Cheese Farming Nebraska
After facing a dearth of homegrown dairy-based delights, Nebraska's enterprising farmersteaders are happily spreading cheese and smiles across the state.
The farmstead style gives the artisan total control of the cheese being made. Golden wheels and savory slices start with closely monitoring the farm’s milk output, but patience is the most vital ingredient of all.
Alan J. Bartels
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(This story originally appeared in the November/December 2013 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)
SAY CHEESE, PLEASE. It’s the only food that makes you smile simply by saying the name.
Yet for decades, the cheese connoisseurs of Nebraska wore sour frowns, since it seemed like there was better cheese made inside the moon than in our state.
But within the past decade, six gallant farms have created an alternative to that salty rubber from factory offerings, making cheese bursting with flavors. In fact, some of the cheese tastes so good it stinks.
They are the fearless farmstead cheesemakers of Nebraska, who prepare products from start to finish on their own dairy farms. It begins with the grass on their pastures munched by goats and cows, whose milk is poured into stainless steel vats at cheesemaking plants right at these farms.The curd is heated, stirred and molded in the traditional handmade artisan style.
This quest for quality is a blend of Picasso and Pasteur, where both art and chemistry are called upon in this passionate pursuit. The cheeses are as diverse as the Nebraskans who make them. So savor the flavor as we share with you a slice of the good cheese life in Nebraska.
Jisa Farmstead Cheese
If there is one guy we could call the Big Cheese of Nebraska, Dave Jisa just might be deserving of the title. In August, his New York Cheddar Curds won third place at the National American Cheese Society convention in Wisconsin, and in the spring of 2005, he built the first cheesemaking plant on a Nebraska dairy farm.
“Nobody else had the gumption to do this,” said Jisa, who claims to be Nebraska’spioneer of farmstead cheesemaking.
Jisa has to manage more than 300 Holstein cows at the dairy farm started by his parents in the 1940s, so he credits the cheese’s creamy flavor to the skills of his daughter, Christine, a chemical engineering student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Jisa says the marketing talents of general manager Julie Wachal help make the company the state’s top-selling farmstead cheese operation.
Wachal said that some other top-selling flavors include spinach with artichoke, California garlic pepper, smoked bacon, Havarti and jalapeno. Visit jisacheese.com or contact the farm at (402) 545-2000.
Branched Oak Farm
It was 11 years ago that Krista Dittman was teaching German at Doane College and pursuing her doctorate in language studies when she decided to become a scholar of artisan cheesemaking. She was nursing her youngest son at their family farm in the Bohemian Alps and suddenly closed the book on her Ph.D. studies.
“I think it’s still in that same side-table drawer as when I put there 11 years ago,” she said.
Fans of her distinctly flavorful cheeses are glad she shut that drawer. The cheese quest gained momentum in 2005 as Dittman and Charuth Van Beuzekom of Lincoln joined forces to form a dairy co-op, pooling their resources and ideas. Dittman’s cows and Van Beuzekom’s goats are on their own now, but all remain good friends (animals included), and both women spread the art of cheesemaking across the state.
Dittman gets help making cheese from her sons, Nelson and Andreas, but the most valued workers on the organic 230-acre farm are the grass-fed Jersey cows her husband, Doug, oversees. Their milk allows Dittman to create an eclectic array of European-style cheeses.
“They’re great colleagues,” chuckled Doug Dittman about these descendants of a New Zealand breed. “They love to graze, and it really influences the flavor of the milk.”
One of the mainstay cheeses from that milk since 2006 is her soft-textured Quark. There are recipes on the Branched Oak website for using Quark in baked eggplant, as well as a Quarky fruit tart, a chilled creamy tomato soup, and the avocado-based Quarkamole created by her mom, Barb Dunn.
Some of her other offerings are a Camembert with a soft rind encasing a creamy flavor, and after you set the table with a baguette, an apple, nuts and a bottle of red, Krista says you might suddenly find yourself in northern France. She also touts the nutty taste of her raw-milk Gouda cheese. She doesn’t run out of flavors, only time.
“There are hardly enough hours in the day,” Krista said. “But I’m glad there aren’t more. If there were I would be working just that much harder.”
Branched Oak is available at farmers markets in Omaha and Lincoln as well as the farm’s own “Inconvenience” store. Visit branchedoakfarm.com or contact the farm at (402) 783-2124.
Dutch Girl Creamery
Growing up in Holland, Charuth Van Beuzekom tasted some of the finest cheeses in the world, and she’s been on a mission for seven years to bring those flavors to Nebraska at the goat dairy she runs as part of ShadowBrook Country Market. It’s a 34-acre certified organic farm where she works and lives with her husband, Kevin Loth, and their three sons. She’s gained a cult following for her sophisticated cheeses and is turning things up a notch now that Kevin finished building their own cheese plant, eliminating rushed trips to the University of Nebraska facility in Lincoln.
Van Beuzekom worked 14 weeks at a London dairy and recently went on a fact-finding mission in Italy and her birthplace of Spain. She also makes use of a University of California degree in biology, along with an artist’s flair.
“I’m a trained scientist, and of course, I’m always an artist, so that’s why I’m a cheesemaker,” she said.
Dutch Girl has soft cheeses like Chevre, Belle Sabine and French-style Natalie and Gray. There are aged hard offerings like Ogallala Tomme and the Spanish Rosa Maria, as well as a tart feta called Calypso. She suggests wrapping the diamond shaped Natalie and Gray in phyllo dough.
“Throw those on a bed of steamed beets or field greens, and it melts in there,” Van Beuzekom said. “It’s just delicious.”