Feltz Family Farms, 110 Year-Old Farm Funding Cheese Curd Processing
By Sandra Yerges, University of Minnesota Crookston
Fresh out of college and in the midst of the off-season, Jake Feltz, cheesemaker at Feltz Family Farms, was left with ample amount of time. He wanted to find something to do to support his six-generation family farm, so he consulted online sources for guidance. In his search of hundreds of websites, he came across the USDA and their grant offerings. This internet find was the link to their future endeavors with the Value-Added Producer Grant (VAPG).
Feltz Family Farms began in 1913 after Jake’s ancestors made the journey from Poland to Stevens Point, Wisconsin. They were broad in their farming interests that ranged from animals to various crops. Their farm held 40-50 cows at a time, which sustained them and the successive three generations of the Feltz family.
The variety of agricultural ventures worked for the first 90 years on the farm, but it was not feasible for Jake’s parents, Ken and Jackie Feltz, who made up the fifth generation on the farm. They purchased the farm in 1995, and at that time, they realized that supporting their children and managing all aspects of the farm was impossible. It was then they realized that they needed to simplify the farm’s specialties. While speaking about his father, Jake explained, “Instead of doing a little bit of everything, he really wanted to get good at one thing.”
While cutting out all other elements of the farm, Jake’s parents committed themselves to their dairy cattle. Although it was a large adjustment for the family to undertake given their vast history of multifaceted farming, they found success in this solo endeavor for the time being.
Despite the success of this large change, the offerings now at the farm have “come full circle” for Jake and his family. Their primary focus is still on the 600 cows on their land, however, they expanded to community-based offerings as well. Ken and Jared, Jake’s brother, continue to work on the animal upkeep and care side of the farm. Jake’s sister, Taryn, along with Jackie and Jake focus their attention on managing the retail aspects of Jackie’s five-year old dream project, Feltz’s Dairy Store.
There are many seasonal elements that customers of all ages are able to enjoy at the farm. In the spring, Jenna, Jared’s wife, hosts local schools to tour the farm and learn about their dairy operations. The fall also proves to be a busy time with their pumpkin patch and corn maze. All of these activities allow families, friends, tourists, and locals to join in on the fun. “We’ve really added that social aspect working with the community,'' Jake said.
The customers visiting Feltz Family Farms are also exposed to a wide variety of products at the farm store. From cranberries and chocolate to cheese supplied from other Wisconsin-based plants, guests can purchase all types of treats. The company also puts together gift boxes, typically with meats and cheeses, that are sold to customers at the farm store as well as local businesses. These gift boxes are also available for domestic shipping, which is perfect for the holiday season. “Wisconsin cheese ends up being a great gift for relatives in other states,” Jake expressed.
Cheese is the defining feature of Wisconsin, so it is only fitting that this farm also provides cheese curds to their customers on a daily basis. Jake admitted that ever since the opening of their farm store, cheese curds have reigned in their popularity among the Feltz Family Farms visitors. To make this product, there is a large kitchen on the farm where Jake processes cheese made from the cows on the farm. For six to seven hours before the farm opens, Jake and his small team creates the curds to get ready for the influx of customers for the day. To reach this current level of production, however, there were both time and money constraints.
According to Jake, there have been many unexpected costs associated with cheese curd processing. In order for him to make and process the cheese, for example, he was required to partake in a two-year process of obtaining his cheesemaker license. In addition, the large number of cheese processing machines and equipment along with the cost of running them adds up.
It was an exciting time for Feltz Family Farms in May of 2021 as they received their VAPG grant funds to help offset these expenses and help with promoting their cheese curds. Throughout it all, they have also seen substantial growth in sales. They began with selling up to 40 pounds of cheese curds per day, and after the success with their grant-funded advertising, they tripled their sales to 100-130 pounds sold daily.
When making this much cheese, the proper equipment is important to ensure no product is going to waste. Now that they received the funds to purchase larger equipment, this farm was able to keep up with the demand while utilizing full batches of both fresh and deep fried cheese curds.
Jake is not alone in this production process as the grant opened up the opportunity for Feltz Family Farms to hire part-time cheesemaking help. This new employee assists with cheese making while packing the curds in grant-funded bags. Now, the farm is able to financially support another employee while obtaining the help they need to keep up with the increasing demand for this product. All of these benefits eased the minds of the Feltz family as Jake admitted, “It wasn’t quite as scary having the grant.”
With the city expansion efforts encroaching on the once rural area surrounding Feltz Family Farms, the family has decided to grow their dairy products as opposed to their cattle operation. Because they strictly make cheese curds on-site, they want to upgrade to faster pasteurization equipment to add to their farm-crafted cheese options. This will propel them toward their goal of broadening their business model to include wholesale. For now, they are going to place their attention on the new areas of the business made possible by the VAPG and continue to uphold their 110-year legacy on the farm.