In Their Own Words: LaClare Farms
2010 US Economy Totals
Privately held businesses are the drivers of business expansion, investing more, creating jobs.
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Tired of hearing horror stories on the news, I decided to look into what owners of America’s top privately owned companies talk about, and guess what, they talk of family.
Jimmy Haslam III, CEO
Pilot Flying J
Dad has been a tremendous father, coach and mentor through the years, and has taught me to hire great people, and treat them great, be humble and ask lots of questions.
Thomas M. Belk Jr., CEO
Belk Department Stores
Everyone is special in some way. My Dad shook hands with everyone. People want to be recognized; take care of them, and they’ll take care of the customers.
Tom Love, CEO
Arrived home one Christmas night to have dinner with family. There was a handwritten note from Dad. “You’ve got the rest of your life to change the world, but you’ve only got one shot at raising those four kids. Merry Christmas.”
Thomas Gilbane, Jr., CEO
As young children my father taught us the importance of integrity above all else. He was fond of saying that a person’s reputation is their legacy–taking years to build and only minutes to destroy.
Jim Perdue, CEO
My dad always said that quality should be your No. 1 value.
It’s about time everyday business heroes had a voice. Last October, I had the honor of interviewing Larry and Clara Hedrich and their son, Greg, of La Clare Family Farms. Producers of internationally acclaimed goat’s milk dairy products, business people that live by different rules than the corporate short-term mindset.
I will keep my comments to a minimum because, after all, the name of this series is “In Their Own Words...”
Clara: We have a family farm we started in 1978, it came with two goats, a flock of chickens, and two peacocks. I am a high school agriculture teacher for 38 years. We have five children: Anna is our oldest, followed by Greg,
Katie, Jeff and Heather, and this is my husband Larry. While the kids were growing up, in addition to running the farm, Larry was working at construction full time.
Larry: We decided we would raise our children with a work ethic. We raised sheep, beef and hogs; none of which worked well on our small acreage. Then we came to goats. The market for goat products allowed us to begin milking commercially beginning in 1996. We began shipping our milk to a cheese plant as members of a cooperative with six other farms.
We’ve come to the point where the need was for an operation where not only us, but others could be able to make their own personal farmstead products without everyone having to build their own facility; building one is so expensive, and following all the rules so time-consuming it almost drives a person crazy.
We have an in-house cafe with a chef from Minneapolis, who grew up in this area. He follows our desire to use local food and provide the best in-house made products that we can. He makes all his own sauces, soups and you name it, right here on the farm, and that is something we are quite excited about.
Our retail outlet is where we sell products made here, plus products produced locally. And we have the dairy, where we will be milking 600 goats by the end of the year. Currently we are at about 450.
We are going to be up and running in November with a new plant with cheese set up, bottling set up, and a cup filling operation so if we want to we can do yogurt, cheese, milk, kefir, and ice cream.
Really the plant came about because of the needs we had as an artisan cheese maker. The first plant we were working at we rented time from them, but their scheduling didn’t allow us to bring in any more milk or make another cheese, and that was not sustainable for us, so we located a plant that has been fantastic to work with, but logistics make it very difficult.
They allow us to make whatever cheese that we want, as long as we work our hours differently than theirs. But there is no aging on site. We searched throughout northeast Wisconsin to find a facility that would allow the open air aging of cheese with no success. So we began the process of building our new facility. We will have four aging rooms set up for individual temperature and humidity control, and our current facility will have at least three more aging rooms, so we can not only age our own products but age for customers, or allow them to age with us, however they want to look at it. We’ll be able to make any product people ask us for.
Clara: The way our cafe is set up, on one side you can watch the cheeses being aged, on the other you can watch the goats, all from your seat while you are eating the product.
Dan: So you guys have really got a complicated thing going here now.
Larry: We are multi-faceted. We are still active in the co-op, and even provide LaClare Farms fresh goat milk from Wisconsin into the greater Chicago area on a weekly basis.
Dan: And you Greg, how did your parents manage to get you involved?
Greg: I went into teaching and got my masters in education. The whole while, I was working part time on the farm. Looking at the opportunities, I felt the time was right, so I made the decision to take on the role as business manager. Basically, I handle a lot of the operational things: logistics, shipping, legal, and financial as well.
Larry: We have several other family members that are directly involved in our new operation: Katie is our cheese maker, Jessica runs the retail and foodservice, and our other daughter Anna works on our farm site, on a part time basis. Our youngest still works elsewhere.
