Redhead Creamery: Cheese whizzes
BROOTEN, Minn. — This is the story of a central Minnesota dairy family that wanted to add income to its operation and support the next generation. It's also the story of a young woman with a passion for making cheese and who, like her three sisters, is a pronounced redhead.
The extended Jennissen family and its Redhead Creamery are proof that value-added agriculture is always important and sometimes enjoyable, especially when done with family.
"People sometimes ask me, 'What's it like being in business with your family?' And I tell them, 'What could be more of a dream than having your children want to come home and being able to make that happen?,'" says Jerry Jennissen, who's been in the dairy business since 1979.
The family's dairy herd and 3-year old cheese company, which includes a small on-site restaurant and retail store, is jointly owned by Jerry and his wife, Linda, their redheaded daughter Alise Sjostrom, and her husband, Lucas.
They milk 185 cows. About 7 percent of the milk produced by their herd goes to make their cheese.
"We're trying to add value to our milk, and we are," Jerry says.
The rest of their milk goes to Minnesota-based Bongards Creameries, a prominent cheesemaker and cooperative made up of hundreds of farm families.
"I always tell people the other 90-percent-plus of our milk goes to Minnesota's second-best cheesemaker (Bongards)," Jerry says, stressing that Bongards has been very supportive of Redhead Creamery.
"We're in completely different markets," he says. "And we work together when we can."
Alise says visitors and even neighbors sometimes are surprised to learn that Redhead Creamery features a state-inspected cheese plant.
"They don't realize the scale of it, that it's not something we do in our kitchen" she says.
Alise, now 31, has wanted to make farmstead cheese since she was 16 and took a 4-H trip to a Wisconsin cheesemaker. Returning home from the trip, she told her parents that she wanted to be part of the family business when she was grown, but not by milking cows.
"Milking cows wasn't my thing. I wanted to do something different," she says now.
After deciding to become a cheesemaker, she prepared herself through a number of jobs and training programs, including a seminar at the (now-closed) Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese. She majored in agricultural industries and marketing, with a dairy food quality emphasis, at the University of Minnesota.
While in college, she fell in love with Lucas, also an ag student, who grew up on his family's Holstein and diversified crop farm in southern Minnesota. The two first met as children during an annual convention of the Minnesota Junior Holstein Association.
Lucas has held several jobs in the dairy industry, currently serving as executive director of the Minnesota State Producers Association, while helping Alise pursue her dream of becoming a cheesemaker.
"It's my wife's dream and vision that we're here (making cheese). I couldn't be more proud to be her husband and her business partner. It's been so much fun to be part of this short ride so far, and I hope it's much longer," Lucas says.
He says he spends a very limited amount of time on Redhead Creamery, primarily at night and on weekends.
"It's almost more of a hobby for me, though it's not a hobby," he says. "It's a business. We control our own destiny. When things go well, it's just so much fun. When things aren't going so well, it's on you — you're the team that didn't make it happen."
Lucas says he hopes more Minnesota dairy producers will take on value-added operations.
The family business has won national recognition. Jer-Lindy Farms — the longstanding dairy part of the business and a play on the names of Jerry and Linda — was named 2017 Innovative Dairy Farmer of the Year by the award sponsors, the International Dairy Foods Association and Dairy Herd Management magazine.
The sponsors say Jer-Lindy Farms was one of the smallest businesses to win the annual award, which recognizes "U.S. dairy producers that apply creativity, excellence and forward thinking to achieve greater on-farm productivity and improved milk marketing."
The combined dairy and cheese operation employs 15 people, six full time and the others part time, who shift between the dairy and the creamery.
Attracting and retaining good employees is often a challenge for dairy operations, but the opportunity to work in a cheesemaking plant, too, adds variety and helps the Jennissens and Sjostroms find workers, Jerry and Linda say.
One of the employees is Jerry and Linda's daughter, Maggie, 24, who joined the family business early this year. Maggie has a double degree in applied economics and psychology, and helps with marketing and finances. Her parents hope she eventually will become a part-owner of the business, too.
The on-site store and restaurant account for about 30 percent of Redhead Creamery's sales. Specialty stores and restaurants, among other markets, account for the rest.
The store, restaurant, cheese plant and dairy operation offer regular tours, with many of the visitors coming from the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.
"Summer traffic has really picked up," with 50 to 100 people visiting on a typical Saturday, Linda says.
Visitors' questions are encouraged and appreciated. "People have a lot of questions, and we like to share our knowledge," she says.
Sometimes that includes explaining why the dairy operation isn't organic.
"We believe in science. Using the tools that science provides is the best way to farm and produce food for the world," Jerry says.
Family members are interested in several potential changes to the business, including adding robots to reduce human labor and beginning to make butter and ice cream.
Redhead Creamery recently enjoyed a notable milestone: It cash-flowed for the month, which means more money came in than went out.
"Just because we're doing it for this month doesn't necessarily mean we'll do it next month, too," Jerry says pragmatically that it's an encouraging development nonetheless.
Alise says the family business, though challenging, is rewarding.
"The days can get pretty long. But we're doing what we want to be doing," she says.
More information on the company, including its products and tours: " target="_blank">redheadcreamery.com.