Jisa Farmstead Cheese
David Jisa’s great-great grandparents purchased the pioneer family farm in Brainard, Nebraska, for $800, two pigs and a cow. It has supported five generations of farmers and their families, and expanded under his father’s watch to include a dairy.
Jisa took it one step further in 2005 when he launched a commercial cheese operation, a response to difficulties in the dairy industry brought on by a drop in milk prices.
“I thought either I’m going to sell the dairy or change my business plan,” he said.
The Jisa family nearly lost the farm in the Great Depression, but his father, Lad, fought in World War II and benefited from the G.I. Bill. He started Jisa Dairy in 1946 with 10 cows and a small milking machine in the barn, and later modernized it in 1950 and became a grade A dairy. A milking parlor was added to the farm in 1962, and the family purchased land from several surrounding farms as well.
“The dairying business has treated us well,” Jisa said. “My dad raised five kids on 120 acres here just milking cows.”
Jisa attended the University of Nebraska in 1972 and left after two years – he had earned an associate’s degree in agronomy – to return to the farm and help his parents who were finding it increasingly difficult to keep up with the physical demands of running the farm and the dairy. His father cut back on his work schedule, and Jisa began to assume more of the management duties.
“I had a pipe dream even when I started that I would like to have a procedure or plan to take my milk and go value-added,” he said. “I wanted to do ice cream. I always liked ice cream when I was a kid.”
But he realized ice cream was not a staple of a family’s budget. Cheese, however, was considered a staple “that people want to buy anyway even if the economy goes sour.”
Jisa also had the benefit of being able to consult family members for expert advice. His wife’s family had owned a cheese plant in Dodge, Nebraska. But he didn’t want to put too much pressure on them and take them away from their full-time jobs.
He turned to the University of Nebraska’s food technology department and its pilot cheese plant. The plant manager assisted Jisa in making his first batch of cheese, and he received assistance in creating product labels and the nutrition facts panel. He has maintained contacts with individuals from that department, and continues to turn to them for advice.
When his in-laws’ dairy sold, he attended the sale and talked to several individuals about what it would it would take to build a cheese plant on his farm. He traveled across the country in search of equipment at auctions. He broke ground on the plant in 2004 and made his first batch of cheese there one year later.
“I used all my own money to purchase the equipment and build the building,” he said.
When he began his cheese-making venture, Jisa treated it as a hobby, but put the time and effort needed so that it would in time become profitable.
“You can’t go into it thinking, ‘I also have to feed my family off this or make some huge payment,’” he said, “because then you’re in trouble.”
He says he’s “not a party animal” and spends his free time on evenings and weekends in the cheese plant, perfecting his craft.
A USDA Value Added Producer grant, awarded in 2005, was a critical step in getting the cheese plant operational. Much went to the University of Nebraska as it aided Jisa in learning to make cheese and developing his labeling system. He also bought a computer for use by the business and bought milk and paid for labor.
Today, Jisa’s Farmstead Cheese produces several varieties of block cheese, including mild aged New York cheddar, Monterey jack, caraway, veggie, jalapeño, horseradish, havarti and havarti bell, and cheese nuggets, such as New York cheddar, ranch, onion, garlic and dill flavors. Unique varieties such as the havarti bell – a havarti cheese with red bell peppers, which he says is a one-of-a-kind – and velky, a nod to his Czech heritage, have helped make a name for the company.
“Have I gotten big and rich and famous yet? No,” Jisa said. “But it’s surprising how many people know us.”
He hired and trained a cheese maker, though he continues to make cheese himself as well, and has a staff of several full- and part-time employees to assist with other tasks at the cheese plant.
Jisa Farmstead Cheese produces 2,000 to 3,000 pounds of cheese a week. With his herd of cattle, he has the capability to produce about 13,000 pounds weekly. The cheese is in demand, but Jisa is careful not to bite off more than he can chew.
In 2006, Jisa attended a six-day American Cheese Society conference that was targeted at beginners. In terms of distribution, Jisa learned the key first step was to take his product to farmers markets.
“It’s sales talk,” he said. “You say, ‘You like our cheese? Request it at your store.”
He still takes Jisa’s Farmstead Cheese to several farmers markets. But his sales talk appears to have paid off with a widening distribution network. Kroger’s now carries his cheeses in about 100 of its stores, and Affiliated Foods Inc., which supplies grocery stores in a seven-state area, began carrying them in July. At least two other distributors have expressed interest in his products as well, he said.
“I guess I could have been farther along with my wholesale deal than I am today,” Jisa said. “You still have to keep your dairy and your farm going.”
Though his cheese operation has exceeded expectations, the skyrocketing cost associated with hauling the milk from his dairy has Jisa rethinking the structure of his farming operation.
Two years ago, he was paying $36,000 annually in hauling charges. Fuel costs and inflation have driven that bill up to $100,000.
“It is just atrocious,” he said. “We’ve got to keep the farm running, too.”
Rather than hauling his milk to LeMars, Iowa, which is approximately 200 miles from his dairy and pay that hauling bill, he is devising a plan that would involve taking all of his milk to the plant one mile away and converting all of it into cheese to be sold wholesale. He expects he would make a basic cheese, such as cheddar or mozzarella, which are always in high demand.
Adding more gas to the fire is the fact that Jisa is still milking cows in the same milking parlor his family built in 1962. “Push comes to shove,” he said, “I just need a better parlor.” A new milking parlor is now under construction on his property. He said it will be a better milk facility, and one that will help the dairy to become more efficient.
About USDA VAPG
VAPG funding has been offered by the USDA periodically since the early 2000s. A new round of funding is anticipated to be announced in the coming months. To be considered value added, projects must show how products are differentiated in specific ways from commodity crops. Typically, projects must also show how they may deliver greater returns to producers.
Independent producers, farmer or rancher cooperatives, agricultural producer groups, and producer-owned business ventures, including non-profit organizations, may apply. In previous cycles, applicants were required to be producers of the raw commodity who will maintain ownership of that commodity through the process of creating a value-added product. Grants have been available for planning projects (such as marketing and business plans and feasibility studies) and working capital projects (which might include wages or packaging supplies). (http://www.rd.usda.gov/)