Feature

Coming of Age

Written by Allison Jenkins on .

It’s 7:30 a.m., and Nathan Hemme is already four hours into his workday at Hemme Brothers Creamery in Sweet Springs, Mo.

Inside the immaculately clean production facility, the fresh milk he pumped into a stainless-steel cheese vat at 3:20 a.m. is just starting to cook. A high-pitched hum fills the temperature-controlled room as the vat’s motors turn paddles slowly in the coagulating liquid. By noon, the 3,000 gallons will be transformed into curds and pressed into 40-pound blocks of cheese.

That’s when patience becomes a virtue for the 30-year-old cheesemaker. He won’t know how this batch will taste for another 7 months. The hoops he fills today will sit in a cooler, untouched, until the cheese inside is ready to be marketed as the Hemme family’s “Brother’s Keeper” brand of aged cheddar.

“It’s nerve-wracking to put that much work and money into something just to set it aside and hope it turns out OK,” Nathan said. “It definitely takes a leap of faith.”

If the reputation the family already has built with its fresh cheese is any indication, the aged cheddar will be more than OK. Less than a year after churning out their first batch, Hemme Brothers Creamery is making a name for itself with hand-crafted, farmstead cheese produced on the family’s 180-cow dairy.

Hemme cheese curds, smoked cheddar and German quark, a spreadable product like cream cheese, can be found in grocery stores, specialty shops, farmers markets and wineries within a three-hour drive of the farm. These customers will have dibs on the creamery’s aged cheddar, too, when it debuts this summer. The public will get its first taste of the Hemmes’ signature product on Memorial Day weekend, when Brother’s Keeper is scheduled to be unveiled at a “Block Party” hosted by The Cheese Store in Sweet Springs.

By spring, Nathan said the creamery already had surpassed its business plan’s projections for sales in the first year, and the popularity of its products just keeps growing.

“The reaction to this cheese has been wonderful,” said Lori Henderson of S&P Quality Meats in Marshall, Mo., one of the first retailers to offer Hemme Brothers products this past fall. “Our customers love the curds and the cheddar block, and they’re so happy to find out it’s locally made. It’s selling really well for us.”

Cheesemaking is Nathan’s job, but cheese marketing is the responsibility of the family patriarch, David Hemme, who, with his wife, Janet, established the dairy in 1996 after running a farrow-to-finish swine operation. When pork prices bottomed out, the Hemmes got out of the hog business—but at a cost.

“We saw it coming; we just didn’t get out quick enough,” David says. “We lost about $300,000 in 18 months. But I wasn’t going to get out of agriculture. I knew we’d find a way.”

The 59-year-old farmer said switching to dairy was the best solution to stay in agriculture and allow the Hemmes’ children—four boys and a girl—to return to the farm if they chose. Except for daughter Elizabeth, who is a social worker, that’s exactly what happened. The eldest brother, Jon, came back to the farm after graduating from the College of the Ozarks in 2007. Nathan, next in line, earned his degree there, too, and joined the operation in 2009. Michael followed four years later, and the youngest, Aaron, in 2016.

“With a limited amount of land, dairying was about the only thing we could do to make it work,” David says. “The transition from hogs to dairy was pretty easy. You’re dealing with lactating animals, and both are high management. Actually, dairy is easier, just longer hours.”

With the boys back in the fold, the time was ripe to reinvent the farm again. More partners meant a need for more income. For the Hemmes, the options were to get larger or get creative. They chose the latter.

“It’s stressful, starting something you’ve never done before, but we see this as risk management,” David said. “When you produce a commodity like milk, you’re at the mercy of politics and price. By adding the creamery, we’re not just selling a commodity any more. We’re making a higher-value product for people who enjoy outstanding food. We set our own price and create more stability.”

Smile and say, cheese!

From concept to construction, the creamery was a multi-year process. First, the family toured similar farmstead operations, asking lots of questions and taking lots of notes. Then they began constructing the creamery, doing much of the work themselves.

To learn the basics of production, Nathan took a week-long cheesemaker’s short course at the University of Wisconsin in River Falls, and the family hired St. Louis-based consultant Neville McNaughton—known as Dr. Cheese—to help set up their operation and develop their cheese formulas.

