Farm challenged to be creative

By GAY GRIESBACH - For the Daily News

Jan. 30, 2018

Creativity helped prolong Koepke Family Farm’s traditions, which started in the 1870s.
Submitted photo

When dairy farmers John and Kim Koepke began to feel the pinch of rising land prices from country estates and hobby farms, later known as Koepke Family Farms in the towns of Ashippun and Oconomowoc, they knew it was time to get creative.

The Koepke’s wanted to retain their agricultural tradition, which began with John’s great-great-grandparents in 1875. In 1937, when his grandparents, Harvey and Ruth, took up dairy farming a few miles from the family homestead, they got 15 acres and a barn that had room for seven cows. The farm expanded under the ownership of John’s father, Jim, and his uncles, Alan and Dave.

Today, there are 350 milk cows, 350 heifers — all registered Holsteins — and farm 1,110 acres with 15 fulland part-time employees.

The use a Double 10 Herringbone milking parlor, where they milk three times a day and the milk is marketed through Dairy Farmers of America.

In addition to the milk, they do some cash grain sales and raise 50 or 60 replacement cattle, but the rising cost of land would not allow the newest generation to expand.

That’s where another Wisconsin tradition comes into the picture.

In 2008, John and Kim began looking into making cheese as a way to add value to their enterprise.

They spent two years talking with people in the cheese industry and found master cheese maker Bob Wills, owner of Cedar Grove Cheese in Plain.

Wills agreed to do the custom work involved in producing cheese that came exclusively from the Koepke herd.

Making cheese fits with the Koepke’s goals of being good stewards to their cattle and the land they farm.

That care and attention with their livestock resulted in more than 100 head that hold lifetime records of producing more than 200,000 pounds of milk. One cow, Granny, held the world record for producing a lifetime total of 459,000 pounds, enough to fill a typical tanker nine times. John said it may still hold the U.S. lifetime production record.

Koepke Farms was also a forerunner when it came to adopting a no-till conservation system, incorporating grassed waterways and adding barnyard runoff control into its management plans. Not only have the measures improved soil health, they also earned the farm a Leopold Conservation Award in 2011.

The name of their product — LaBelle — has local roots taken from a landmark lake 10 minutes down the road in Oconomowoc.

“We wanted to have a name for the cheese that would be connected with our local community. Also, la belle in French means ‘the beautiful,’” Kim said. “What could be more romantic than calling our product ‘the beautiful’ cheese in French, even though it’s a Dutch Gouda inspired cheese recipe from a family with predominately a German heritage.”

In 2010, the first LaBelle cheese was produced in Plain and two years later the operation was moved from the parent company to Clock Shadow Creamery in Milwaukee.

Kim said the enterprise was a bit dicier than working through the DFA. There, milk leaves the farm and a milk check comes in. When it comes to the cheese, they’re on their own with developing, marketing and selling.

The enterprise became a family operation, with Kim, John’s mother, Mary, and employee Elmo Wendorf selling the cheese, wedge by wedge, at farmers markets.

Kim and John’s son Colton, 13, often accompanies his grandmother. Son Samuel, 9 helps label cheese and Auggie, 16, helps out on the farm.

After gaining popularity at farmers markets, they approached a few retailers in Milwaukee and Oconomowoc who agreed to carry the LaBelle brand.

Then an interesting thing happened — retailers began to come to them and ask about carrying their cheese.

“The best PR came from people that believed in what we were doing,” John said.

While a portion of the cheese is sold by direct marketing, the rest goes through a distributor.

LaBelle Cheese can be found locally at the West Bend Sendiks and in recipes and cheese platters at The Irish Pub in Oconomowoc. They can also be found Feb. 24 and March 31 at the Milwaukee Winter Farm Market at the Mitchell Park Domes and in May, at the Oconomowoc and Wauwatosa farmers markets.