In Edible-Alpha® podcast #115, Andy talks with Ron Henningfeld, founder and cheesemaker at Hill Valley Dairy in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Sourcing milk from his family’s small dairy farm nearby, the company sells a wide variety of artisan cheeses at local shops, farmers markets, and restaurants and recently opened its own downtown storefront.
Ron loved growing up on Romari Farms and wanted to stay involved in some capacity. He studied ag education and biology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he began dabbling in cheesemaking, but only as a hobby. After teaching high school for a few years, he decided to pursue his passion, hoping cheesemaking would someday lead him back to the family farm, now owned by his oldest brother.
But first Ron had to hone his craft. He apprenticed at UW’s Babcock Hall, then took a job at a creamery, and then helped open Clock Shadow Creamery in Milwaukee in 2012. These experiences taught him the art, science, and nuances of cheesemaking and helped him broaden his skillset.
Eventually, Ron felt ready to strike out on his own. In 2016, he and wife Josie launched Hill Valley Dairy, with Ron as the cheesemaker and Josie in charge of marketing. By renting production space from Clock Shadow, their operating costs were quite low, allowing them to self-finance the business. They also started small, making 50 to 100 pounds of cheese every few weeks to sell at two farmers markets.
Hill Valley Dairy stayed hyperlocal for the first few years, building a following with delicious staples like cheddar, gouda, and cheese curds. But as they gained more traction and demand, they added more wholesale accounts and launched unique artisan varieties, including two prizewinning cave-aged hard cheeses, Luna and Alina.
Today, Ron produces 500 pounds of cheese a week, using almost 20% of the milk his family’s farm produces. Still renting space from Clock Shadow, he takes a truckload of milk to the creamery each week, makes cheese, then hauls it back to the farm to age, cut, package, and distribute. The couple’s two young daughters love helping out, making Hill Valley Dairy a true family business.
Earlier this year, Ron and Josie opened Hill Valley Cheese Shop in downtown Lake Geneva, a bustling tourist town between Madison, Milwaukee, and Chicago. They sell their own products, of course, plus cheeses from other local artisans, and soon they’ll add a cheese bar to make it more experiential.
Now with more overhead and infrastructure, Ron and Josie have brought in outside capital and financing. They received a value-added producer grant (VAPG) in 2018, which they qualified for because his farmer brother owns a small part of Hill Valley Dairy. This past winter, they scored a Wisconsin Department of Agriculture grant to do a feasibility study on building their own creamery. Most recently, they opened a line of credit with a local bank to help buy equipment and build up their brick-and-mortar space.
Tune in to get the full scoop on this growing Wisconsin food business’s inspiring trajectory!