by Billy LeGrand, Common Ground Food Co-op
In a follow-up from the October issue of The Public i, this month, The Cheesemonger will focus on Champaign’s own award-winning Prairie Fruits Farm, just north of I-74 on N. Lincoln Ave. For this edition, I managed to wrangle a few words from Leslie Cooperband, the incredibly busy founder of Prairie Fruits Farm. You may always find the full line of seasonally-rotating Prairie Fruits Farm cheeses at Common Ground Food Co-op, although we sell out very often. I am proud to say that since the September expansion at Common Ground, we have already tripled the size of our weekly Prairie Fruits Farm orders―and plan to keep ordering more as we continue to grow. This is definitely one of the most exciting local producer/vendor relationships building in Champaign-Urbana right now, so stop by and support this delicious local business!
Who/what is Prairie Fruits Farm?
Prairie Fruits Farm & Creamery is Illinois’ first farmstead cheese making facility. We were licensed as a commercial dairy and creamery in 2005. We―Wes Jarrell and Leslie Cooperband, co-owners and husband-and-wife team―make seasonal cheese from the milk of a herd of about 70 milking goats. We also purchase sheep milk from the only licensed sheep dairy in Arthur, Illinois, owned by an Amish family. Our herd of goats and our cheese are certified “Animal Welfare Approved,” one of the strictest standards of pasture-based livestock production worldwide.
How did Prairie Fruits Farm come to fruition?
We purchased our farm from a cash grain farmer in 2003. We started with seven acres. We converted the former corn and soybean fields into a buckwheat cover crop that first year. The following year, we planted fruit trees and berries and acquired our first goats-three Nubian does and one Buck named Everett Lee. After two of the three does kidded in December of 2004, we milked them over the winter, and Leslie experimented with cheese making in the house. We tried it out on friends and family, they liked it, so we decided to go to the next level. Since our beginnings in 2005, we have added an additional eight acres of pasture and about 25 acres of hay ground to grow our own alfalfa.
Leslie had a longstanding interest and curiosity about cheese making, especially goat cheese. As a soil scientist and lover of cooking, she was intrigued by both the science and the art (craftsmanship) of cheese making. We lived in Madison, Wisconsin for seven years before moving to Illinois. There, we befriended a wonderful goat cheese producer, Anne Topham of Fantome Farm. She was one of the pioneers of American artisan cheese makers who brought the styles of French goat cheeses to the US. She became Leslie’s mentor once We moved to Champaign-Urbana and bought a few goats.
Did you have any setbacks in the early days? And now?
Of course, we had lots of setbacks at first. Our initial dairy and cheese plant ended up costing us at least three times more than we had estimated. We had never started a commercial farm before, and Leslie had never raised livestock before. We were complete novices in dairying, cheese making, marketing our products, managing a business, managing employees, etc. etc. We had steep learning curves in all of these arenas, not to mention trying to grow organic tree fruit in the humid Midwest—a climate ideal for the proliferation of fruit tree pests and diseases. Every year, we learn something new, we’re presented with new challenges, be they weather, goat husbandry or cheese making. Cheese making is akin to microbe farming, and microbes don’t always tell you why they behave the way they do. It is sometimes like solving a murder mystery.
How has your business grown over the years?
We started milking 25 goats our first year, and now we milk 70 goats and receive 100 gallons of sheep milk per week. We started making just fresh chevre and now we make about eight to ten types of cheese from fresh chevre to bloomy rind cheeses to semi-hard and firm raw milk cheeses made from both goat and sheep milk. We added goat milk gelato to our product repertoire in 2011. In addition to our dairy products, we offer seasonal breakfasts and dinners at the farm. We employ five people full time and another five to six people part time.
Can you discuss all of the events at the farm that happen throughout the year?
Spring starts the season with Saturday open-house and on-farm breakfasts (late March through May). Farm dinner season runs from the end of May through early December. Farm open house and on-farm sales start in early June and run through mid-August. We also offer u-pick of fruits during the summer months. Starting in 2013, we will be offering tours to school groups and adults. That season will run from late April through the end of October.
Why purchase Prairie Fruits Farm cheese?
Our cheeses are made with the freshest quality goat milk around. Our goats graze on fantastic pastures and eat top quality home-grown alfalfa hay. They are loved, too! Our fresh chevre is as fresh as you’ll ever get. We make all of our cheeses in small batches using old world techniques.
What is your favorite cheese?
I would say it’s a toss-up between chevre, Moonglo and Little Bloom on the Prairie.
How can the community get involved with Prairie Fruits Farm?
Come out to the farm during our spring and summer open houses, sign up for our newsletter through our website: www.prairiefruits.com, or follow us on Facebook.