Dan: So you got em all hooked in but one. That’s amazing in this day and age. I guess the secret to keeping them down on the farm is to go with goats! (laughter)
Dan: At 450 on your way to 600 you are not naming the goats anymore are you?
Larry: They all have names but we only remember the top 5 percent: we don’t print the names of the bottom 5 percent!
Dan: The ones that break out of the pens and eat cans and those things goats like to do.
Larry: Mostly eat the flowers in the landscaping.
Dan: I want to step back a little bit and make sure I have it right for everyone:
1) you will have a dairy farm with 600 goats from two goats, a couple of peacocks and chickens in 1978
2) you have milk bottling
3) a cheesemaking facility
4) a cheese aging facility that is growing
5) the ability to do cups of yogurt, kefir and other cultured milk products
6) a really hip restaurant that uses local ingredients with a chef from the Minneapolis area.
Larry: the other operation that we have going on in our original farm, we raise all of our young stock there, so that should turn out in excess of a thousand young goats a year for meat and replacement stocks.
Dan: And you sleep when?
Larry: Sleep is optional!
Dan: You probably should have had a dozen more kids to keep up.
Dan: Of course you did this all with venture capital investment right?
Larry: Actually, it was mainly through the community bank and working a partnership of numerous different government programs that were available and some local investors.
Greg: Everything is loans.
Dan: Many local people with money will invest or lend money to a project that they perceive will add cultural value to the community. It’s not all about I’ll work six months and cash out with a billion dollars.
Dan: Lets go back to how you got involved with the goats.
Clara: They came with the farm, and we always kept the goats. We were looking for a good project for our children as they were growing up with 4-H. Going to the shows, you can take a cattle trailer and put two cows in there, and you can fit 30 head of goats in there so with five children, it just naturally fit. On our honeymoon, we toured goat farms, and every family vacation we would go to a different state and visit their dairy goat industry, much to the dismay of our children, but they have learned a lot about the industry throughout the United States and the interesting thing we found, they were always looking back to Wisconsin, where we have resources, like the Dairy Research Center, and the dairy infrastructure. We’ve got it all and we’re here.
Larry: We are blessed by the dairy structure that is here because of the dairy cattle industry. A feed supplier doesn’t care if they are selling feed to a cow or a goat. So, that has helped us.
Clara: One of the things that helped when we were getting started with our business concept was the Dairy Business Innovation Center was up and running and that was a very integral part of our getting started.
Dan: You were able to make the decision to move ahead with things, but you were not the types that can decide I’ll drop a hundred thousand here on this project, a hundred thousand there. You were running a farm, which is hard to do profitably in this day and age, but you’ve managed to grow. Lets talk about the awards. Did they help? If I remember correctly you won a top award in your category a number of times, and a big award or something like that.
Larry: Our signature cheese is called La Clare Farm Evalon, that is really the first cheese that we began making commercially and distributing out in the marketplace. We were blessed in that the recipe for that cheese and the milk from the farm came together and produced cheese that won best in show at the US Cheese Championship. That really allowed us to be able to market numerous other cheeses because people heard of us. It opened doors through the media that we were able to get out there and get people trying our products.
We produce all of the milk for Evalon directly on our farm. It’s a product of our labor, and that makes it pretty special to us. The cheese itself is named for my grandmother, her name is Evelyn, and we tweaked it a bit for the cheese. Katy is our cheese maker, and was one of the two cheese makers who produced the batch of cheese that won, and that makes it very exciting for us and we built on that. Katy works her tail off making the best cheese that she possibly can. Because we’re non-typical we could be starting a batch of cheese anywhere from 8:30 in the morning to 1 in the afternoon working around other people’s schedules. That takes a lot of flexibility and a lot of dedication by all of the partners in this operation, all of our family members and all of our employees together make it all work.
Dan: And that’s not the only award you won?
Larry: We have entered our cheese in numerous other competitions and we have won best in class and placed in classes numerous times with various cheeses.
Outsourcing the facility not the labor
Dan: Even when you were making cheese in other people’s plants, you were still controlling your recipe, correct?
Larry: Yes, everything that we have made and continue to make today is done in somebody else’s facility, which presents some challenges because none of the places where we make can we store cheese, so we are always taking fresh cheese and moving it somewhere and aging it there. And in the state of Wisconsin, but one of the cheeses, it is a combination cow’s and goat’s cheese and its made between Katy and Chris Roelli, is aged all the way down at Roelli Cheese House, which is just about at the Illinois border. We make it up here and it has to be transported down there and aged in his cave there.
