Building a Business for a Sustainable Future

Building a Business for a Sustainable Future

Alise Jennissen came back from the National 4-H Dairy Conference in 2002, and with the confidence only a 17-year-old red head can muster, told her parents they needed to build a farmstead cheese operation on their dairy.

She said: "This is what I want to do and this is what we need to do." She argued it would be a wonderful way to add value to the high solids milk they were already producing and her opportunity to stay on the 200-cow dairy, make a living and raise a family just as she had growing up.

Her parents, Jerry and Linda, chuckled at the thought. "None of us knew anything about cheese or marketing," says Jerry. But he and Linda didn't discourage Alise. Instead, they challenged her to go to college, learn everything she could about cheese making, business and marketing, and then come back and propose a business plan that would make the dream a reality.

Over the next decade, Alise and her now husband, Lucas Sjostrom, did just that. In October 2013, more than a decade after Alise announced her plan, Jer-Lindy Farms broke ground on the Redhead Creamery, so named after the four red headed Jennissen daughters. And on July 5, 2014, Alise made her first batch of cheese.

The two and half years since have been a whirlwind of trial and error cheese making, promotion, and in-person marketing at high-end grocery stores and local farmers markets. Their local UPS driver has become their biggest fan with all the business they are now providing. And as their Redhead brand of cheese gains recognition and consistent sales, they hope to increase production 50% this year.

The fulfillment of Alise's cheese making dream is just one of the reasons Jer-Lindy Farms, Brooten, Minn., was selected as the 2017 Innovative Dairy Farmer of the Year by the International Dairy Foods Association and Dairy Herd Management.

Jer-Lindy Farms was nominated by Lucas Lentsch, CEO of the Midwest Dairy Association. "The families' goal is to be innovative and sustainable while profitable, and they are setting an example of how small operations can achieve this goal."

Adds David Frederickson, Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture: "Jerry and Linda Jennissen have found a way for their operation to maintain economic viability, environmental integrity, and social responsibility." The expansion to include their daughter and son-in-law through Redhead Creamery enhances the viability of the farm for another generation, he says.

The challenge Jer-Lindy Farms faces is not unlike the vast majority of small and medium size dairy farms across the country. Having a daughter or son return to the average American dairy is a dream often unfilled because these farms seldom offer the size, scale and cash flow to support multiple families.

The addition of the creamery gives the family the opportunity to expand and diversify the business without adding cows or acres. In fact, the growth potential is so great a second red-headed daughter, Maggie, will join the operation this year.

The Jennissens' journey is one of perseverance, pluck, creativity and a realization that sometimes ideas don't always work out. Jerry and Linda’s entire career is a living example of effort, challenge and resilience.

Jerry comes from a family 10, and he is the oldest of seven sons. When he graduated from school, his dad told him he did not have room for him on the home farm, but he would go with him to the local Farmers Home Administration office to help him qualify for a beginner farmer's loan.

He qualified to buy 32 registered Holsteins, and he began milking in a rented barn. A few years later, his landlord said he needed the barn back since his son wanted to farm.

So he and Linda, since married, let it be known in the neighborhood they were looking for a farm. A local farmer contacted them that he was willing to sell a 40-acre farmstead with a house, livestock barn and a few out buildings.

Jerry and Linda Jennissen have spent 37 years building a sustainable, environmentally friendly dairy operation.

The farm was homesteaded in 1875, but few amenities had been added in the century since settlement. The original owners did have the foresight to plant a grove of trees that protect the site from the artic winds that howl from the north and west. To this day, that windbreak protects Jer-Lindy's calf hutches and dry cows and heifers that are housed in open-front sheds.

"But when they purchased the farm in 1983, the farm house had no running water (the toilet was in a closet flushed with a hand-carried bucket), and the barn had to be remodeled for dairy cows." told Jerry. "We'd have to make some changes before we could move here," laughs Linda.

So the house was modernized to at least include running water and the barn was expanded to house 50 tie stalls. But by August of 1983, just months after purchasing the site, the farm crisis of the 1980s came full force to Brooten and the rest of the American farm economy. "We both took off-farm jobs and we worked off the farm for 10 years," says Jerry.

In 2002, they were financially stable enough to buy another 200 acres of land and built a freestall barn to house 120 cows. They continued to milk in a flat barn parlor for the next seven years. In 2007, they expanded to 200 cows, but it wasn’t until 2009 that they were able to scrap the flat barn and install a double-eight herringbone parlor.

In 2007, they were approached by the Minnesota Project, a non-profit environmental group, to participate in a small-farm methane digester initiative. Most digesters are engineered for herds five times their size or more. This initiative was promoting smaller scale digesters to generate "green" electricity that could be adopted across a broader base of livestock farms in the Midwest.

But nearly everything about the project was flawed. The digester was designed for 6-8% solids waste. Jer-Lindy's dairy manure, which contained organic bedding at the time, was 14 to 16% solids. The digester also created and released large amounts of hydrogen sulfide which is highly corrosive to equipment.

"And the financial returns just weren't there," says Linda. Even though the Jennissens had about 70% in start-up costs covered by grants, electric rates and carbon credits were not enough to cover expenses. "The concept was good, but the idea hadn't been developed well enough to make it viable," she says.

Nevertheless, the Jennissens struggled with the digester for six years until they literally pulled the plug in 2013. They're still dealing with its legacy in their manure handling system, hauling manure daily from the freestall barn.

