This month Farm Aid spoke with grass-based dairy farmer and artisan raw milk cheese maker, Stuart Veldhuizen. Stuart quit dairy farming in the 1990s, but came back to it again when he realized that producing a value-added product and direct marketing could help him thrive as a dairy farmer. Stuart is a member of Farm Aid partner Texas Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (TOFGA).
He grew up on a Minnesota dairy farm and generations before him were dairy farmers, but Stuart Veldhuizen quit farming in 1996. He and his dad had survived the farm crisis of the 1980s on their farm in Minnesota. Frustrated with the long winters and low milk prices, Stuart moved the farm to Texas. Southern milk prices were about $2.50 higher per hundred weight and the climate allowed more grazing and less harvesting, breaking ice, and manure hauling. But Stuart still didn't think it was worth it. As he explains, "We could never get ahead." So, Stuart sold off his herd and went to work off-farm.
But in 1999, Stuart had a change of heart and an itch to once again do something with the farm where he and his family lived. Stuart explains, "We knew we didn't want to go into debt, and we knew we didn't want to milk 1,000 cows, like the trend was going." Stuart's wife, Connie, got online to see if there was a way to make a living with 20 or so cows. That's when Stuart became fascinated by the idea of making artisan raw milk cheese.
In 2000, Stuart became a farmer again, bartering his labor for calves and studying cheese making at the University of Wisconsin and at various workshops with cheese makers from New Zealand, Italy and New England. The Veldhuizens remodeled their barn to include a cheese making facility and pulled together the necessary equipment.
In 2002, Stuart finally began making cheese from his own herd of about 20 Jersey-Holstein cows and built a beautiful stone cave in which to age the cheese. But it was another year before he was able to sell any cheese. In 2005, the family built a new cheese making room with more capacity to meet the demand they had for their cheese, as well as an on-farm store.
The milking herd has grown to about 45 and the cheese varieties now number seven, two of which—Paragon and Texas Star—are signature Veldhuizen cheeses and the farm's best sellers. Stuart credits the "Buy Local" movement for much of his success. In addition to being available for purchase at the farm and online, Veldhuizen cheeses can be found in a couple Texas grocery stores and cheese shops, at local farmers markets, and in local restaurants. Folks who discover Veldhuizen cheeses on restaurant menus and in local markets often come out to the farm for a visit. As Stuart explains, "Texans really enjoy supporting their local producers. This is an outlet that we didn't have twenty years ago… it's a huge opportunity."
Taking advantage of that opportunity requires a long day! A typical day on the farm begins at 5 am, with a morning milking around 5:30. Much of the day is spent in the cheese room where the cheese is made, and in the cheese cave, where cheese is aged for up to 2 years, with turnings, coatings, and washes throughout the aging process. The on-farm store is open Monday through Saturday. In addition, the fields, where the cows graze on alfalfa, rye, millet, and oats, depending on the season, require attention. And there's often equipment to repair. Finally, there's the evening milking before the day is through.
Stuart emphasizes, "To be successful, you've got to shoot for quality. Taste everyone else's product for comparison, and give your product away to get feedback. Tell friends and family, ‘Don't tell me it's good… tell me the truth.'" In this way, Stuart says you end up with a better product. It's a method that has clearly worked for him.
Today Veldhuizen Family Farm is a thriving family operation involving three generations of the Veldhuizen family. Stuart's parents, Connie and Stuart and their seven children, aged 11-25, have all worked on the farm. Connie and Stuart say "a number of the kids show a good amount of interest" in continuing in the family tradition of dairy farming. They can thank the ingenuity and creativity of their parents for that opportunity.To find out more about Veldhuizen Texas Farmstead Cheese and purchase some for yourself, visit http://veldhuizencheese.com/