We began making our cheese at Saxon Farm, but we could only make one cheese and wanted to make more so about a year and a half to two years ago we moved out of there completely and we’ve been making 100 percent of our cheese over at Willow Creek Cheese over by Berlin. The plant is owned by Dave Metzig and operated by his son John.
Dan: So when will you be producing the cheese on your own facility? (this was October of 2013)
Larry: We are aiming for the first week of November. We are waiting on some equipment. When we get that installed we can get the final license. Right now we are targeting the 4th or 5th of November but it’s not quite in our control yet
Dan: Greg, I know you are thinking it will be so much easier when you have your own facility, but don’t get your hope up too high! (Laughter)
Greg: At least look at it this way, I know there will be a lot of headaches, but at least it’s our own facility and we will have more control.
Dan: I know you guys may not see it because you are living it, but to get as far as you have without your own facility is amazing. It took a lot of agility, a lot of thinking, and a lot of negotiating to get to the point where you are now on the verge of opening up your facility.
Many businesses start out spending money, but you didn’t have the money to spend to solve the problem, so what’s your problem solving process to solve problems like this, I mean, how do you do that?
Larry: Basically, we don’t allow ourselves to throw up our hands and walk away from a problem. We just take the problems one at a time and find a solution, together. We may not like the process sometimes, of how it gets to that solution, but it forces us to constantly evolve and change. Sometimes it’s a good change, and sometimes you have to revert to whatever it was you were doing because the change doesn’t work, but we have to be nimble because we have so little control over so many things that we are doing.
The co-op has customers that must be taken care of so we can’t mandate or dictate how much milk we want, we have to work with that. Some of them are very well known cheese operations and we’re very proud to be working with them.
Dan: So its a balance, huh?
Larry: It’s constantly balancing, as my mother said to us once, aren’t you guys ever home? And, I said yeah, most days we are home from 9 p.m. to 5:30 am.., and that’s about it. We don’t leave the farm until we’re done, and we begin again the next morning whenever we have to. It could be hauling milk at midnight or one in the morning. It could be making a batch of cheese at 3 in the morning: we don’t know. We just take what we’re handed and make it happen.
The Decision-Making Process
Dan: Do you make collaborative decisions as a family or is one of you with the say so.
Larry: We try to be collaborative, but I am kind of a benevolent dictator, from time to time.
Dan: Is that true, the benevolent part, Greg?
Greg: NOoooooo (Laughter)
Clara: One of the things we do is that every Monday we have a time that we sit down, who is ever available. With today’s technology, if they can’t sit down in the room, they are at least on the cellphone. And we meet for an hour, you know,
-what happened this week,
-what didn’t work,
-what are the problems,
so everybody is on the same page and aware of what is going on.
Dan: Unlike many people I have worked with, my impression working with you is that you didn’t just take the things people told you at face value, in the beginning. You took them in, digested them, then made the decision for yourself. Particularly for farmers who have a reputation of being stubborn and wanting to do things their own way, you listen to other people, but you don’t just run out and do it. It has to filter through your own values, your own experience. You had to come to believe in it. Is that fair to say?
Larry: Most certainly, and what I think helped us a lot was we had people who were offering us help and advice on what worked for them, or they had seen work, and most of the time we would have at least a couple of different avenues to address an issue, so we could actually work with different options, and because we do have a little grey on the temples, we’ve been around for a bit, so we’ve developed our own opinions on many things: we’re quite diversified for what we’ve done for our careers to this point, and by putting all of that together we do believe we’re able to come up with some pretty good decisions.
One of the decisions we made is how can we differentiate the milk from our farm from everyone else, because if it wasn’t then we had to take the same price. Today, we have put together a kind of consortium to finance our plant, to be able to make all our products under the same roof, sell to stores, sell direct to the consumer on the farm, and make products with our products so they can buy a meal right here in our restaurant, on the farm.
Dan: And I might add, help out the next generation of cheese makers get their start like you. Maybe one day soon everyone will be talking about your overnight success. We’ll keep it between ourselves that it was 30-year overnight success.
Larry: Unless you mean overnight because you couldn’t sleep at night anyhow, you had to keep going...
(You can listen to the full interview on Dan’s site at http://managenaturally.com/words-la-clare-farm/ or on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/manage-naturally-improve-your/id852138778).
Dan Strongin runs a training and consulting company focused on delivering affordable online solutions to everyday business problems, including his udemy course: Understand Your Business, Earn More Money. Dan can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (408) 512-1086, or you can visit and blog or get discounts on his courses on his site: http://www.managenaturally.com.
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