We’ll have to educate them about shaking their milk before pouring it.”
    Farm Life Creamery also plans to begin making ice cream and butter.
    “We hope that the day will come when we’ll use all of the milk that we produce,” Chad said.
    Other plans include converting a gothic arch calf barn into an ice cream shop. A mini golf course and a petting zoo are also in the works.
    “We want to make this farm into a destination where families can have good, clean fun and learn about farming and where their food comes from,” Laura said.
    Chad agreed.
    “We’re building something for our future and the future of our families,” Chad said.