LaBelle Cheese is made with milk from cows at Koepke Farms. Made in partnership with Clock Shadow Creamery in Milwaukee, LaBelle is a Gouda-style recipe available in six different flavors.
LaBelle Cheese is made with milk from cows at Koepke Farms. Made in partnership with Clock Shadow Creamery in Milwaukee, LaBelle is a Gouda-style recipe available in six different flavors. PHOTO SUBMITTED

    OCONOMOWOC, Wis. – John and Kim Koepke know good cheese starts with good soil. The Koepkes’ deep love of the land and commitment to exceptional cow care is reflected in every package of LaBelle Cheese. Made with milk from cows at Koepke Farms, LaBelle is an artisan cheese handcrafted in small batches and carefully aged for a smooth, buttery flavor.

    This Oconomowoc dairy farm thrives in an area bordered by urban development and abundant lakes. A fervent desire to protect nature is woven into this community known as Lake Country. And it is an ideal that Koepke Farms wholeheartedly supports.
    “Nature is a complex web of both plants and animals, and farming is easier when you work with nature versus against it,” John said. “We strive to work with nature the best that we can, mimicking the biology of the land while at the same time making a living and creating nutritious food.”  
    Given the farm’s location, diversification appeared more attractive than expansion, and in 2008, the family started looking into value-added options.
    “We wanted to diversify the family business while adding an enterprise area the next generation could grow into,” Kim said.
    Five generations have conscientiously worked the land at this farm for 145 years since John’s great-great grandfather immigrated from Germany in 1875. And, a sixth generation is hoping to do the same. John and Kim farm with John’s dad, James, and John’s uncle, David. His other uncle, Alan, is retired. John and Kim have three children – Auggie, 18, Colton, 15, and Sam, 11. Auggie is studying agriculture at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.
    “Land and animal care are our top priorities every day not just some days,” Kim said. “We care very much about what we do and put all of our effort into making the best milk which is the foundation of our cheese.”
    Koepke Farms launched LaBelle Cheese in 2010, which is made in partnership with Clock Shadow Creamery in Milwaukee. The creamery’s owner and certified Master Cheesemaker, Bob Wills, partnered with the Koepkes to create the LaBelle brand.  
    They developed a Gouda-style recipe perfect for aging which is made into 11 to 12-pound wheels at Clock Shadow. The Koepkes ship about 6,000 pounds of milk to the creamery each month to make the cheese.
    The Koepkes milk 320 cows three times a day in a double-10 herringbone parlor. Cows fresh up to 70 days in milk are milked four times a day. The farm’s rolling herd average is 31,800 pounds of milk with 4.1% butterfat and 3.2% protein content.
    “Prior to making cheese, we used rBST,” John said. “We had to quit in order to make cheese with Clock Shadow. It was the best thing we ever did. Milk production increased, somatic cell count dropped and conception rates improved. We saw so many benefits by not using it. Before we stopped, our cell count was around 170,000. Within three weeks of quitting rBST, cell count decreased to 75,000 to 80,000.”
    Two weeks after the LaBelle wheels are made, the cheese is sent to the Koepkes’ aging facility located less than a mile from the farm. The Koepkes age the cheese for at least six months before being sold.
    “Working with Bob Wills gave us a way to build a branded product with our own family’s name on it without the high capital investment costs of building our own dairy plant infrastructure,” Kim said. “Bob and his cheesemakers bring the artisan cheese making expertise while the Koepkes bring the dairy farming expertise of five generations into every crafted wheel of LaBelle.”
     Kim said the cheese’s mild flavor appeals to many taste buds, including those of children, and has a longer shelf life than soft cheese. However, one must be patient while waiting for a return on investment as the cheese ages.  
    “Our cheese becomes better with time,” Kim said. “The downside is holding off on marketing the product until it ages.”
    The Koepkes offer six flavors of Gouda – green olive, cracked black pepper, hickory smoked bacon, hickory smoked plain, original plain and fenugreek.
“LaBelle Cheese is having a positive economic impact on our farm,” John said. “But it didn’t happen overnight. We fumbled around in the dark for quite some time.”
    Selling the cheese is the most challenging part. The Koepkes work with distributors and sell direct to grocery stores and other retailers. Their biggest partner is Sendik’s Food Market, which has more than 20 store locations in the Milwaukee area with each one carrying LaBelle Cheese. The cheese is also sold at stores in Madison, Oconomowoc and Fort Atkinson.
    “We got into quite a few of these by going direct to the store,” Kim said. “One of our employees, Elmo Wendorf, is our marketing point-of-sale person. He lives to do store demos and is driving customer sales of our cheese at the retail level. He’s a great ambassador for the farm who has a direct connection to the cows as he also milks for us a couple mornings a week.”
    The fact that LaBelle Cheese comes from a small, family-owned business has been helpful in getting it placed on store shelves, said Kim, who also sets up shop at farmers markets.
    The Koepkes market about 60 young, fresh cows each year from their registered Holstein herd and have had 15 cows set lifetime milk production records of 300,000 pounds. One of their cows, Granny, set a world record for lifetime milk production in 2003, giving 458,609 pounds of milk. She lived to be 20 years old.
    The Koepkes farm around 1,200 acres of corn, alfalfa, soybean and wheat,  practicing sustainable land conservation methods that protect and build healthy soils. The Koepkes began practicing no-till in the 1980s and stopped all tillage on the farm in 2004. To compensate, they use more cover crops. A seven-year crop rotation combined with a comprehensive nutrient management plan are also part of Koepkes’ long-term land stewardship priorities.
    Winners of the 2011 Leopold Conservation Award, the Koepkes’ approach to land management is holistic and uses both old and new technologies.  
    “The better we take care of the land and cattle, the more successful we are,” John said.
    A longtime advocate for farmland protection, John helps head the watershed initiative in Oconomowoc and has spent 14 years on the township board for Lake Country.
    “We started Farmers for Lake Country to promote good conversation and good nutrient planning,” John said. “We’re reducing phosphorous loads from farm fields through aerial seeding. We’ve planted 2,500 acres of cover crops in the area by helicopter resulting in lower phosphorus and less runoff.”
    Koepke Farms also participates in Tall Pines Conservancy Ride to the Barns – a fundraising bicycling event to benefit land conservation.
    “We wouldn’t be here long if we chose to exploit our resources,” John said. “We’re trying to preserve the land and make it better for the next generation.”