“The cheese course in Wisconsin was intense with a lot of concentrated information, but our consultant helped more than anything,” Nathan said. “He knows a lot of tricks of the trade.”

Cheese-making challenges range from installing the right equipment—all of which is customized and costly—to making sure the room is surgically sanitized and optimizing conditions inside the aging rooms. Each step in the process must be precisely timed and controlled to ensure proper pH, temperature and consistency of the cheese.

“You think cows are complicated, but this is complicated, too,” Nathan said. “It took a while to figure out what makes it tick. It’s an interesting process. There’s a lot of stuff going on in there you can’t see. I’m always measuring so I can manage.”

Making cheese means milk goes full circle on the dairy. The family and some part-time employees milk twice a day, 5 a.m. and 5 p.m. Their herd is mainly made up of Holsteins with a few Brown Swiss and Jerseys to raise the milk’s butterfat level, which runs about 4.2 percent on the Hemme farm. By comparison, Holsteins alone typically average around 3 to 3.5 percent butterfat. That extra fat makes their cheese extra creamy, David says.

“Legal whole milk is 3-percent fat, so a lot of big manufacturers make their cheese at that level,” David explains. “We leave all of it there. People like our cheese because it’s so creamy. That’s one way we differentiate ourselves from the big boys.”

The Hemmes work with Dr. Jim White, MFA Incorporated director of nutrition, to formulate their herd’s ration, which includes farm-grown alfalfa, corn silage and ground corn along with MFA dairy feed concentrate.

About 10 percent of the Hemmes’ milk is currently being processed into cheese, pumped straight from the adjacent parlor into the creamery. The remainder is sold through DFA dairy marketing cooperative.

Family time redefined

Despite the name on their aged cheddar, none of the Hemme siblings is his “brother’s keeper,” David emphasized. Duties on the farm are divided purposely so that family members have their own areas of responsibility.

“The hardest part is that they’re partners,” David said. “They’re equal in this business. The worst thing I can do is pull out my ‘Daddy card.’ I’m surprised my bottom lip isn’t bleeding for all the times I’ve had to bite it. I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter how it gets done as long as it gets done. They find ways to do things totally different than I would have. And that’s just fine.”

While Nathan handles the cheese production with help from his dad and brothers, Jon is mainly in charge of raising row crops and replacement heifers. Michael manages herd reproduction and health and supervises the milking process with help from Aaron, who also oversees nutrition.

“You could say working with family is a blessing and a curse,” Jon said. “It’s great to have an opportunity to come back home and work with my dad and brothers. We have a lot of fun, but it can be hard, too. It’s not an employee you’re getting mad at or yelling at; you’re dealing with family all the time.”

As for David, salesman is the title he carries these days. After a lifetime of hard labor on the farm, he’s traded in his tractor for a van and delivers cheese to customers along Interstate 70, which is just minutes away from the farm. Until Brother’s Keeper is in full supply, the main income-generators are the farm’s fresh cheese curds, sold in 10 flavors, and German quark, which is only made by a handful of creameries in the U.S. Also popular are smoked cheddar blocks made from “younger” versions of Brother’s Keeper. An 8-ounce block retails for around $7, 10-ounce bags of curds are typically $6 to $7 and a 6-ounce jar of quark is $6.

“There are plenty of customers from Lenexa, Kan., to the Arch in St. Louis,” David said. “We don’t have to dominate the market—we just need a certain percentage of it.”

Farmers markets in Kansas City and Columbia also are a popular outlet for the Hemmes’ cheese, and the family participates in tasting events across the region. That personal, one-on-one relationship with customers is just as important to the Hemme Brothers brand as the hand-crafted quality of their cheese, David said.

“You can have a great product, but if you don’t have good customer service, you won’t last long,” he said. “We have a quality product, we can deliver it fresh and we take care of our customers. They want to have confidence in the farmer who’s making their food, and I want to have confidence that if I do my job, they’ll be back. There’s trust on both ends of the equation.”

Craft culture  

Launching their own line of cheese also allows the Hemmes to capitalize on consumer trends toward local foods and artisan products. The number of farmers markets, wineries and craft breweries and distilleries has grown exponentially in recent years. Cheese gets its slice of this trend, too. Americans are eating more cheese—43 percent more over the past 25 years, the USDA reports—and specialty products are the fastest-growing segment of this market.

