James Baerwolf (far left) explains the milk bottling process to PDPW tour participants on Oct. 23 during a PDPW value-added tour of their creamery near Columbus, Wis. 
James Baerwolf (far left) explains the milk bottling process to PDPW tour participants on Oct. 23 during a PDPW value-added tour of their creamery near Columbus, Wis. PHOTO BY STACEY SMART
    COLUMBUS, Wis. – Farm-fresh milk, premium homemade ice cream and on-farm tours and events have put Sassy Cow Creamery on Dane County’s map of must-see attractions. Milk, ice cream, retail and agritourism are all part of the four four-pronged approach to value-added dairy farming used by the creamery near Columbus, Wis.
    Participants of Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin’s value-added dairy tour received a firsthand glimpse into Sassy Cow Creamery’s milk bottling and ice cream-making processes Oct. 23.
    Opening its doors in April 2008, the creamery processes 6,000 gallons of milk per day and uses over one million pounds of milk per month. The Sassy Cow brand is well-known throughout Wisconsin and Illinois, and can be found at more than 75 retailers.
    “Woodman’s is our No. 1 customer,” said James Baerwolf, who owns and operates Sassy Cow Creamery with his brother, Robert, and their families.
    The three-generation farm is split into two operations – the main farm houses 600 conventional cows, while the creamery is home to 250 organic cows that graze on pasture and eat a diet of crops grown without herbicides and pesticides. The Baerwolfs farm 1,700 acres of corn, soybeans, alfalfa and wheat.
    The creamery’s top-selling product is organic milk. Available in gallons to half-pints, Sassy Cow milk comes in whole, 2 percent, 1 percent, skim and chocolate, in either organic or traditional versions.   
    “Ten years ago, skim milk was in and whole milk wasn’t,” Baerwolf said. “Today, it’s the opposite. People prefer whole milk, especially organic whole milk. In fact, we could almost discontinue selling skim milk.”
    The Baerwolfs truck the milk from both farms to the creamery where milk is homogenized, separated and pasteurized.
    “Milk has a short shelf life, so we have to run it all the time,” Baerwolf said.
    Sassy Cow’s milk jug design is different than most. Its rectangular shape differentiates the brand and is worth more money in the customer’s eyes. The jug supports a larger label and fits into a narrow crate, which has helped alleviate the problem of spending money on new crates.
    “In the past, we had to constantly replace crates that weren’t returned to us,” Baerwolf said. “That doesn’t happen anymore since our crate size is one inch narrower and doesn’t fit anyone else’s milk.”
    Sassy Cow also makes over 50 flavors of ice cream, including seasonal varieties, totaling over 48,000 gallons per year. The growing business has customers in major metropolitan areas, such as Madison, Milwaukee, Chicago and Minneapolis, and moms are the creamery’s most devoted customer.
    “They consistently buy milk for their kids and have a lot of influence on other moms, as well,” Baerwolf said. “We’re fortunate to have customers who are loyal to the Sassy Cow brand.”  
    Sassy Cow’s close proximity to Madison benefits the business.
    “We’re located in Dane County near a major population center where people want to be entertained,” Baerwolf said. “Moms are looking for stuff to do with their kids, and so on.”
    The Baerwolfs provide weekly farm tours during the summer months for a cost of $4 per person.  
    “We actually gained more business when we started charging for the tours,” Baerwolf said.
    The cows are milked in a rotary parlor twice a day – a sight that nearly hypnotizes visitors, according to Baerwolf.
    “The milking process is an important part of any tour that we do,” Baerwolf said. “People want to see the cows getting milked, and they enjoy watching the cows travel around in a circle.”
    Sassy Cow Creamery also includes an onsite store where customers can buy ice cream cones, milk, tubs of ice cream, cheese, T-shirts, mugs, baked goods and more. Open seven days a week, the store averages $400,000 in yearly sales.
    “What sets us apart from other places where you can buy milk and ice cream is that we are a farm, and we have cows,” Baerwolf said. “This is very important and intriguing to our customers because the cows are what they want to see most.”
    Milk sales account for 90 percent of the business; ice cream makes up 10 percent. The creamery employs 15 people and operates farm-like hours, starting up at 5 a.m. and wrapping up around 10 p.m.
    “When looking at value-added options, you have to decide if you want people on your farm or not,” Baerwolf said. “We don’t want people on our farm all the time, which is why the creamery is located two miles away from the main farm. … When you own a store, you have to embrace customers, even when you’ve already put in a long day of farming.”
    Baerwolf said when it comes to purchasing equipment for a creamery, it’s wise to visit other places for ideas first.
    “You don’t have to have all brand-new equipment,” he said. “We run our creamery on a combination of old and new. For example, our tanks are old but our separators are new. … That first year was like selling milk without getting the milk check. You have to be patient.”  
    Although he no longer worries about the uncertainty of milk prices, Baerwolf still has plenty of other things to think about.  
    “It’s an ever-changing industry,” he said. “So, we have different challenges now than we did at startup. One of our biggest challenges is labor. Another is getting noticed in a market flooded with all kinds of dairy products. Grocery retail is a revolving challenge, so we spend a lot of time in grocery stores. If you’re going to do value-add, visit your local stores and talk to people. Find out who the distributor is.”
    Does Baerwolf ever wish he could go back to the days before they built the creamery?
    “No, that’s just sad,” he said. “I have no regrets.”