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Frisian Farms: Preserving a Dutch tradition with Gouda cheese

Progressive Dairyman Editor Jenna Hurty Published on 10 June 2015

Frisian Farms sign

Make 1,000 pounds of cheese per week. Age it for two months. Sell it to restaurants and grocery stores in the Chicago area. Sounds like a simple, effective plan, right? Wrong. Or at least that is what dairyman Mike Bandstra quickly learned when he started his Gouda cheese business, Frisian Farms, in Leighton, Iowa.

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Mike’s brother Jason owns and operates the dairy, Frisian Farms, in Oskaloosa, Iowa. Expansion was not an option, so in order for the 80-cow dairy to continue to support both brothers, their families and their father, who is employed by the dairy, they needed to devise a way to produce a value-added product with the milk from the farm. Cheese seemed like a good option, but making a good, high-quality cheese wasn’t even half of the battle. Selling it was.

See more of Frisian Farms in this sildeshow .

Having grown up on their father’s dairy in Pella, Iowa, the brothers are familiar with the dairy industry. After their father sold the dairy when they were in high school, they both missed it and decided to pursue degrees in dairy science.

After graduation, Jason bought a farm and began raising Holstein bottle calves, while Mike moved to Maryland to work as a herd manager for Horizon Organic Dairy. In 2005, four years after he purchased his land, Jason started milking cows instead of just raising them.

windows “I started raising Holstein bottle calves with no intention of milking at all,” Jason says. “It just kept getting bigger and bigger, and I bought more and more; then I turned this hog building into a milking facility, and we just grew from there.”

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Eventually, Horizon Organic wanted someone in the Midwest and recruited Mike for the job. This was his chance to move back to Iowa, and he took it. In 2008, he joined Jason on the dairy and started working on turning the milk from the dairy into a value-added product.

Mike looked into bottling fluid milk and yogurt but settled on cheese due to its long shelf life. He picked Gouda cheese because they come from a Dutch town, so it seemed like a good fit.

Fortunately, cheese-making was not completely foreign to Mike. He’d studied it in college.

“When I was at Iowa State, I took a dairy processing class,” Mike says. “We had a lab, and we had to make things out of milk. I was just amazed that there were so many things you can make from it. You can make butter. You can make sour cream or ice cream.

For the whole semester we had something different. So I called [Dr. Hammond] up and said, ‘Hey we’re thinking about making cheese; what do you know about Gouda?’ He invited us up to his pilot plant and we made a couple batches up there.”

Unfortunately, the cheese was not very good.

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gouda cheese

Around that time, Jason found a consultant from the Netherlands who was willing to show them the old, traditional way of making Gouda cheese. The consultant spent two days with them on the dairy teaching them and helping them source some of the equipment they needed.

That’s when their biggest challenge began – marketing and branding their cheese.

“It’s probably the marketing and branding,” Mike says. “We’re just dairymen that decided to make cheese; we just assumed it would sell. But just how much work it takes to sell it has been our biggest lesson.”

At first, Mike tried selling his cheese at local and natural food stores in the Chicago area. He traveled there once a month to meet with them and spread the word about his product. However, this was time- and labor-intensive since many of the grocery stores had high employee turnover rates.Time and time again, he would visit a store, and they would agree to sell his cheese, but a few months later, they would stop ordering it.

Mike would call the store to see what was wrong only to learn that the store had a new cheese guy who had no idea who Mike was but would be happy to meet with him and discuss his cheese. Mike would return to the store, tell his story again and sell his cheese . . . only to have the incident repeat itself a few months later. It was frustrating.

After a year, Mike tried a new strategy: farmers markets.

Selling his cheese at the farmers markets proved to be much more profitable. Des Moines and Cedar Rapids are both fairly close to him. During the summer he travels to farmers markets there and sells his cheese.

Although there is a large Dutch population in the area, there are only a few dairies, and local cheese is not a common commodity. Mike’s cheese quickly became popular, and pretty soon customers were asking for different flavors.

bacon cheese “At farmers markets, people would come and say, ‘Hey I had a cheese when I was in Wisconsin, and it had chives in it, and it was so good,’” Mike says. “Where I order my ingredients, they have a list of just things you can add to the cheese, and I said, ‘We’ll try some.’”

While Mike charges a little extra for the flavored cheeses, customers seem to enjoy them, and he has been adding flavors ever since. Currently, he offers 13 different types of Gouda cheese as well as a few flavors of cheese curds.

Business is growing. This past summer, their cheese business outgrew the space he had for it on the dairy, so he decided to build a separate facility for it. Their new location is just off the highway and is much easier for customers to find than the dairy, which is about 2 miles away on gravel roads.

Mike built the new building with agritourism in mind. He had a large window installed in each of their processing and aging rooms to allow customers to see first hand how the cheese is made.

About a year ago, the brothers decided to separate the cheese business from the dairy, and at the end of February Mike moved his cheese business to his new store.

“It was about 90 percent cheese, 10 percent dairy. So that’s when my brother and I decided to separate. We went 50-50 on everything. He bought me out of cheese, I bought him out of dairy, and we kind of went from there.”

holstein cows

Both brothers are pleased with this decision and the outcome it’s had so far. It was something that needed to happen.

Although Mike has yet to consistently hit his 1,000-pound goal, he does not plan to expand much more. He wants to keep his products artisan and stick with Gouda. In addition to his farmers market sales, he has some grocery stores in Chicago that sell his cheese and a few restaurants that purchase cheese from him.

If he expands at all, he says it will likely be in this area. Down the road he could see hiring a salesperson to market his cheese in the Chicago area, but that is about as far as he wants to go.

Looking forward, Mike says he can see one of his three daughters taking over his cheese business, but that is still a ways down the road. Right now, Mike is focused on building his business and his brand to pass on to the next generation.

“This is pretty much it for me. If the next generation has interest and wants to expand or do something different, then more power to them. I want to retire some day.” PD

PHOTOS
PHOTO 2: Mike added windows to each of their processing and aging rooms so customers could easily see how the cheese is made.

PHOTO 3 : The Gouda cheese is aged for at least two months before it is sold. Two-month-old Gouda is called “young Gouda.”

PHOTO 4 : Customers at the farmers markets started asking for flavored cheeses, so Mike began adding them to his cheese. He currently offers 13 different flavors of Gouda.

PHOTO 5 : Jason’s dairy, Frisian Farms, is located a couple miles from the cheese house. All of the cheese is made with milk from his farm. Photos by Jenna Hurty.

Jenna Hurty
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