Crave Brothers, a family-owned and-operated dairy farm and cheese factory tucked away in Waterloo, Wis., is garnering attention with its award-winning farmstead cheeses and green story.

Crave Brothers makes European-style farmstead cheeses like fresh mozzarella, mascarpone, farmer’s rope cheese and two artisan cheeses, Les Frères and Petit Frères.

Besides producing cheese and high-quality milk, the company produces energy as well. Over the last five years, Crave has become a 100% green power farm. The company partnered with Clear Horizons in 2007 to build an anaerobic digestion system on its farm. This anaerobic digestion is a biological process in which microorganisms break down the organic waste (in this case cow manure) in a process that produces gas, mainly methane with some carbon dioxide. This gas can be burned like natural gas, which generates energy. Crave is now a carbon-negative company, which means it produces more power with its bio digester than it uses. The computer-controlled system, owned by Clear Horizons, generates enough electricity to power the farm, the cheese factory and over 300 area homes.

The four Crave brothers – Charles, George, Tom and Mark – are the owners and managers of both Crave Brothers Farm and Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese. They’ve been farming together since 1978 and brought their farm and business to small-town Waterloo in 1980.

After years of being strictly a dairy farm, the family decided it was time to grow the business for future generations, and George Crave decided that cheesemaking was the way to go. About seven years ago, the company expanded the cheese factory (originally built in 2001) and built bigger barns on the farm. Later it added the bio digester.

Today, the 25,000-square-foot facility produces around 15,000 pounds of cheese a day (depending on the season). The milk is piped directly from the farm to the factory within hours of milking to create fresh farmstead cheese. The dairy farm can produce up to 120,000 pounds of milk a day.

According to George Crave, manager of the cheese factory, the most popular cheeses for the company are fresh mozzarella, mascarpone and Oaxaca.

He pointed out that fresh mozzarella can be more challenging to work with than aged cheeses. It only has a 32-day shelf life, so the factory makes just enough cheese each day for specific orders. This means the company has to be very reactive to the market and very flexible because orders can change at the last minute, Crave said.

“Being a fresh cheese producer, it is a much tighter balancing act,” said Crave.

This act is certainly working, as the company continues to be recognized for its high-end quality cheeses.

The company celebrated its 10-year anniversary of cheesemaking this year. Since 2002, the company has won more than 100 awards for its cheeses and business practices. Including first place for its Petit Frère with Truffles in the 2012 American Cheese Society competition, it also received second place in the 2012 World Championship Cheese Contest in Madison, Wis., for its marinated mozzarella. Crave Brothers won Dairymen of the Year at the 2008 World Dairy Expo.

George Crave is happy about the value that cheesemaking has added to their business and the growth they have seen. 

“Because we’re farmstead, a lot of people pull in here and think they’re going to see a little red barn and you know 20 cows out in front. They’re quite surprised when they come down the road to see the scope of our operation,” he said.

Its size has allowed the business to entertain larger customers than the typical small farm operation, according to Crave. The farm has 1,500 Holstein cows, with 2000 acres of land. The company’s main customer base is specialty cheese buyers and high-end chefs. The cheese is available nationally in stores like Woodman’s, Whole Foods, Kroger, Sendik’s, Brennan’s Market and Lunds & Byerly’s.

The company has about 42 employees at the cheese factory and about 30 at the farm. Ten family members work in the business. According to Crave their goal isn’t to be the biggest cheese factory in Wisconsin. Everything they’ve built has always been about maintaining the family business and being a driving force in the local community.

“The impact we make in our local economy here is very important to us and we want to maintain that over hopefully another generation or two,” said Crave.

When it comes to community, the farm has certainly made its mark thanks to the bio digester. Crave said it’s great for the environment and the farm has a very low impact around the area. It adds even more value to the farm as well.

“At the end of it, we have a very plant friendly fertilizer that fertilizes our crops for next year’s production. And those crops grow up again and go right back through the cow and make milk and make cheese and we do it all over again,” said Crave. The composted residue from the process is also used for bedding for the cows, allowing them to keep warm and comfortable during the winter. 

When the digester was first built, the company put out a press release titled, “From cow pies to clear skies.” The attention has been pouring in since, including features on NBC Nightly News, the Fox Business Network, National Public Television’s America’s Heartland show and several area news outlets.

As Crave puts it, their story has been popular thanks to the green movement sweeping the food industry. The business is family-owned, its cheeses are popular with locavores and the company has a small carbon footprint.  For Crave Brothers, being green is a natural way of doing business.

“Farmers are the original recyclers. Everything we take out of the ground, all returns back to the ground,” said Crave.

The farm’s sustainable story doesn’t stop there. It also practices water conservation and recycling. All of its cheese packaging is recyclable and last year the company added a green logo to the packaging stating “produced with renewable energy.”

“Our packaging tells our story about the farm,” said Debbie Crave, vice president of Crave Brothers. Each package talks about the family-owned business, the green story and how to use the cheese. Some packages include a family recipe under the lid.

Crave emphasizes the personal story. “We try to personalize a lot of what we do here and put a face on our products.”

Read more about George Crave in “Cheesemakers Tell All,” in the March 2012 Dairy Foods