“People want to know where their food comes from, and they don’t like the idea of it being ‘corporate,’ so we’re trying to tap into that,” Nathan said. “We’re pretty confident about it. It’s just a matter of getting everything figured out and getting our name out there.”

Their ultimate goal is one year away. Next summer, the Hemmes plan to enter Brother’s Keeper aged cheddar in the American Cheese Society’s Judging and Competition, an annual event that’s like the Olympics to cheesemakers. The growth in artisan cheeses is evident here, too, with the number of entries doubling during the past decade to more than 1,850 in 2016. The competition is tough. That’s why a win at this prestigious event can open doors to new markets and help make Hemme cheese a hot commodity.

“If we can place in that competition, we’ll get some validation of our cheese,” Nathan said. “There are a lot of distributors who will take note. We’re entering our quark this year, but it will be next year before we can enter Brother’s Keeper.”

Someday, David said his desire is to see most—if not all—the dairy’s milk crafted into cheese and have the Hemme Brothers name known far beyond this little corner of the world.

“I’d like to walk into a shop in, say, Boston, and see our cheese for sale and not really know how it got there,” David said. “There are others doing it. Why can’t we? I think we’ve got a product we can definitely take regionally and then nationally.”

If that dream comes true, it will mean much more than brand recognition. It will help preserve the future of the family farm.

“We feel like this gives us the best chance to be active in production agriculture for generations to come,” David said. “I’m the sixth generation to farm this land since my family came here from Germany in 1848. My grandchildren will be the eighth. It’s important to maintain that legacy if they choose to farm. At least this way, they’ll have that opportunity.” 

Cheese Please 

Currently, Hemme Brothers cheeses can be found at select Hy-Vee grocery stores in Columbia and Kansas City; the Columbia Farmers Market and City Market in Kansas City; shops such as the Cheese Store in Sweet Springs, S&P Specialty Meats in Marshall, the Better Cheddar in Kansas City, and the Wurst Haus in Hermann; and several wineries across the state. For more information, follow the creamery on Facebook at www.facebook.com/HemmeBrothersCreamery.

VIEW THE VIDEO OF HEMME BROTHERS CHEESE ON YOUTUBE - CLICK HERE

June July 2017 Today's Farmer articles

Written by webadmin on .

The June/July Issue hit mailboxes last week. The stories will soon be available here online and linked below. Subscriptions to Today's Farmer magazine are available HERE.

 

Coming of age (Cover Feature)
Hemme brothers craft their farm’s future with artisan cheese
by Allison Jenkins

A drive against hunger
Sawyer Brown concert at Missouri State Fair will benefit food-insecure families
by Jason Worthington

Under surveillance
Vigilant scouting helps detect, identify soybean disease for timely treatments
by Jason Worthington

Propane proponents
Farmers power up with rural America’s energy source
by Nancy Jorgensen

Finding a cure
Doctor’s search for answers leads to greener pastures with Nutri-Track
by Kerri Lotven

Making it personal
Customer care helps Shelbina MFA Agri Services strengthen loyalty, grow business
by Allison Jenkins

Spring flooding raises crop concerns
MFA agronomists share advice on putting fields back on track
by Allison Jenkins

Turning down the heat
Simple strategies can improve cattle 
performance this summer
by Dr. Jim White

Pay close attention to 
applications
Timing, conditions, product selection are keys to successful crop protection
by Dr. Jason Weirich

Purple Power
MFA Health Track program adds ABS program
-TF Staff

VIEWPOINT
New Federal Leadership with a different perspective
by Ernie Verslues, MFA President and CEO.

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Upfront/Blog articles

Market

June July Winning Recipes as printed / NEW TF FOOD PAGE

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Dilution is the solution

Written by Allison Jenkins on .

Graduate Student project identifies effective sprayer cleanout procedures

While new agronomic traits such as dicamba-tolerant soybeans bring benefits to growers, they also bring new challenges in judicious care.