When Jennissens purchased the additional land in 2002, one of the first things they did was to apply for an Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) grant for a buffer strip. A drainage ditch runs the length of the west side of their farm. It eventually becomes the North Fork of the Crow River, which in turn flows into the Mississippi River.

Jennissens wanted to ensure that no runoff from their fields made it to the waterway, and with EQIP funds, seeded a 40 grass buffer along the ditch, around other wetlands and a pond on the property. "Sustainability is how we want to farm," says Jerry.

All totaled, it meant giving up maybe three acres of cropland. But it reduces the chance of runoff into the waterways, and can still be mowed for two crops of heifer and dry cow feed every summer.

Jennissens planted the buffer strips in the early 2000s, well ahead of the environmental curve. Only this past year has the Minnesota State Legislature passed regulations requiring buffer strips along all public waters.

Jer-Lindy farms stopped using commercial fertilizer, other than adding lime to occasionally buffer alfalfa fields, in 2003. All crop nutrients come via manure from the dairy.

"We grow BMR corn, and our yield goal is 20 tons of dry matter per acre. The last two years, we were low on nitrogen [based on soil tests]," says Jerry.

"But the weather was so good both years, we averaged closer to 26 to 28 tons per acre." Not adding fertilizer, especially when it's not needed, is saving $85 to $160 per acre.

For these efforts, Jer-Lindy received Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification in 2016. It's among the first farms outside of the program's pilot project zone to receive certification.

This past year, Jer-Lindy Farms also won an Outstanding Dairy Farm Sustainability Award from the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy. The farm was recognized for both its environmental efforts on the cropping side as well reducing energy use on the dairy by 20%.

The creamery building is just a driveway apart from the milkroom and parlor. A utility tunnel was installed below the drive for a milk line, reverse flow whey line and electricity. Redhead Creamery was able to secure an exemption from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture from immediately cooling milk if it is sent directly to the cheese making room.

That saves a lot of energy for cooling and then reheating the milk for pasteurization. The Jennissens have also installed high-efficiency boilers to heat water and LED lighting in the freestall barn, farmyard and inside the cheese plant to reduce electricity use.

They also participate in an off-peak electricity program with their utility. If there is a spike in electrical demand, the utility can remotely start the standby generator on the farm to have it run while the surge in electrical use persists.

"That doesn't happen often, maybe four to six times each summer," says Jerry. "But our lighting bill is almost half of what it was before we went on the off-peak plan and the LED lights."

Whey from the cheese making process is piped back to the feed center, where it is mixed in with the TMR. Jennissen's nutritionist estimates the whey saves 9¢/cow/day in feed cost.

Alise is now making cheese two days each week. She makes three varieties: cheddar, munster and brie.

All are full fat, taking advantage of Jer-Lindy Holsteins high solids milk, which averages 4.2% butterfat and 3.2% protein. The high solids content also means exceptional cheese yield, often producing 13 lb of cheese per 100 lb of milk. A more typical yield from Holstein milk is 10 lb/cwt.

When she was building her business plan, other farmstead cheese makers told her she needed a farm-made cheddar to establish her credulity with buyers.

But a couple of years in, she is now only making cheddar curds, most of which are sold through a food truck in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. "At its height, it'll take a vat a week for a few weeks in summer," says Alise.

What she makes now is driven by what consumers buy: brie, 80%; munster, 18%. Both are considered fresh cheese, but need to be washed, coddled and turned for a month in the aging room before they're ready for discerning, sophisticated palates.

The brie is called Little Lucy Brie, named after Alise and Lucas' daughter. Redhead Creamery's munster, North Fork Whiskey Washed Munster, is washed with a local whiskey that is distilled about a half hour from the farm.

About 80% of sales volume is wholesale, moved through a distributor to more upscale retail grocery stores and cheese mungers in the Minneapolis metro area. Redhead Creamery cheeses can also be found in markets in Sioux Falls, Fargo, Madison, Chicago and Iowa. The other 20% are sold directly to consumers via the retail shop on the farm or through internet sales.

Alise currently makes cheese two days a week, making 800 to 1,000 lb of cheese weekly and using seven to eight percent of Jer-Lindy's milk volume. Sales are growing enough she might have to make cheese a third day a week this year.

Starting the plant, building a customer base and now keeping everything running has been harder than the Jennissens ever imagined it would be. Alise thought she could make cheese a few days a week, fill orders and be home with her two kids, Lucy and Henry, just like she was raised.

It didn't turn out that way. She is full-time at the creamery, Linda is 80% and they have part-time help as well. The two kids are in day care.

Though the Redhead Creamery is open to the public just two days a week, they host farm tours and cheese-tasting events frequently. They get well over 6,000 visitors a year.

"We try to keep everything tour-ready every day of the year, and that takes extra effort," says Linda.

Being constantly accessible to the public probably isn’t every introverted farmer's dream. But Linda served 12 years on the Minnesota Division of the Midwest Dairy Association board of directors, and was its first woman chair. She also went to China on a trade mission with then Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

So she recognizes and appreciates the importance of meeting the public on their terms. Having that many people physically come to the dairy or virtually visit it on-line is critical in sharing dairy's story. Having that close contact with consumers is the only way to show that agriculture and technology go hand in hand in producing a safe, abundant food supply.

The Jennissen's passion for the industry is already showing itself in their granddaughter, four-year-old Lucy. When U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D., Minn.) came for a tour, Lucy ran into the store and grabbed a Redhead Creamery brochure and tote bag. As the Senator stepped out of her car, Lucy smiled, handed her the tote, and waved for her to come into the store.

Note: This story appears in the January 2017 issue of Dairy Herd Management.

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