Written by Karen Lee
When brothers Sander and Rolf Penterman and their wives, Amy and Marieke, started up a dairy in northern Wisconsin they realized their new lives were sorely lacking one thing – cheese from their homeland.
Prior to founding Dutch Dairy in 2002, Sander worked at Jon-De Farm in Baldwin, Wisconsin, while Rolf farmed with their father in the Netherlands on a 60- to 70-cow farm.
They found a dairy in Thorp, Wisconsin, that would suit their needs. Sander and Rolf purchased 320 cows, mostly from Canada and a few from Minnesota.
“We prefer Canadian cows,” Sander says. “They can handle stress a little better in our opinion.”
The family sold the dairy and its quota in the Netherlands and reinvested the money in America, expanding three times to reach their current state of 800 cows. Their parents still live in the Netherlands and come to the U.S. twice a year to visit.
When they first arrived they tore down the old 80-cow stanchion barn and converted a machine shed into dry cow housing. With the help of local Mennonites they were able to put up new facilities in no time – a freestall barn took just six weeks to build.
Cow comfort is of utmost importance to the Pentermans and all facilities are designed with that in mind.
Close-up cows are housed on one large bedding pack and they stay there until they calve. When they join the milking string they move to a new bedding pack near the holding area for a few days to allow for good recovery. Lame cows also have the luxury of using that bedding pack.
Freestalls are made of fiberglass and flex when pushed or hit by a skid steer. There are no brisket boards in the stalls, instead sand bedding is piled higher towards the front and they use the neck rail to help with the cows’ natural lunging movements.
The Pentermans installed cattle brushes for comfort and cleanliness. They also have video surveillance to prevent mistreatment of the animals by an employee.
Their cows average 80 pounds a day without the use of rbST, Sander says. The Pentermans ceased using the hormone when they began making their own farmstead cheese in 2006.
Calves are raised on the farm until they are 4 months old. For cleanliness, they are kept in outdoor hutches without an outside pen. When weaned, they move to group pens in a hoop-style barn before leaving the farm. They will return again six weeks prior to calving.
The farm includes 460 acres, but it is not enough to handle manure from the now 800-cow herd. Sander says they are lucky to have neighbors in need of manure. The Pentermans use what they need first and then the neighbors come in and haul the rest away for free.
Old World farmstead cheese
With the dairy well established, the Pentermans were content with their new homes in the U.S.; however they still missed their cheese from Holland.
Marieke admits Cheddar and Colby are OK cheeses, but they still yearned for their Gouda. Since they had the milk, the families decided they could make their own cheese.
Marieke was nominated to be the farm’s cheesemaker. She traveled back to Holland to learn the trade. She spent one day learning from a woman who made cheese from the milk of 10 cows and a second day at a 300-cow operation.
With just two days of training she came back to the U.S. and began making cheese. The first wheel of Marieke Gouda, her signature cheese, was set on a shelf to age and after a few weeks they cut it open and were relieved to find it smelled good just as it should, Marieke recalls.
According to state laws, Marieke needed to become a licensed cheesemaker before she could sell her cheese. So, she attended a short course at the University of Wisconsin – River Falls to obtain her license.
To learn the ins and outs of the business, Marieke says she received a lot of help from the Dairy Business Innovation Center (DBIC).
Just four months after she began making cheese, Marieke was encouraged to enter a big contest in Madison.
“We won first prize. That’s something good,” she says with her Dutch accent. Those awards help in the promotion of their farmstead cheese.
Milk from the farm is picked up each day with little marketing efforts, she says, yet “with cheese, if we don’t promote it, it’s going to stay on the pine board.”
Thus far, Marieke has won 19 state and national awards and has also entered some in the World Dairy Expo contest this year with high hopes. Twelve percent of the farm’s milk goes into making 19 varieties of cheese.
She purchases cultures, herbs and spices from the Netherlands to make assorted types of Gouda. Milk is piped from the parlor directly into the cheese vat. Still warm from the cow it has to cool before they can start to use it.
The cheese is made within five hours of leaving the cow. Since it is a raw milk cheese the milk doesn’t have to be pasteurized, but it must age a minimum of 60 days before it can be sold.
Marieke learned that cheesemaking is very labor intensive and says she is glad that she hadn’t know that when she started the project otherwise she probably wouldn’t be doing it today.
To help Marieke with cheesemaking they have five part-time and five full-time employees. The dairy also has 10 employees. The cheeses are sold from their on-farm store, Holland’s Family Cheese, which also holds other Dutch specialty foods and trinkets for sale.
They also sell through distributors and direct to stores. With a “buy local” push in the state, the stores help in promoting their product by telling the story of Dutch Dairy, home of Marieke Gouda.