Ken and Becky Ropp transformed a dairy farm into a cheese processor and retail outlet that entertains and educates 5,000 school kids each year while servicing online and retail consumers hungry for local products. And it only took about ten years to get the business 'just right.'
Ken (pictured below), the seventh generation to farm the family operation near Normal, Ill., stumbled on to a good idea while visiting the World Dairy Expo in 2000, where he saw "Cheese on wheels" – a semi-truck built to process cheese. "I got to talking to guys who owned that business, and started putting pencil to paper," says Ken. "Cost-wise, it was about half the cost of building a brick and mortar cheese plant."
In 2004 the family sold some acreage across the road to fund the business, and started making cheese in 2006 using the self-contained production facility entirely housed in a 53-foot semi trailer.
The farm has 60 registered milking jerseys with a base of 450 acres, explains Ken. After the cheese enterprise began the operation grew to 13 employees and now services markets in 130 locations, all within 100 miles of the Bloomington-Normal area.
A wide variety of shops now sell Ropp's Jersey Cheese – from upscale restaurants to wineries to mom and pop grocery stores. They sell online at www.roppcheese.com.
The key to success here is quality and variety. The Ropps make 80 different types of cheeses – mostly cheddars, but also Swiss, Monterey jack, ricotta, Colby and Gouda. Several are flavored. A green onion cheddar and habanera cheese took first place at the state fair a few years ago.
Another key is cashing in on the growth in farmers markets and the mounting demand for local food. In a clever case of culinary symmetry, a local microbrewery takes spent barley and hops from its brewing process and ships it to the Ropps for herd consumption; then, the Ropps send cheese curds back to the microbrew for customer consumption. The Ropps work with a local winery to create a unique 'all local' product – a cheddar with a local wine 'swirled' in for flavor and visual appeal.
"It's a nice little buzz for everybody," says Ken. "It's a local wine, it's a local cheese, and a lot of people like their food produced as close to home as possible."
The Ropps had very positive response from the public when they opened for business in 2006. Over 10,000 people jammed the farm's store in the first 36 hours. Each school year roughly 5,000 kids come out for tours that include hay rack rides, feeding calves, and watching cheese being made. Each one goes home with a free coloring book thanks to Farm Bureau.
"We don't make any money on school tours," explains Ken. "What makes money is when the kids go home, tell their mom and dad about it, then come back with their parents ready to buy cheese."
The most interesting -and hardest learning curve for the Ropps - was the crash course they got in marketing. "Nothing can train you in beating on doors and getting people to believe in your product," says Ken. "You've got to start promoting.
"The main thing is, if I can get that cheese into someone's mouth, they'll buy it."