Wisconsin’s Red Barn Family Farms succeeds by putting local dairy farmers first

We’re standing on a dirt path on the Holewinski farm near Pulaski, a steady breeze in our face. The full power of an August sun illuminates the landscape. He points to the small herd of cows standing in a pasture.

If we get too close, Homan says, we’ll scare them off. They don’t know us. If we wait here, a few of them will be curious enough — and brave enough — to come check us out. After the rest of the cows see that we don’t mean them any harm, they’ll join.

Sure enough, a few cows look our way. They stroll toward us. Soon, a row of cows is within a few feet. Close enough for me to snap a cow selfie (it’s a Wisconsin thing).

Homan, who grew up on a dairy farm near Waupun before leaving for college to become a veterinarian, is also spot-on at predicting demand for locally sourced, sustainable dairy products. He and his wife, Paula, established Red Barn Family Farms in 2008; nearly a decade later, they’ve managed to ride the rising “eat local” movement to success in the traditional sense. Their distribution has grown. They’ve won awards.

But that’s not how the Homans define success. The two topics that spark their passion: healthy cows, and supporting a healthy family dairy farm heritage.

Many Wisconsin dairy producers are concerned about cow health and purchase milk from small and large dairy farms alike, but the Homans put their money where their passion is. Farms that follow the Red Barn rules get paid a premium that exceeds commodity price for their milk.

The rules: Farms need to be the producer’s primary source of income and family members the primary source of labor. Feed needs to be free of animal byproducts. Performance-enhancing antibiotics are banned. Cows must spend plenty of the time outside and receive an annual, third-party health inspection conducted by the American Humane Association.

The Red Barn rules weren’t a restriction, said Amy Holewinski, when they joined eight years ago. They were a way of life. There’s been a Holewinski up before dawn every day on this farm for three generations, with the next generation eager to continue the tradition.

Betting the family farm — literally for the Holewinskis — on a startup dairy operation wasn’t a decision made lightly. If the Red Barn Family Farm concept didn’t work, it could wipe out 100 years of this family owned and run dairy farm.

“Terry (Homan) had been out here quite often trying to convince us. It was a hard decision to trust to go with a place that was so small.”

Who could blame them? What the Homans proposed was not to build their own dairy facility to bottle milk and make cheese. They didn’t have an established brand or massive retail or commodity presence.

But along with premium prices, Red Barn also promised a system that put family farms at its center.

“We do all the work around here,” Amy Holewinski said. “When we were with a big company, you never felt like … you were needed or appreciated.”

Red Barn raising

The Homans were determined to make Red Barn work. They purchased the first 100 gallons of milk from Tim Schultz, whose farm is near Seymour, to do some research.

“We did a focus group,” Terry Homan said. “That was the first time I witnessed people who tasted it and (said) ‘Wow, that’s really good milk.'”

It’s like the difference between a vine-ripened, locally grown tomato and one you get in a grocery store, he said.

Paula Homan said they were out at grocery stores nearly every weekend during the summer of 2008 sampling their milk and consistently heard customers say, “This tastes like the milk I had on my grandfather’s farm” or “This is SKIM milk? It seems more like a 2 percent.”

About this time the Homans worked out a deal with Lamers Dairy to process the milk.

Lawrence University signed on to serve Red Barn milk on campus in August 2008. For the fledgling company, Lawrence was an important first customer, serving about 500 gallons of Red Barn milk on campus each week.

“The chef at the time, Bob Wall, who now owns the Green Gecko in Appleton, was instrumental in getting our milk into the cafeterias there,” Paula Homan said. “We will forever be grateful for his willingness to give us a chance when our company was just a few months old.”

These days you can find Red Barn milk at ThedaCare facilities, and it has been served at Bellin, St. Mary’s and St. Vincent hospitals in Green Bay.

It can also be found in retail locations like Woodman’s across Wisconsin.

Mastering cheesemaking

Then there is the matter of the cheese.

