LaClare cheese
LaClare’s Evalon has won several awards, including 1st place in the 2011 American Cheese Society competition.

In a saturated landscape of cheese and dairy farmers in Wisconsin, one little goat farm is doing what it can to stand out with award-winning goat cheese and milk.

LaClare Farms, Chilton, Wis., makes eight different farm-fresh goat cheeses, including its specialty Evalon, Evalon with Cumin, Evalon with Fenugreek, fresh Chevre, raw and pasteurized goat Cheddar and Fondy Jack. 

LaClare is part of the Quality Dairy Goat Producers Cooperative of Wisconsin, started in 2004 by LaClare owners Larry and Clara Hedrich. The co-op includes five other farms and has approximately 1,200 milking goats. The co-op was created as a way of adhering to a specific set of milk standards to produce a higher-quality milk.

The Hedrichs worked with cheesemakers, including Sid Cook of Carr Valley Cheese Co., to define what was needed to produce quality goat milk, and then they spent time executing that definition. The company did this by developing feeding programs, breeding programs, good sanitation practices, and standards for cooling and holding the milk. Now each farm in the co-op agrees to these practices, said Katie Hedrich, LaClare’s main cheesemaker and marketer.

One aspect that makes the co-op’s milk unique is how it is cooled. By law the goat’s milk must be cooled below 50 degrees, said Greg Hedrich, business manager for LaClare. “[At that temperature] enzymes and bacteria will grow and that’s what [can give] it that goaty flavor,” he said.

“However, if you cool it down below 41 degrees, then it stops that growth and it [produces] a really fresh, good-tasting milk,” he said.  Hence the company’s motto, “great milk makes great cheese.” All the farms in the co-op cool their milk between 36 and 41 degrees.

LaClare’s success in growing its cheese business can be traced back to the milk. All the cheeses are made with milk from the co-op only, and the Evalon cheese is made with LaClare Farms’ milk exclusively.

The customer base for LaClare’s cheese is national and regional retailers, including Whole Foods, Larry’s Market in Brown Deer, Wis., Fromagination in Madison, Nala’s in Green Bay, Wis., co-op stores and other high-end specialty stores. Its national markets include Philadelphia, New York, Boston and Southern California. When it comes to marketing the cheese, the company focuses on in-store demos, meet-the-cheesemaker events, farmers markets, face-to-face visits and word-of-mouth.

The cheese has gained attention through its awards as well. In 2011, the Evalon won Best in Show at the U.S. Cheese Championships. The Chevre placed second in the 2011 Wisconsin State Fair Cheese and Butter contest. 

On the farm side, the co-op offers quart and half-gallon containers of whole and low-fat milk which is bottled and distributed by Sunshine Distribution. Through Sunshine, the co-op also offers butter. The company distributes its milk to markets in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan and Illinois. The co-op also supplies milk to Carr Valley and Sartori, to Laloo’s for goat’s milk ice cream and to Nordic Creamery for butter.

LaClare Farms processes its cheeses at Willow Creek Cheese, Berlin, Wis., producing from 1,000 to 2,000 pounds of cheese a week. In the past year, the company has seen triple-digit growth in sales, according to Hedrich.  Thanks to its success, obtaining its own creamery isn’t far off. The family purchased 160 acres in Pipe, Wis., with plans to build a facility, but no date has been set.

Along with acquiring its own facility, Katie Hedrich looks to grow the product line as well. This year she partnered with a cheesemaker from Roelli Cheese, Shullsburg, Wis., to create Ziege Zacke Blue cheese, a dry, jack blue cheese that is a mix of cow’s and goat’s milk. (Ziege is the German word for goat.) This partnership is something of a side project and hobby for the two cheesemakers, according to Greg Hedrich. Currently Ziege Zacke Blue is produced on a smaller scale and is being marketed mostly regionally.

While the Evalon remains the most popular cheese for the company, the Chevre is gaining ground, having “exploded in [sales] the last six months,” said Greg Hedrich.

With the company continuing to grow, Katie Hedrich takes care in developing new products. “I do a lot of research …talk to cheesemongers, distributors, consumers and find out what they want.” Her focus right now is on “jack and Cheddars to increase the awareness around those particular cheeses.”

There are challenges of course and Hedrich cites foodservice as one.

“Due to price and quality I think a lot of larger foodservice operations have not added goat products into their product lines. However, we are seeing the consumer demand [for] more of the goat products because of health issues, etc. As we continue to see the demand rise we will see the foodservice industry turn to more goat products.”

The future looks bright, despite the challenges and competitive field.

“The dairy goat industry is fairly small, [so] we do have a number of competitors in the States. But because the market is large and the supply is fairly small, I think there is a lot of opportunity for growth,” Hedrich said. 

On the business front, Greg Hedrich puts his focus on the website. In September, several new additions were added to the site, including an online-store, links to its social media pages, a retail/restaurant/distributor locator and news section. 

“This year we have focused on taking the website from a simple information-providing site and making it a useable site for our customers,” he said.