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'It's in my blood': How the smaller dairy businesses in Wisconsin compete

Inside Union Star Cheese
Cows graze at Harness Farms
Posted at 2:21 PM, Sep 10, 2021

NEENAH (NBC 26) — At Union Star Cheese in Fremont, the cheese is fresh.

"It's a really enjoyable thing, making a product every day and then having you appreciate it," said Dave Metzig, owner of the factory.

“Somebody has to get up in the middle of night and make the donuts, the same with cheese curds. We start at four o'clock in the morning, so they're ready by nine o'clock.”

But before it's the block of cheeses sold in the fridge, it comes from the cows.

"A short day is probably 12-14 hours," said Mark Harness, owner and operator of Harness Farms, one of the two farms that supplies dairy to Union Star Cheese.

Harness Farms is a three-generation owned dairy farm in Neenah. It dates back to the 1900s, and now Mark runs it with his son, Zach. Farming is in his blood. He said he's been milking since he was 12-years-old. When asked why he's determined to keep the farm in the family, Mark said he believes it's the only way it could run.

"You know, take pride in ownership and everything, and you just want to pass it down to the next generation,” said Mark.

Mark is one of the many small, family-owned dairy farms in Wisconsin. Greg Verhaffelt runs his father's dairy farm with his son's in De Pere.

"I was born raised on the farm and I played farm in the sandbox," said Greg. "My uncle used to drive tractor for my dad when I was really little. And I would sit in the tractor... and I became Jeopardy knowledgeable on a lot of farm equipment and stuff. I would read books and books, and, it's just, it's in my blood."

Greg said he and other small farms work with a passion other big cheese companies don't have. He said the connection to the cattle is what sets him apart.

“I believe that there's consumers out there that are unhappy with the dairy industry," said Greg. "And I believe that there's consumers out there that are looking for that individual attention, that knowing that the animals are treated differently. They're not all being shot up with drugs for reproduction. They're being fed different seeds."

To compete against those big co-ops, all their resources, and all their cows, is a lot of work.

"The big co ops, you're just there working for them, you know, there's no premium for no incentive the goal to do any better,“ said Mark.

Hundreds of farms in Wisconsin have faded away in recent years, but Mark has found his niche, and is going strong.

“It's a lot of satisfaction, looking over your shoulder and seeing what you've accomplished during the day,” said Mark.

And while most farmers love what they do, that doesn't mean they don't have tough days.

“It's been probably the wildest ride in the dairy industry in the last 18 months that anyone can remember,” said John Umhoefer, the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association.

He said the pandemic brought a new set of challenges for small farms, like employee shortages due to less income, and fewer retail sales.

“The milk price absolutely tanked in the spring of 2020, said John. "And everyone thought, well, is this the end of the industry, because it was, you know, all the restaurants closed and the world shut down... some milk get dumped in the ground because there was no one to buy the products."

Since then, the industry has slowly fought back. Dave said unlike other jobs, cheese makers and farmers don't have a choice, they have to work, and there's no choice to work online. Regardless, Dave and Mark are proof that not even a one-two punch of a changing farming landscape and a global pandemic can take down the Wisconsin cheese company.

"Every day is good day because you're doing something you want to do,” said Mark.