The Homans approached master cheesemakers at established factories. They showed up with more than just high-quality milk and a feel-good story about family farms. They had unique recipes in hand including a signature cheese and another featuring raw milk.

Working with the Center for Dairy Research, part of the University of Wisconsin-Madison college of agriculture and life sciences, the Homans developed recipes for Cupola, a semi-hard cheese with, according the Red Barn’s website, notes of caramel and toasted pineapple; Le Rouge, an alpine style cheese; and Edun, a raw milk cheddar.

And in a state of known for great cheesemakers, Red Barn found some of the best, including the award-winning team at LeClare Farms in Malone and Jon Metzig, one of Wisconsin’s youngest cheesemakers to earn master status, at Willow Creek Creamery in Berlin.

Red Barn’s big award winner is its bandaged cheddar made by master cheesemaker Wayne Hintz at his family-owned Springside Cheese Co. in Oconto Falls. This cheddar has won 18 medals at national and world contests since 2011, including six best of class distinctions.

Sold as Heritage Weis, the bandaged cheddar not only won the sharp-to-aged bandaged cheddar class at this year’s U.S. Championship Cheese Contest, but also earned a spot as a top 20 finalists of all cheeses entered in the contest.

And still, Red Barn is pushing to make more unique cheeses. With more master cheesemakers.

One is in development at Door Artisan Cheese in Egg Harbor. Though Door Artisan also makes its cheeses, ranging in styles from blue to cheddar to Valmy (a Door Artisan exclusive cheese that gets a beer wash) with Red Barn milk.

Mike Brennenstuhl, master cheesemaker and co-owner, said his previous experience with Red Barn sold him on using their milk to make his cheeses when they opened in April this year.

He used their milk in his previous business venture, Seymour Dairy Products, where he earned several awards, including a gold medal for a blue cheese at the 2009 World Cheese Awards.

“I really wanted to focus on having Red Barn be our supplier simply because of the small farm. It fits with our small-batch cheese making,” Brennenstuhl said. “The quality of the milk is arguably the best quality of milk that you can get.”

A different kind of success

Word of the high-quality products is out. Take a look at the retail locations selling Red Barn products and you’ll see lots of markers in places like the Twin Cities, Cleveland and Milwaukee and a decent scattering of red barn markers in Chicago, Madison and northeast Wisconsin.

While Terry Homan is proud of the awards and growing demand, he uses different standards to measure Red Barn’s success.

When he left for veterinary school in early ’90s, Terry Homan said farms looked like the nine that make up the Red Barn family. Family owned. Small herds. Family run.

By the time he started practicing veterinary medicine, he said it had changed.

“There are solid reasons for consolidated agriculture, large farms,” he said. “That doesn’t mean this (family farms) shouldn’t be part of the future. I think it is important to Wisconsin, our agricultural history.”

Herd size on Red Barn farms range from 35 to 75 cows. Farms are located just north of Appleton to Pulaski to Gillett.

Terry’s treatment of the cows during his veterinary visits to the Holewinski farm helped convince the family to join Red Barn.

“He came out every couple of months of the first year he started (Red Barn),” Amy Holewinski said. “The more he talked to us, it sounded more like something that we would like to do, that we believed in. We just felt like our work was appreciated and maybe worth something a little more.”

That little more, hopes Terry, will allow Amy and Neal’s son Steven the opportunity to carry on the Holewinski tradition of dairy farming.

“Honestly, I think it’s in my blood,” Steven Holewinski said. “I enjoy working with the animals.”

Cows that the Holewinskis know by name.

“We all kind of name them,” he said. “When you work with them every day you just kind of get to know because you kind of watch when they’re growing up. It’s kind of a natural thing. At least for me it is.”

It’s a way of life the Homans hope to be part of for many years to come, Terry Homan said.

“I think it would be a shame if this type of farm wasn’t preserved in our state.”

 

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