Dairy farmer Charlie Crave feared his dreams of running a dairy farm had been dashed in the 1970s after his father changed careers and sold the herd he had been milking at Waterloo, Wisconsin.
Too young to take on the business himself, but determined to have a career in agriculture, Mr Crave attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s farm and industry short course programme.
There he met David Wieckert, a professor in dairy science, and an unexpected partnership began.
Mr Crave says: “Prof Wieckert told me he wanted to invest in a small farm, so after convincing his wife to remortgage their house, he agreed to invest in me and my brother.
“We were only 22 and 20 years old at the time, so it was a tremendous leap of faith for him.”
The brothers initially rented a small farm and milked 40 Holstein Friesians, but by the early 1980s they were able to get a bank loan to buy out Prof Wieckert, who continued to advise on the farm, and buy their own land to expand the business.
“Over the next 15 years we really focused on developing the farm,” says Mr Crave.
“We were the first adopters of technology in the region, building bunker silos, using a total mixed ration, installing curtain-sided freestall barns and using genetics to improve the herd.
“Much of the time we were forced to be innovators. We had a vision for a curtain-sided barn but, because it had not been done before, we could not find a contractor. So we did it ourselves.
“We also wanted a basement in the milking parlour, but no-one was prepared to do it, so we poured the concrete ourselves.
“We were always focused on continuing education to find the best way to rear our cows too, which I guess is what happens when you have a professor as a partner.”
Today, the business has 2,200 cows spread across two sites, with the herds housed in insulated freestall barns which protect them from Wisconsin’s hot summers and severe winters – temperatures reached -30degC at one point last December.
Cows are milked twice a day in a ‘parabone’ parlour, a cross between a parallel and herringbone, with cows producing an average of 14,000 litres per head each year.
One of the biggest changes the brothers have made to their business over the years was to diversify into cheese production.
Prompted by a desire to add value to their fresh milk, they set up their own factory alongside the farm, pumping fresh milk 100 yards in underground pipes from the dairy to the processing facility.
“When we borrowed the money to pay off Prof Wieckert we started to think about what we wanted to do next. It makes sense to have someone else’s money working for you so we do not want to just carry on as usual.
“We looked at speciality markets and whether we should be organic or sell just fluid milk or yoghurt, but, knowing our market, we decided to sell cheese.
“We knew we could have found a processor to take our milk and do it for us, but we wanted to add our own value, which is why the factory made sense.”
Today, half of the farm’s milk goes into Crave Brothers’ cheese production, with the family mainly focusing on speciality mozzarella and mascarpone.
As they cannot compete with larger producers on price, they have focused on the products’ quality, as well as building strong relationships across the supply chain.
Mr Crave says: “Co-operation can take you a long way. We have worked with a large pizza company in Milwaukee to create a special log of mozzarella which it could use in its slicing machines. It took farmer ingenuity to work out how to do it.
“As companies get larger it can get harder to take on another company’s technology, so it is important we find ways to work with businesses,” he adds.
“We have had some great interactions. We cannot come close to producing cheese for the cost of production of some other major companies, so we cannot compete in supermarkets, but we can compete on quality.”
Crave Brothers cheese has become so well known in the region the brothers installed viewing rooms in their new 5,000sq.metre factory, welcoming visitors to look around the cheese production facilities and the farm.
“For many years we took a polite stand-offish approach to talking to the public, but several years ago I decided we should be talking about what we do,” Mr Crave says.
“People are concerned about large farms, but we are proud to talk about our cows and answer any concerns they have.”
Part of the story the family like to tell visitors is about the farm’s environmental efforts, which include creating a circular system to make use of everything which is produced on-site.
“We installed a biogas digester in 2006 which we updated last year, and today we produce the equivalent of 1,000 gallons of diesel in methane gas every day,” he says.
“We do not use corn silage, just manure or substrates, and the energy we produce powers our farm, factory and 300 homes in the area. We use the remaining material for bedding, while excess heats is used to heat farm buildings.
“We have a list of environmental initiatives which we are always working on, but the biggest thing for us is soil health,” he adds.
“We are proactive environmentally and we have a solid relationship with our processor to ensure any milk we do not use on-farm is taken away and does not go to waste. I am proud of the green story we have to tell.”
Four generations of the Crave family now work in the business, taking their total staff count to 90. Mr Crave is in charge of administration, while his brother George runs the cheese factory with his wife Debbie. Both brothers’ children and grandchildren are also involved in varying capacities.
“Each of them bring different experiences and skills to the business, from mechanics to looking after cows to marketing,” Mr Crave says.
“Looking at everyone’s skills and understanding how we can work collaboratively has been key to our success.”