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.”
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.”
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.