When Clara and Larry Hedrich bought Larry’s grandfather’s Chilton farm in 1978, it came with two milking goats.
“We looked very seriously at what we could do with the goats,” recalls Clara, who grew up on a dairy farm; Larry’s family raised beef cattle and mink. Once they decided to go whole hog, so to speak, with goat farming, they didn’t look back.
Today, the Hedrichs – along with 10 full-time staff, including four of their five children – work the 160-acre farm, raising and milking 600 dairy goats. LaClare Farms uses most of its own milk and some from the Quality Dairy Goat Producers Cooperative of Wisconsin, which the Hedrichs founded, to produce dairy, cheese, soap and other products.
The company’s fresh chevre and award-winning Evalon are both used in the restaurants run by the Kohler Company.
“We’ve been with LaClare for three to four years,” says Rick Boyer, executive chef for Kohler, who supervises 12 outlets with nine restaurants. “The chef-farmer relationship is one we thrive on. I know every time I get (the cheese) the quality is going to be top notch.”
Freshness is one of the benefits of buying local, as is supporting local farms. “We try to support them, and they support us,” Boyer adds. “It makes good economic sense.”
A growing industry
Larry Hedrich says the state leads the nation in dairy goats, with about 200 farms and 46,000 goats. “The industry has (now) only begun to be viable,” he says.
By the 1990s, the Hedrichs had several children in 4-H and had connected with a farmer with registered goats, and their future was cemented. In the beginning, Larry, who worked full-time in construction, was just looking to sell the milk from what was at that time a herd of 45 goats.
They soon found a plant in Watertown to process their milk.
The Hedrichs worked with the now-defunct Dairy Business Innovation Center to help launch their goat business.
“It really helped,” Larry says. “We knew they were good at what they did.”
Soon, they doubled their herd to 80, invested in milking units and built a milk house. Around 2000, Larry quit his job to work full time on the farm.
“I absolutely wanted to,” Larry says. “When you farm, you have to be an optimist. And, by that time, the consumer was truly beginning to appreciate the (goat) products.”
Shortly after, the Hedrichs founded the Quality Dairy Goat Producers Cooperative of Wisconsin, which now has seven members, including LaClare Farms.
While there is a growing recognition of goat milk and cheese, farming remains a challenging business, he says.
“The margins are not huge. You have to pay attention to where every dollar goes,” he says.
During the past decade, LaClare has focused on expansion. In 2008, the company began producing cheese from its milk, visiting the Netherlands to learn more about goat cheese making.
“They’re about 25 to 30 years ahead of us in technology,” says Clara, who also teaches agriculture at West De Pere High School. “The things we picked up you will see reflected in our business.”
The Hedrichs’ daughter, Katie Hedrich Fuhrmann, is their master cheese maker. Her Evalon cheese, named after Larry’s grandmother, took top honors out of 1,604 entries from 30 states in the 2011 U.S. Champion Cheese competition. LaClare Farms now produces more than seven types of handcrafted cheese.
Business risks pay off
The Hedrichs undertook one of their biggest business risks in 2012, when they began an expansion that included a new milking parlor, loafing barn, cheese plant, store and café.
“It was a good risk,” Larry says, especially in terms of bringing jobs to the area.
Steve Jenkins, president of the Fond du Lac County Economic Development Corporation, agrees.
“We have enjoyed working with the Hedrich family on this important project,” Jenkins says. “This has been a true collaborative effort involving the county, FCEDC, Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation and Calumet County Bank.”
The FCEDC focuses on business development in the county, and Jenkins adds, “Even their café (now open at their Chilton farm location) focuses on using locally grown products, so the ripple effect touches many others.”
The Hedrichs relied on their savings, some private funds and a bank loan from Calumet County Bank to fund their expansion. They laid out five-, 10- and 15-year plans, preparing their enterprise for the next generation.
Cari L. Sabel, agricultural/commercial lender for Calumet County Bank in Brillion, says the Hedrichs’ preparedness made them a solid investment risk.
“Any time you venture down this kind of road with the size and scale of the operation, and the extreme niche of the market, there is a risk involved,” Sabel says. “There are a lot of unknowns, but a lot of these things that the Hedrich family did mitigated the risk; they’d been building toward this goal.”
Having expertise in the family – along with a passion for their goals – also impressed the lender. “Where do you see a family that has taken their love to bring it back to one place?” Sabel asks.
Larry says LaClare Farms is now in a position for further growth.
“We have a lot of things to add to the facility,” he says. “We’ve totally changed the scale of what we’ve done; we have the ability to upscale our business.”
A CLOSER LOOK