November 13, 2014
Note: This is the second in a three-part series providing a closer look at some of this year’s Value-Added Producer Grant award recipients. To read the other blog post in this series, click here to read about how one organization used a VAPG grant to expand online access to healthy food.
Few foods have the cult following that cheese does.
From asiago to brie to cheddar, cheese is beloved by cultures around the world and found in cuisines from Sweden to South Africa.
And for producers, capitalizing on humanity’s love affair with cheese just makes sense. Turning milk into mozzarella is a classic example of value-added production, and it earned dairy farmer Jason Wiebe a $120,000 value-added producer grant (VAPG) from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 2014.
About the Dairy
In the 1920s, Wiebe’s grandfather began a dairy operation on a plot of land in central Kansas, about 60 miles north of Wichita. Ruts in the field mark the remnants of the Santa Fe Trail, which carried pioneers through the Great Plains to New Mexico. As the operation passed down through the generations, Wiebe ultimately took over the dairy from his father and today grows 130 acres of feed for 130 cows.
“It was just something I’ve been doing all my life and I enjoy the full circle of things, from growing the feed to feeding the cows and getting the milk – the continuous life cycle,” Wiebe said.
While the operation has stayed in the family for almost 100 years, Wiebe is doing a few things differently. For the past several years, Wiebe has done mostly no-till farming on the fields and plants 7-10 species of cover crops each year — both practices that help to conserve the soil and increase soil fertility. But one of the most significant changes to the farm began over ten years ago when Wiebe and his family started making cheese in their kitchen.
“I wanted to do something with the milk to increase the value,” he said. “I was tired to see it go down the lane in a truck and that’s the last you saw of it…my wife grew up in Canada in close proximity to two cheese plants. They were used to fresh cheese that hadn’t sat in a store a whole long time.”
“As I’m in it longer, I’m glad we chose cheese. I like the challenges of it and the variety. I think people like it because it’s from a family farm that owns the cows; we know where the milk comes from.”
Consumers are glad Wiebe chose cheese as well.
After perfecting recipes in the kitchen for a few years, Wiebe purchased some used equipment, set up shop on the property, and by February 2003, had a permit to start making and selling cheese. Customers appreciate the range of flavors—from classic cheddar and Colby to more exotic dill weed or hot habanero. Wiebe even made raw milk cheese, a specialty amongst cheese connoisseurs.
As for market research—after receiving generally positive input about expanding into cheesemaking, he took a leap of faith. That leap is paying off and getting recognition. In 2006, Wiebe Dairy placed second in the World Dairy Expo’s Flavored Natural Cheese category.
Perseverance and a high-quality product laid a strong foundation for the business, but diversification in marketing and sales is another key to success. Between some online and on-farm sales, as well as wholesale and sales to larger distributors, cheese production is going well. In the mission to serve local consumers, however, there is one piece of the puzzle missing.
“It’s kind of ironic: we don’t have all the local stores,” he said. “There are two grocery stores in the town 10 miles down the road. We were in both of them. The one store does a very good business with it, [and] they move a lot of cheese. The other just didn’t. I guess people know if they want our cheese where they have to go.”
VAPG and Next Steps
Aside from a small venture loan from the Kansas Department of Farming and Housing, Wiebe had not explored many programs for getting the cheese business up and running. But five years ago, he began working with a cheese consultant to improve his cheese production. The consultant, affectionately known as “Dr. Cheese,” directed Wiebe to the VAPG program.
“He was the one that said there are grants just for people like me, and he asked [for] permission to talk with a grant writer,” Wiebe said. “The grant writer was familiar with [the program] and made it a whole lot easier for me to pursue the grant.”
The $120,000 value-added producer grant that Wiebe received this year will help him with operational costs associated with cheese production. While there are no immediate plans for expansion, the current plant is pretty small and can only handle half of the farm’s dairy production at any time. Separating the cutting and packaging from the processing could help boost production. Additionally, Wiebe wants to look at updating the equipment with a newer pump and upgraded cheese cutter.
“We started on a very low budget for the amount of milk we process,” Wiebe said. “Almost all of our equipment came from a guy in South Dakota and we just sort of adapted and made it work.”
The VAPG funding will not help Wiebe with costs directly related to expansion, but it will help cover other costs in the meantime to make expansion a reality later on.
“The grant helps because, by having a part of the operating expenses paid, that allows the cash flow to improve so [that] maybe we could add on a building or, if we wanted to, add a showroom or window or observation place,” he said.
VAPG and Local Food Systems in Kansas
The VAPG awarded to Wiebe’s dairy was the largest of seven grants given to producers in Kansas. In total, producers in the state brought in almost $400,000 from USDA through the VAPG program in 2014.
In Kansas, many rural producers have to cover significant distances to reach local markets. Additionally, making a leap to scale up marketing efforts can be tough for small producers.
Despite these challenges, Mary Fund, Program and Policy Director at the Kansas Rural Center (KRC), believes the state’s VAPG success in 2014 stems from residents’ greater interest in local food. The state recently developed a local food and farm advisory team, and KRC released Feeding Kansas: Statewide Farm & Food System Assessment with a Plan for Public Action at its 2014 Farm and Food Conference on November 8.
“Local food is growing,” she said. “Part of the evidence of that is that the interest and excitement in agriculture is in that sector. It’s still considered a niche by commodity agriculture and by our Department of Agriculture, but I think they have recognized it’s a really important niche because there is so much interest in healthier food and where your food comes from.”
Stay tuned for the last blog post in our series detailing some of the success stories of farmers and other recipients of value-added producer grants.