Unique dairy partners focus on quality, unique cheeses

Todd and Brenda Aves and their children, Allyson, Hayden, Madelyn and Bryson, are partners in Prairie Pure Cheese LLC of Belvidere. The Boone County dairy family is part of a multigenerational family farm.  (Photo courtesy of Prairie Pure Cheese)

An Illinois dairy family, a Wisconsin dairy family and a veterinarian dairy nutritionist combine milk and knowledge to produce unique cheeses.

Prairie Pure Cheese of Belvidere formed from a partnership among the Todd Aves family of Belvidere, Wisconsin brothers Alvin and Roger Hildebrandt and their families, and Dr. Brian Gerloff, veterinarian and dairy nutritionist.

In 2004, Gerloff and Todd and Brenda Aves considered ways to make dairy farming more profitable, “especially living near 7 million people,” the dairy nutritionist told FarmWeek. Selecting cheese as a value-added product that was less perishable than other options, the Boone County partners found a Wisconsin cheese processor to make branded cheese from the Aves’ milk. In 2017, Hildebrandt Family Farms near Hustisford, Wisconsin, joined the Illinois partners.

Gerloff explained Prairie Pure Cheese pays $3 to $5 per hundredweight premium for the families’ milk. “Our goal is to make family dairy farming lucrative,” he said.

Prairie Pure sells products to restaurants, at farmers’ markets and retail stores as well as online. In spring, pandemic restrictions zeroed out the Chicago and Rockford area restaurant sales, which comprised 60% of the company’s sales before farmers’ market season, according to Gerloff. The company was able to delay the usual March and April cheese production, he added.

With Illinois and Wisconsin reopening farmers’ markets, Prairie Pure is enjoying robust sales. “At the Woodstock Farmers’ Market, our sales are phenomenal. It’s busier than ever,” Gerloff said, estimating retails were triple compared to those in March and April.

In addition to farmers’ markets, Prairie Pure Cheese is available in several stores, including Marengo’s Flatlander Market, Crystal Lake’s Kalck’s Butcher Shop and Mount Prospect’s Dave’s Specialty Foods.

With increased consumer demand for local foods, online sales also increased during the past six to eight weeks. Traditionally, Prairie Pure experiences an online sales bump before the Christmas holiday with shoppers buying cheese gift boxes.

The company’s best seller is butterkäse, a unique creamy, brick-style cheese. Butterkase’s claim to fame skyrocketed as the main ingredient in one of the country’s best grilled cheese sandwiches from a Chicago restaurant whose owner previously marketed Prairie Pure Cheese.

In addition to taste, consumers also seek convenience in dairy products.

Recently, a restaurant customer ordered presliced packages so Prairie Pure also began offering consumers presliced packages along with blocks of six to eight ounces. The convenience packages are proving to be especially popular with consumer customers, Gerloff said.

Illinois Farm Bureau members tasted Prairie Pure Cheese products during the Taste of Illinois in 2018 and 2019 during the IFB Annual Meeting in Chicago.