One such challenge is making sure that sprayers used to apply dicamba to tolerant crops can also be used on other fields without causing damage to nontolerant plants. With that concern in mind, Jason Weirich, MFA Incorporated director of agronomy, teamed up with University of Missouri’s Reid Smeda, professor of weed science, and graduate student Andy Luke to determine the most effective procedure for cleaning out sprayer tanks between applications.

“With MFA’s footprint, we have several hundred sprayers covering over a million acres across our geography,” Weirich said. “Just a small amount of dicamba left in the tank can cause damage to nontolerant crops. We needed assurance we were doing proper tank cleanout procedures for our custom application rigs.”

The two-year project confirmed that the commonly recommended practice of triple-rinsing a sprayer is critical and that using a commercial cleaning agent such as Cleanse or Erase resulted in the least amount of dicamba left in the tank.

“Based on the data, we approve of this procedure: After spraying, rinse with water and a commercial cleaner, properly circulate it through the system and let it sit one hour,” Smeda said. “Then perform two additional rinses with water. If you do this, we believe you have a sprayer that’s been properly prepared to go spray other fields. What we’ve been saying is that ‘dilution is the solution’ to avoiding potential problems.”

Weirich said this recommendation will now be standard procedure for MFA.

“I’m happy with the results of the study, although I was hoping for an easier process,” he said. “The main thing is that we are doing a good thing for our customers.”

 

RELATED TOPIC STORY - DR. WEIRICH TALKS ATTENTION TO DETAILS - http://todaysfarmermagazine.com/mag/crops/1322-pay-close-attention-to-applications

Spring flooding raises crop concerns

Written by Allison Jenkins on .

A slow-moving storm system brought more than 9 inches of rain to parts of the Midwest the weekend of April 29-30, sending rivers out of their banks, flooding communities, closing roads and submerging crop fields, many planted with young corn and soybeans and developing wheat.

Some rivers measured crests that topped previous records standing for over 100 years, and at one point, Missouri had more than 300 roads closed across the state, including two major interstates.

As waters receded, farmers, government officials and MFA agronomists began evaluating the impact on agriculture in these flood-impacted areas. In Missouri, damage was still being estimated at press time, but in neighboring Arkansas, preliminary reports estimated soybean losses at 83,200 acres, corn at 47,900 acres and cotton at 9,300 acres. Rice was hardest-hit with 156,000 planted acres potentially lost.

As the growing season progresses, MFA Incorporated’s agronomy team says nitrogen loss in corn fields is among top concerns for crops that survived the excessive saturation and flooding. Denitrification, a biological process that converts nitrate to gaseous forms of nitrogen that are lost to the atmosphere, can occur in soils that become waterlogged.

“Be honest about how long your soil was under water,” MFA Director of Agronomy Jason Weirich said. “If it was saturated for three days or more—and there aren’t many fields around here that weren’t—you could’ve lost up to half your nitrogen to denitrification, especially if you didn’t use a nitrogen stabilizer.”

Nitrogen losses can be corrected with a topdress or sidedress application all the way until tasseling, MFA Senior Agronomist Jason Worthington said, but the earlier the better.

“It may not be real apparent until the V8 growth stage. That’s when corn starts to take in a lot more nitrogen and when it’s going to show up hungry,” Worthington said. “Small corn won’t show those symptoms of hunger.”

While potassium and phosphorus are stable unless the field was severely eroded by floodwaters, sulfur is also subject to loss in saturated fields. Worthington encourages growers to add sulfur with nitrogen applications to correct potential deficiencies.

“Sulfur is a very mobile nutrient as well,” he explained. “It’s not always lost in the same way as nitrogen, but it is still vulnerable in the presence of excess moisture.”

On fields that were flooded, evaluating the weed control program is also important, Weirich pointed out.

“If you had a prolonged period of water on the field, herbicide effectiveness and residual control may be compromised,” he said.

Weirich and Worthington advise growers to make honest appraisals of their crops as soon as possible. If there are concerns, call on your MFA experts for advice on what products and practices can put the fields back on track for a productive season.

“If you haven’t already decided to do something to address potential losses, get someone who knows what they’re looking for in the field,” Worthington said. “A good trained scout can pick up symptoms of nitrogen deficiency, and we have tools that can give us insight even when the plant isn’t showing visible symptoms. It’s a lot more expensive not to add nitrogen than the actual cost of applying it in a year like this.”

