Award-winning Wisconsin cheesemakers mentor their neighbors and help keep small farms afloat.
On their 200-acre organic LoveTree Farmstead in Northern Wisconsin’s Trade Lake region, Mary and Dave Falk create sheep’s-milk cheeses so delicious they win a following wherever they’re served. The Falks have earned more than a dozen awards for their cheeses—made from organic milk from their own specially bred sheep—including the American Cheese Society’s prestigious best-of-show prize. In 2002, Bon Appétit magazine named the couple “Food Artisans of the Year.”
Eager to share their successes, the Falks have been working to preserve small farms in northern Wisconsin. “Small-scale dairy farming and farmstead cheesemaking are respectable trades,” Mary says. “They ought to be financially viable, too.”
It isn’t easy being a dairy farmer these days, Mary explains. “No matter what kind of animal you’re milking, milk prices are volatile. Farmers are fine so long as there’s a tight supply of milk, but when there’s a surplus, we go broke.”
In fact, it was low milk prices first led the Falks into cheesemaking, because it allows them to take a “value-added” approach to their milk sales. “By keeping the milk on the farm and turning it into cheese, we were able to increase its value per gallon significantly,” Mary says. “This allowed us to stay in business—and keep the farm. If we were selling fluid, bulk milk to the local co-op, we’d be earning a lot less per gallon.”
The Falks are innovators. They’ve bred sheep that can survive Northern Wisconsin’s harsh climate, thrive on a diet of grasses rather than grain and produce the high-butterfat milk that gives LoveTree cheeses their complex flavors.
Not far south of LoveTree Farmstead, farms and forests are turning into subdivisions—bedroom communities for the rapidly growing Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area in neighboring Minnesota. “Family farms are being swallowed by sprawl,” Mary says. By enhancing the viability of small-scale farming, the Falks hope to curb development. To this end, they serve as advisors to sheep-dairy producers around the state. They frequently call and visit their legislators, and they’re active in the national farmstead cheese movement.
“We also help new dairy farmers locate cost-effective equipment,” Mary says. “Many times, we will run across older equipment that’s just the right size for a small dairy, and sometimes it’s just given to us. We in turn find a new home for that equipment by passing it on for the same price that we paid—or didn’t pay.”
Recently, the Falks founded what they call the “LoveTree Farmstead Extended Label Program.” Under the program, Mary and Dave mentor new farmstead cheese producers. If the new makers’ products meet the Falks’ standards, Mary and Dave age them in their own ripening caves and market them under the LoveTree label.
“This gives customers an opportunity to learn about new cheeses from a name they trust,” Mary says. “And it gives new farmers access to an established market.”
By working patiently, keeping things simple and sharing resources—expertise, marketing and customers, to name a few—the Falks are supporting a new trend in American agriculture. “This approach,” Mary says, “could go a long way toward saving small farms in northern Wisconsin.”