CANNON FALLS, Minn. – After 11 years of making cheese at a pilot test plant and in turkey roasters, the ladies of CannonBelles have finally moved into their new cheese plant in Cannon Falls.“I walk into our make room and it’s just this bright light and red floors,” Kathy Hupf said. “It’s awesome and a fun feeling of something new and exciting.”
Friends Hupf, Deeann Lufkin and Jackie Ohmann first started making cheese in 2011 as a hobby but quickly found they all needed a career change. Now, more than a decade later, they are making cheese at their own cheese plant which became operational May 6.
“This is our fourth cheese make in the new plant so we’re still trying to dial in all of the little tiny differences with equipment and ingredients; making sure that our product is very similar or the same as what we made before,” said Lufkin, the head cheesemaker. “But, it’s a great feeling because this plant is ours.”
All of the equipment in the plant is new.
The plant is 5,800 square feet and includes a pasteurizer, two vats, cheese compress, curd mill, tanks for cleaning equipment, packaging sealer, large walk-in coolers for fresh and aged cheese, bulk tank for milk storage, testing and lab equipment, and a sub-zero freezer for cultures.
“We do want to get a new vacuum sealer and adjust some equipment on the cheese vat,” Ohmann said. “Even though the equipment has only been in use for three weeks, we’re already seeing what we need to change and do to grow.”
“This equipment is slightly different from what we have been using for the last six years so it’s a real learning curve for us too,” she said. “It’s similar but yet different.”
They get their milk from Blake and Chicky Otte’s farm, Square Deal Dairy, near Randolph.
“They are our choice for several reasons,” Hupf said. “One, they are only 5 miles away from our plant; and two, they do a great job managing their herd of cows. They produce a high-quality product for us where we can get more cheese yield out of their milk, and they have three grown sons who have come back to the farm so we see longevity in them being able to supply our milk for the long term.”
Before moving into the plant this spring, they were making cheese at the University of Minnesota’s pilot plant for over six years and in Ohmann’s kitchen with turkey roasters prior.
“They have a pilot cheesemaker’s program so we were able to tap into that and get trained by master cheesemaker Ray Miller,” Hupf said.
“We were able to use a lot of different pieces of equipment and figure out what we wanted,” she said. “For example, we have chosen to use a high-temperature, short-time pasteurizer because we can grow into it, and it takes less time to pasteurize.”
They also toured other facilities, asked questions and received advice from other cheesemakers before making cheese in their new plant.
One thing they learned from other cheesemakers was to leave room for expansion.
“We heard from a lot of cheesemakers not to make our make room too small so we can expand if needed,” Lufkin said. “Thus, limiting our downtime so we can just add on rather than having to stop production if we expand. We really kept those in mind as we built this.”
“The coolers are also pretty empty so we have room for growth,” she said.
Lufkin went to the cheesemaker short course at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls in 2014 where she heard about someone who could write grants for them.
“We knew we needed money so we got lined up with him,” Lufkin said. “It slowed us way down, and it was painful. But, the best thing that happened for us. I really think we would’ve been closed by now if we were still at the pace we originally wanted to be at.”
Before deciding where to build, they looked at several options of either remodeling an existing building or building new.
“We learned that it was going to be safer to build our own building,” Hupf said.
“The amount of regulations for dairy plants are pretty intense so it would have cost us more to fit into an existing building than it would to build new,” she said.
This summer, the creamery plans to start tours. Consumers will be able to see cows on the farm where the milk is produced, tour the plant and go to the nearby coffee shop to eat the cheese.
The women enjoy being able to make cheese when they want and expand and grow their markets.
“At the University of Minnesota, we were only able to make cheese once a month and not at all during COVID-19,” Lufkin said. “Now, we can also play and have the freedom to make new cheese flavors.”
Before they only processed 1,000 pounds of cheese a month at the pilot plant and have now been able to process 400 to 500 pounds of cheese within a week.
They currently make cheese once a week on Tuesdays and make queso fresco, four aged cheddars, gouda, Colby and eight flavors of cheese curds including bacon, dill, ranch, jalapeno and grim reaper which is Carolina reaper, habanero, serrano and jalapeno peppers.
“We are also able to add our horseradish and garlic flavors back,” Lufkin said. “We can now also allow Jackie to come up with new flavors.”
“As of now, we don’t have a definite pattern of what cheeses we will make when,” she said. “We will make cheese curds more often now for summer sales, but we will also start making our aged cheeses to build up our supply and get ready for our Christmas sales, giving them time to age.”
They are thankful for the family and friends who have been there to support them either through volunteering or sharing their story.
“For me being an outsider, the Minnesota dairy community has been amazing,” Lufkin said. “It’s more of a family. Everybody is happy to answer questions, help us find answers and be there with us. I’ve never seen this in any other job or career I’ve had. It’s unbelievable to me, and I am honored to be a part of it.”
This summer, CannonBelles is planning a grand opening where customers can see the new plant.
“There’s not a day that goes by that we don’t get 10 to 20 inquiries about it,” Hupf said. “Now we can finally say, ‘We’re in.’ It’s exciting and terrifying all at the same time.”
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