Related Article: Dilution is the solution

Making it personal

Written by Allison Jenkins on .

It’s the 18th of the month, and Kelley McNamar is sticking close to the store at MFA Agri Services in Shelbina, Mo.

Accounts are due today, and many customers come in to pay them in person. As location manager, McNamar makes a concerted effort to thank those patrons face to face.

“My schedule doesn’t always allow it, but I love to be here that day,” McNamar said. “They give us their business, and it’s the least I can do to be here to let them know we appreciate it.”

Customer care is a hallmark throughout the Shelbina operation, which encompasses a retail store, granary and fertilizer plant in Shelby County. The location is part of a network of six MFA Agri Services centers in northeast Missouri, joining facilities in Kirksville, Lancaster, LaPlata, Macon and New Cambria.

The personal touch of McNamar and her staff of 10 extends to the farm. They regularly conduct on-site visits to make recommendations on crop and livestock management and otherwise go above and beyond to serve their customers. It’s just “part of the job,” said McNamar, a 14-year veteran of the MFA system who came on board as Shelbina’s manager in December 2013.

“It’s important to have a personal relationship with our customers. After all, their farms are very personal to them,” she said. “It’s hard to determine what would best fit their operation unless you go look. We solve problems for them, and that earns their trust and builds relationships that last a lifetime.”

Serving a mixed customer base that includes row-crop growers, beef producers and diversified farmers, Shelbina is a full-service operation. The retail store features a showroom and warehouse stocked with feed, seed, animal health products and a wide range of farm supply items. Wheat and soybean seed is also treated on site. The adjacent grain elevator has a 500,000-bushel capacity to buy corn, soybeans and wheat.

The bulk fertilizer plant, located a few miles down the road, offers dry fertilizer, anhydrous ammonia and a full range of crop protection products along with custom application services, including a new variable-rate fertilizer spreader added last year.

“We’re slowly working into more precision ag services,” said Trey Neill, Shelbina’s assistant manager. “It’s a small part of our business now, but it’s growing more and more every day. Farmers are feeling the pressure to put the nutrients where they’re needed, and we’re ready to help them when they get there.”

While row-crop business is big for the Shelbina operation, feed has taken the largest leaps since McNamar became manager.

“We used to sell 400 tons a year, and we’ve built that up to about 1,800 tons over the last three years,” she said. “Now, we sell almost as many tons of feed as we do dry fertilizer.”

She credits quality products, expert advice and strategic salesmanship with that increase. She also described MFA Incorporated Director of Nutrition Dr. Jim White as the cooperative’s “ace in the hole.”

“We call him regularly, and he’s a tremendous help,” McNamar said. “For our customers, it’s an added perk to be able to say we have our own nutritionist right on the line.”

With support from Dr. White and other MFA feed personnel, McNamar said she and her team work closely with livestock producers to plan nutritional programs based on the concept that “cost per ton of feed is not as important as cost per pound of gain.”

“No one’s feed performs like ours does, and performance determines profitability,” McNamar said. “Take Shield Technology, for example. No other company has that, and it’s amazing. Someone else may have a better price, but I guarantee their products won’t perform like ours. It’s an easy sell when you have the best of what there is to offer.”

Beyond products and services, McNamar pinpointed people as Shelbina’s greatest strengths.

“We have a really good bunch of customers. That’s one of the reasons I came here,” she said. “And our employees—where would we be without them? Everyone here adds value to our operation. In fact, one of our employees, Jim Thompson, has been here for more than 44 years! Everything doesn’t always go wonderful every day, but we work together to make sure we get the job done. We all wear a lot of hats, and no one is above doing one thing or another.”

“Getting the job done” often means long hours and extraordinary measures, especially during spring planting and fall harvest, but Neill said that’s all in a day’s work for employees at Shelbina Agri Services.

“Growing up on the farm, I learned as a kid that you work when it was time to work,” said Neill, who began his MFA career as an intern in the spring of 2014 and was hired that December as assistant manager. “That’s how we operate here. It’s not an 8-to-5 job. You’ve got to be there when it’s time to farm. Our customers know they can call us anytime, and we’ll go out of our way to help them.”

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