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Crave Brothers farm makes award-winning cheese, powered by a bio-energy system

Written by LOPPW | 04/13/2021

Renewable Energy: Crave farm powered by a bio-energy system

“Crave Brothers farm makes award-winning cheese, powered by a bio-energy system

Table Chat: George and Debbie Crave

Kristine M. Kierzek
Special to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Crave Brothers in Waterloo is a family business for Debbie and George Crave. He is a licensed cheesemaker.

George and Debbie Crave met at a 4-H meeting back in the 1970s, and dairy farming has always been the connecting thread that runs through their story.

George and his brothers grew up near Beloit on a farm that was home to 40 dairy cows. In 1980, the brothers bought a dairy farm in Waterloo.

Debbie, who held the title of Alice in Dairyland back in 1981, planned the couple’s wedding while working as the state’s agriculture ambassador.

In 2002, the Craves added a cheese factory to produce fresh cheeses with milk from their cows. Today, the farm is home to 3,400 cows and the award-winning Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese. 

The Craves are particularly proud to be part of the conversation on renewable energy and dairy farming. Since 2006 they’ve utilized a manure digester, and today their operation generates electricity for their cheese factory and farm along with 300 local homes.

Crave Brothers farm uses a biodigester system for manure. That creates enough energy for the farm and cheese factory as well as 300 homes. "It is not always sunny or windy here, but there is always cow manure," Debbie Crave says.

Question: You both grew up around agriculture and dairy farming. What have you seen change? 

George: I milked cows with my dad in the late ’60s and ’70s. My dad sold his cows in ’74. At  that time he was one of 60,000 farms in Wisconsin. All these farms up and down the towns milked cows. All the neighbors were in 4-H. Since then we’ve seen a seismic shift in the food industry. Everything has changed.

A selection of cheeses made by Crave Brothers.

Q: What was behind the decision to start making cheese in 2002?

George: After farming here in Waterloo for about 20 years, as my family grew, I could see the next generation coming along. We decided to build a cheese factory. We still milk cows across the street. … We have 2,000 milk cows that get milked three times a day on two different farms, and we raise all the young females to be the future cows. In total, we have about 3,400 head. We farm about 3,000 acres.

A good percentage of our milk goes to our cheese factory, and we sell some off to a local cheese factory as well. They call it the 90/90 rule in Wisconsin. Ninety percent of the milk in Wisconsin is made into cheese, and 90% is sent out of state. When you think of those numbers, that’s how important the industry is to Wisconsin.

Debbie: George is a licensed cheesemaker. You have to have at least one licensed cheesemaker in your plant to operate in Wisconsin. We have three others, and our son is one of them. We wanted to showcase our farm fresh milk. It is literally hours old when it is pumped from the farm to the cheese factory.

George: The cheeses we make are classified as fresh cheeses. We make mascarpone, mozzarella, a farmers rope string cheese, and a private label Oaxaca. We also do a little bit of cheddar cheese curds, because we had time one winter and it has a following. The fresh mozzarella is our main business, all sizes and shapes.

Q: What do you want people to know about the current state of dairy in Wisconsin? 

Debbie: Everyone is so proud to be the Dairy State and we know we make cheese and we’re proud of that, but there is a lot of hard work behind that. This is a family business, started with four brothers. Now we have three of the next generation that are owners. Our niece is the quality director at the cheese factory. We’re proud to be a family business. We have 90 people employed here.

Marinated mozzarella is an award-winner, as well as a favorite of the Crave family,

Q: Do you have a favorite cheese that you make?

Debbie: I go with the seasons. There’s nothing like having fresh mozzarella with tomatoes, basil and fresh herbs, and we really love our fresh marinated mozzarella. We also make a famous mascarpone pie. Chocolate mascarpone is a newer item. It is at Woodman’s in your area, and we have it on our website where you can order. www.cravecheese.com 

Q: Can you explain your approach to renewable energy and how you generate power for your cheese factory?

George: We have a biodigester. We take all the waste from the farm and cheese factory. It is pumped into two tanks. The decomposition produces methane gas. … We capture that gas and power a huge 800-horse engine that powers an electromagnetic generator and enough electricity to power the farm, the cheese factory and 300 area homes …

We read in the paper that the new administration has great hopes of creating renewable energy. The governor says his goal is to have complete renewable energy by 2050, and there is no mention of biodigesters in these articles. It is all solar and wind, but we have this in the state now and they’re working.

It is marginally cost-effective. It is really that we are competing with fossil fuels that are still really inexpensive. I’m not criticizing fossil fuels and our current system, I’m saying if we are going to transition to renewable energy we have to look at being willing to pay for it and accept biodigester generation as one source, particularly where there’s a lot of livestock.

Debbie: We were in Switzerland last year touring farms. One factory had an entire biodigester the government paid for because they thought it was important. …It is not always sunny or windy here, but there is always cow manure.

Crave Brothers has its second Crave generation at work. From Left: Jake Crave is the son of Mark Crave, an owner and manager; Brian Crave is the son of George and Debbie Crave; Beth Crave is the daughter-in-law of Charles Crave, a founder; and Roseanne Crave is the daughter of George and Debbie Crave.

Q: What has travel taught you about the dairy industry in Wisconsin?

Debbie: We’ve always enjoyed learning from others. The sharing starts on our farm during World Dairy Expo.  Then we go visit them. They come back and visit us. We believe in that mutual learning. We miss seeing them. November 2019 was our last overseas trip to visit cheesemaker friends in Switzerland. (World Dairy Expo 2021 will return Sept. 28 through Oct. 2 in Madison.)”

Table Chat features interviews with Wisconsinites, or Wisconsin natives, who work in restaurants or support the restaurant industry; or visiting chefs. To suggest individuals to profile, email psullivan@gannett.com.