LATROBE, Pa. — Jason Frye and his employee, Regis Jackson, are draining whey off a batch of cheese curds. They pile the curds on the side of the vat, making a path down the middle for the excess whey.
In an hour or so, they’ll cut the curds into blocks, rotating and stacking them to squeeze additional whey out. This is the cheddaring process. This batch of cheddar cheese will be available to purchase next Christmas.
“We’re making cheddar in the ancient and traditional way,” Jason Frye said. But with a lot of modern technology in their state-of-the-art cheesemaking facility.
Watching them make cheese now, calmly moving through the steps in the quiet, sterile environment of the cheese making room, you’d never know they’ve only been at this eight months.
“We did our first cheese make over Zoom,” Jason said. “There was a lot of scrambling.”
The story of the Creamery at Pleasant Lane Farms can’t be told without talking about the pandemic.
The success of a cheese called “quark” that no one had ever heard of before. The loss of an off farm job and business safety net. The incredible growth of a business that didn’t exist before April.
“We’re hitting marks that we weren’t expecting to hit until 18-24 months,” Jason said.
When Farm and Dairy featured the farm in a story in January, titled “Mixing it up: Dairies diversify for success,” the plan was to start off slow. The Frye family wanted to make and sell cheese as a way to incorporate more family members in the small dairy farm founded by Ralph Frye, the father.
Ralph’s sons, Jason and Todd, wanted to retire to the farm from their off farm jobs. Jason was vice president of a tech company and Todd, an Air Force veteran, was sergeant first class in the Army National Guard.
They figured they’d make cheese a couple times a week from the farm’s herd of about 40 Holsteins. Making and selling cheese could net them at least $50 to $60 per hundredweight of milk, Jason estimated. The rest of the farm’s milk would go to their longtime processor, Turner’s.
The Fryes built a new facility to house a cheesemaking room, aging rooms, packaging rooms, a classroom and a room that would eventually contain a robotic milking machine. If everything went well, they’d add on a new modern free stall barn. They wanted the entire process to be viewable by the public.
The family hired a consultant, Neville McNaughton, with Sanitary Design Industries, based in St. Louis, to design the systems and help the family members learn how to make cheese. McNaughton was supposed to come visit for a week in the spring when they were ready to start cheesemaking to teach them everything they needed to know.
Then, the pandemic hit. They had to learn how to make cheese over video call.
“There’s maybe nothing more uncomfortable than taking 2,000 pounds of milk and pumping it into the vat and then saying, ‘Now, what?’” Jason said.
Luckily, that first batch turned out well. But they had 200 pounds of cheese curds to sell during a time when everything was shut down. Jason posted the availability of cheese curds on the farm’s Facebook page to see if they could unload them, without any idea of how it would go.
They started another batch of cheese while waiting for customers to show up to buy curds curbside.
“My mom, wife and sister-in-law were knocking on the glass into the cheesemaking room saying, ‘We need help,’” Jason said. “There’s six cars outside waiting to buy cheese curds … We sold out the next day.”
By the end of the first month, they were making anywhere from 500-700 pounds of cheese a week, making cheese 5-6 days a week. They were selling it almost as fast as they could make it.
It continued like that through the summer as they continued learning how to make new cheeses. Eventually, their consultant was able to visit for a week and help them refine their process, saving time and allowing them to start putting away cheese to age. They added colby, cheddar and Gouda to their product line. They began building up retail partners, continued selling cheese on the farm and started going to farmers markets. They hired a couple full time employees and several part time workers.
Quark cheese proved to be an unexpected favorite of customers, most of whom had no idea what it was, Jason said. They educated customers on their social media channels about how to use the soft spreadable cheese with a taste similar to cream cheese. This is where the scarcity of dairy products in grocery stores may have helped them.
“Quark was one of those things that might not have taken off like it did without COVID, because you can use it like cream cheese,” Jason said.
The farm was part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farmers to Families Food Box program. That wasn’t part of their business plan, but they took advantage of the opportunity to scale up to fill that need. They’re also making cheese for the Westmoreland County Food Bank funded by the state’s Pennsylvania Agricultural Surplus System program.
The pandemic prevented them from fully opening the farm up to the public. They hosted a few groups in their classroom during the summer and briefly allowed customers to come into the building to watch cheese being made.
There were some other bumps along the road. They had to throw out an entire batch of colby cheese because of a typo in the recipe.
During this time, things were slowing down with Jason’s job. He worked on a team that traveled the world to fix software problems, but that became impossible with pandemic travel restrictions. The writing was on the wall. He lost his tech job in June.
Construction on the planned expansion was delayed because of the pandemic. They knew by May they were ready to add on and take the next step, but their first lender got cold feet. They had to find another lender. Construction costs had increased.
They broke ground in late October on a free stall barn, manure pit and additional storage room in the creamery. The robotic milking machine is going in. The goal is to get cows in the new barn in February. They want to expand their milking herd to about 60 cows. A second cheese vat is coming soon to the creamery to take the pressure off the one that is being used almost every day, sometimes multiple times in a day.
The original business plan went out the window by the second week they made cheese, Jason said. But that was OK. Sometimes, it’s what you have to do to take advantage of unexpected opportunities. His experience in the tech and start-up world has given him some helpful perspective on growing a business, even one in making and selling cheese.
“What I learned in tech was there’s a business cycle you need to take advantage of,” he said. “You run like hell to take advantage of that to build your brand, build your market share. Then, you come out the other end of it with a bigger customer base, more exposure.”
Jason cut his teeth in the tech world in the late ’90s. He worked at a software company in 1999, during the Y2K scare.
“The world didn’t end,” he said. “Then life went forward. But up to that point, we built a great brand. After that, we built a more normal operation procedure.”
That’s where Pleasant Lane Farms is at now. The sprint to get the business launched during a pandemic is over. Now, they have to figure out how to keep up sales during the post holidays slump, while building a more realistic operating schedule. The pace is slower, but the pressure to perform is still there.
Jason has seen companies rush to make the most of situations, but he’s also seen them get complacent afterward. They can’t do that.
“The pressure goes up because now we will have a loan to pay for the robot. I don’t have a big tech job to fall back on. Now, the business has to pay for itself,” he said.
(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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