A Tour of Ropp Jersey Creamery
As we close out the summer, Common Ground staff were able to squeeze in one last farm tour for the season. We headed over to Normal, IL to visit Ropp Jersey Creamery - one of the only local farms where no Common Ground Food Co-op staff had toured before! Owner Ken Ropp was immediately gracious, offering us a small cheese sampling before the tour kicked off.
Ropp is a 6th generation family farm, run by seven houses of Ropp families. They “broke prairie” in the 1860s and began farming corn and soybeans. Six generations ago, most Illinois farms operated like the “Old McDonald” farm as Ken described it - you would have a cow for milk and butter, perhaps a hog or sheep for meat, and over time would focus on one crop for sale. Currently they farm 450 acres - 50 for alfalfa, 200 for corn, and 200 for soybeans. Their closest neighbors have 8,000 adn 18,000 acres, respectively, so as Ken took over the farm, he decided he wanted to diversify their business. He never felt like he needed to compete with them, and was adamant that local farms need to work together now more than ever, but was eager to take an opportunity to turn his farm into something different.
In the 1970s, there were over 300 dairy farms in McLean county. Today that number is down to only 4. This is in part due to heavy livestock regulations, particularly compared to other states. In 2005, Ken attended the World Cheese Fair in Wisconsin, and saw a dairy truck that was making cheese curds right there with milk from the show cows. Ken was so impressed and interested that he purchased the truck and brought it back to his farm in Normal. In the beginning, that was how they made all their cheese. The truck was functional, but didn’t have air conditioning and in the summer months could reach an unbearable 100 degree temperature. The truck days are long gone, but you can still see the long gravel driveway where it once sat. When Ken decided he wanted to expand and invest in his dairy operation, his lenders said to him, “you want to do what?” It was a risky endeavor, very different from the subsidized world of corn and soybean farming. But he secured funds and was able to update an existing barn built in 1968 to become their dairy parlor. Over 15 years later, Ropp Jersey Creamery is thriving.
Currently, Ropp sells to 240 locations in a 150 mile radius. Not surprisingly, their #1 customer in Champaign-Urbana is Seven Saints restaurant, where they provide the curds for their enormous and delicious fried cheese curds. Ropp has 9 total employees, all with varied and specific job duties. Ken relayed a tale from before this was the case where he was in the middle of giving a tour to a group of young children, when a cow went into labor and he had to attend to that in the middle of the tour!
Their jersey cows live individually for the first 8-10 weeks of their lives. This is easier on both the cows and the mothers, rather than to have them get attached and then potentially separated. The calves drink their mother’s milk for the first 2 weeks to ensure they get enough colostrum, and are then switched to a diet of grain and hay that they grow on the farm. The cows are housed in a large barn where they are divided by age. It used to be common practice for the cows to have their calves out in the field, but it has become too dangerous with the coyotes in the area, so now they have a separate maternity shed.
The cows are milked in the milking parlor, where the milk then flows to a large metal tank where they use a high temperature, short time (HTST) pasteurization method. They make a variety of cheeses at Ropp including gouda, colby, cheese curds, queso, and cheese spreads. After the cheese is made, it is stored in 40 pound blocks in their cooler, where it stays until an order is placed, and it then gets repackaged into the small blocks you see in the store or at market.
Our tour ended with some more sampling, including their amazing cheese spreads that we now sell at Common Ground! We had a wonderful time learning about the history of Ropp Jersey Creamery and their products, and are grateful to have worked with them for so many years.