Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Welcome Saxon Creamery

Sunday marked the grand opening of Saxon Homestead Creamery in Cleveland, Wis., where a mere 24 years after their first business plan, the Klessig and Heimerl families realized their dream of making artisan cheese from the milk of their own cows.

Attending the grand opening ceremony was a bit like a family reunion, as about 125 friends, family members, state officials and industry reps gathered to help the dairy farmers turned cheesemakers celebrate.

"This kind of stuff just doesn't happen outside Wisconsin," was how Saxon Creamery partner Dan Strongin summed up the day, after he asked everyone in the room who was related to either the Klessigs or Heimerls to identify themselves. About one-quarter of those in attendance raised their hands.

"This is one of those feel-good American stories where a dairy family makes good on their dream," Strongin said.

And made good they did.

Creamery manager and co-owner Gerald Heimerl, along with brothers-in-law Karl and Robert Klessig, who manage the family’s nearby grass-based Saxon Homestead Dairy Farm, began production of unique, handcrafted, small-batch cheeses last August. Today, the cheese aging rooms at Saxon Homestead Creamery are full, and Heimerl says plans are underway for another building project that will add needed inventory space. The creamery itself is a former beer warehouse that sat empty but was transformed into a state-of-the-art creamery designed by Saxon partner/cheesemaker Neville McNaughton.

On Sunday, Neville and Dan led a tasting of two of Saxon’s carefully-aged cheeses: Green Fields, an earthy elegant table cheese featuring a washed rind wrapped in special breathable paper, and Big Eds, named for late family patriarch Ed Klessig, that Dan described as "the kind of cheese that hugs you back."

The creamery’s milk is produced at Saxon Homestead Dairy Farm, where the Klessigs hosted 2,500 people at the Manitowoc County Dairy Breakfast that same morning. The Klessigs and Heimerls converted their conventional dairy to a rotational grazing operation in 1989. That experience became the family’s “a-ha moment” as they turned their herd of Holstein cows out of the barn onto pasture for the first time and said they witnessed "pure pleasure" on the faces of their cows.

Those in attendance praised the Saxon family for reinvesting in their family dairy operation and for adding to the state’s dairy economy.

In fact, Agriculture Secretary Rod Nilsestuen gave up his Sunday afternoon to attend the ceremony, saying: “This is the fifth dairy plant opening I’ve been to so far this year. I’d say we have more to celebrate in America’s Dairyland than we have for decades, and it’s because of entrepreneurs like the Klessigs and Heimerls. Their story will be heard around the country."

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