For as long as she can remember, Alise Sjostrom dreamed of owning an eco-friendly creamery that made cheese from the milk of her own dairy herd. She grew up on a dairy farm where she now resides and operates Redhead Creamery. As Alise’s parents are incredibly passionate dairy farmers and vital members of the ag community, their excitement and enthusiasm for dairy and agriculture grew within her. She says, “I just knew I would be part of this farm, and I needed to figure out how I would do it.”
Hitting the books
When Alise attended the University of Minnesota, she found that the college did not offer the dairy manufacturing program she felt she needed. She gleaned as much as possible from her coursework to make the best of the situation. Working very closely with her academic advisor, Alise shared with him her goal to make cheese on a dairy farm. As Alise explains, this proved to be a good move, “My advisor wisely advised me that anyone can make cheese, and the hard part would be getting it sold.”
Initially, Alise thought animal science courses would best prepare her to make and sell cheese from a dairy. She quickly learned that she needed a different educational track and began to take marketing and economics classes. Alise comments, “Once I was in the right classes, things started to get easier and really clicked for me.” Sharing her vision with her advisor and other professors, she gathered advice to forge her own undergraduate path.
Going to work
Upon graduation, Alise found that job options were limited, and she responded by applying for quite a few marketing positions. Fortunately, she landed a job as a food broker and is delighted to say, “That ended up being exactly what I needed at the time.” Spending a lot of time on the retail side in grocery stores, Alise monitored the company’s products in the store, developed relationships with store managers, and learned about data analysis. In addition to paying the bills, this job turned out to be a great learning opportunity, as she comments, “I didn’t fully realize what I was applying for and got lucky that I was offered that position.”
When her fiancé Lucas was offered a job in Vermont, Alise relocated and took a position with a cheese company in their retail store. This new job taught her about the higher end of the cheese industry; as she says, “I learned about the amazing world of European cheese that I didn’t know existed.” Alise was surprised when vacationers had no problem spending $300 on quality cheese and wine. She reveals, “As a recent college grad, I couldn’t understand how they would have extra money to splurge like that! My eyes were opened to all kinds of opportunities.”
By this time, Alise and Lucas were married and working, spending free time on the weekends visiting cheese companies and breweries and other micro food businesses in the New England area. They took notes along the way about what they loved and what they might do differently, and whenever possible, the young couple tried to connect with the business owners to ask questions and seek advice. Most proprietors were very helpful. Unknowingly, the Sjostroms were laying the first blocks of the foundation for their future business. During those early years, Alise says the couple met with her parents for holidays and other visits, sharing their dairy creamery business plans and dreams. “All the while, we were brainstorming and hashing out a business plan.”
Beyond the dream
In 2012, the couple was expecting their daughter Lucy when Alise recalls, “We asked ourselves where we should raise our family.” They moved to her family home in Brooten, Minnesota,and Alise sought to turn their plans into reality while working for a different cheese company from home and milking cows in the morning with baby Lucy in the stroller.
Alise describes those early days: “At that time, my parents decided that they weren’t getting any younger and wanted to transition ownership of the business to Lucas and me.” They began their financing efforts by collecting bids for the building, concrete, and equipment work. After breaking ground on Redhead Creamery in 2013, they started making cheese in 2014; as Alise explains, “We had some challenges with equipment at first, which took us a few months to overcome.”
Today, after many ups and downs, a different array of employees, and adding another cheesemaker to the mix, Redhead Creamery is in its eighth year of cheese making. Their business model includes sharing with others what they do with agriculture and dairy by providing customers with the opportunity to experience their food being made. The cheese plant was built to allow guests to witness the work performed without entering the production area. For guests who want to experience a real dairy farm, there are tours at 12:30 pm on Fridays and Saturdays. The group spends at least an hour going from the alfalfa to baby calves, to pregnant heifers, to milking cows, and the cheese while comprehensively visualizing how it all works. At the end, visitors finish in the plant by watching a video of how the cheese is made and sampling the results of the process, as well as locally made beer and wine. Alise says, “It’s a good way to spend a Saturday afternoon. We are in the middle of nowhere on a gravel road, and I like to think that it’s the adventure that brings visitors out here.”
Another adventure for guests is Curd Fest, a celebration of the cheese curd and agriculture. It occurs annually on the third Saturday of June, bringing live music and local food vendors and serving curd cabobs, pan-fried, and deep-fried curds along with something new every year. Throughout the year, particularly during the holiday season, Redhead Creamery sells and ships items and baskets of goodies.
Working with family has been incredibly humbling but exciting. Alise says, “I am privileged to have this opportunity to take on something like this because of what my parents built.” While there can be challenges, she feels they have found a great flow and utilize each person’s different skills and talents. As her children get older, they try to help with the register and interact with customers. Alise is encouraged by this, saying, “It is so wonderful to see what they are interested in. I can share with them what I am experiencing daily, and they see what is happening at the moment and how these problems are solved. I have my fingers crossed they will want to be part of this business.”