ROCHESTER, Minn. – The three women who own CannonBelles Cheese are OK that their journey into cheesemaking and selling has turned out differently than they originally planned.
    “We thought we would have opened our plant not long after we started,” said Kathy Hupf, who owns CannonBelles Cheese with Deeann Lufkin and Jackie Ohmann. “It’s been a long process, but there have been a lot of people we’ve brought in to help.”
    Hupf and Lufkin presented about their venture into cheesemaking during a panel titled, “A day in the life of a value-added producer,” Feb. 21 during the “How to add value to your dairy farm without adding more dairy cows” workshop in Rochester, Minn. Jeff Metz, from Metz’s Hart-Land Creamery, also shared how his family started making cheese in a processing facility on their dairy near Rushford, Minn.
    Each panelist emphasized that moving into the processing side of the industry does not happen overnight.
    The CannonBelles have been making cheese for 2.5 years and have been planning for the last seven. This spring, they are hoping to break ground on their cheese plant in Cannon Falls, Minn.
    “It’s not a fast process,” Lufkin said.
    Metz also said their venture into on-farm processing has taken longer than expected, starting to plan over 10 years ago and churning out curds from their newly constructed on-farm creamery in 2014.
    All of the cheesemakers also talked about needing to find the products that represent them the best.
    “Cheese curds are our niche,” Metz said. “When we did our feasibility study, fresh curds weren’t there [within our 60-mile radius] at the time. I would encourage you to look in the cases. Is there something we’re importing right now? Is it something we can make locally? There’s no reason why it shouldn’t be something we can’t make here.”
    The CannonBelles did the same. They did market research by going to area grocery stores and retailers. That is when they realized there was not much queso fresco, one of the cheeses they made.
    “It’s important to find what’s missing,” Hupf said. “And, it’s good to look to the demographics of your communities. We live in a Hispanic community so that type of cheese is important to them.”
    Once Metz and the CannonBelles were committed to their venture, they found people to help them with their business. They all suggested getting a consultant.
    “Our consultant tells us like it is,” Metz said. “If you can find the right person, it is going to be huge for you.”
    Getting to know others in the industry, such as inspectors, is important, Metz said.
    “We toured a lot and that was really important,” Metz said. “And something to think about is Wisconsin has a lot of cheese plants and Minnesota doesn’t have as many. Find the people to work with who know a lot about food safety and food processing. Food safety is huge. There are a lot of rules.”  
    The CannonBelles also went on tours and gained insight from their consultant, who steered them away from building a creamery on Ohmann’s family’s farm.
    “He slowed us down and pointed us in the right direction,” Hupf said.
    Along with their consultant, the CannonBelles have learned a lot from Ray Miller, plant manager at the University of Minnesota pilot plant, where they have been making their commercial cheese.
    “We got to use his brain, his information, his experience,” Lufkin said. “That’s been invaluable. Even though [renting the U of M pilot plant] has cost us a lot more money, it’s well worth the money and time.”
    The women have also been able to try cheesemaking equipment.
    “It helped us determine what kind of equipment we wanted to buy when we open our plant,” Hupf said. “When we first came into the cheese business, we had completely different plans of what kind of equipment we were going to use.”
    The CannonBelles and Metz have become a part of their local economic development organizations and have joined professional associations.
    “The learning you can get from there is invaluable,” Lufkin said.
    The CannonBelles are also members of a local foods peer group.
    “That has been huge for us,” Lufkin said. “Even though [other members] aren’t dairy, they have a lot of ideas for packaging, marketing and things like that.”
    Marketing has been a huge learning curve for Metz and the CannonBelles.
    “When you’re dairy farming, and when you’re just out there getting the milk, someone else has their label out there on it,” Metz said. “You’re in the background. When you’re value added you’re now in the forefront.”
    The CannonBelles said they took a lot of time to finalize the name of their business and the logo. Hupf said finding consistent sales with restaurants has been challenges. With the help of a distributor, CannonBelles Cheese is now in more stores than the three women can travel each week themselves.
    “That really helped us grow in our marketshare,” Hupf said.
    Farmers markets have also been successful.
    “There’s a big local foods movement going on, and I think it’s just in the beginning stages, so don’t be afraid to jump into this,” Hupf said. “I think it’s just going to continue to grow.”
    Metz agreed.
    “Local is huge,” Metz said. “People like to meet the family. We’re out there sampling. People are really intrigued by that.”
    One of the market angles for Metz’s cheese is the family making it. Being able to bring another generation back to the farm was a big reason why they started making cheese in the first place.
    Although each say it is not an easy or fast journey, Metz and the CannonBelles have enjoyed jumping into the value-added side of dairy.