|By SHELLY STRAUTZ-SPRINGBORN
LAKEVIEW, Mich. — Judy and Tom Hoskins both prefer sharp cheddar and hot pepper cheese.
But that hasn’t stopped them from developing several other flavors at their Farm Country Cheese House in Michigan’s Pine Township.
Located on a country road a few miles from the nearest town, the Hoskins have worked alongside the Amish for more than 22 years creating their cheesy products.
“We started out with just basic cheddar, then colby and monterey jack,” Tom said.
The couple now offer several varieties including their signature “squeaky” cheese, a mild form of the unpressed curd that squeaks when eaten, as well as dill cheese, bacon cheese, mozzarella, gouda, horseradish cheese and many others, including Judy’s secret recipe country spice cheese and - of course - their favorites, cheddar and hot pepper.
Although the Hoskins both come from farming backgrounds, the couple didn’t set out to make a living in the world of curd when they were married 38 years ago.
Tom worked as a diesel mechanic in Grand Rapids, while Judy was able to stay home to raise the couple’s family on their Greenville-area farm.
Because one of their sons was allergic to cow’s milk, Judy’s early cheese-making experience came from cooking up cheese at home using milk from her own goats. “I sent away to a catalog and got some supplies,” she said. “I bought a book and started making cheese.
“The first few weren’t worth eating,” she said, laughing as she reminisced about her early experiences, which gave her a “small scale” view of cheese making.
But it was that experience that helped inspire their cheesy business venture.
With the help of several of the Amish families that they had become friends with, the Hoskins built and opened their processing plant.
“The Amish needed a milk market and Judy knew how to make cheese,” Tom said of the couple’s decision to start their business.
“Through God’s grace we met people, and they knew what we needed,” Judy said of how they designed their processing facility and chose their equipment.
For the first year Judy ran the business while Tom continued working at his job in Grand Rapids. She even took an apprenticeship at a cheese factory in Wisconsin where she learned a lot about the trade.
“Making cheese is a very labor intensive job,” Judy said.
In the beginning she said production started around 7 a.m. After the cheese was made, Judy would end the day making butter – sometimes not finishing until 10 p.m. As they added more cheese flavors the couple stopped butter production.
The cheese house initially started as a family business. However as their children grew up, Tom and Judy became the only members of the Hoskins family to work there.
“It’s always a busy place,” Tom said of the processing facility.
Now Judy works part-time at the business.
“I get to work all holidays and all Saturdays,” she said.
Tom dedicates much of his time doing “everything” at the processing plant, which includes operating a small retail store in the front of the building.
The Farm Country Cheese House is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays. With six employees, the Hoskins now focus primarily on marketing their products to distributors, bookwork and overseeing other daily operations. Meanwhile, the Amish make most of the cheese.
On an average day the plant processes about 40,000 pounds of milk, which is collected in 10-gallon cans each morning from local Amish farmers.
Upon delivery to the plant, the milk is pumped into a storage tank, pasteurized and then goes into one of three large open-topped vats where it is turned into cheese.
“It takes about 4-5 hours,” Tom said of the process, which nets about 4,000 pounds of cheese per day.
The whey is used for cattle feed, while the cheese curds are either packaged for “squeaky” cheese or pressed into 40-pound blocks.
The blocks are placed whole in boxes and readied for shipping to distributors or cut and packaged in smaller units for consumer consumption. The Hoskins even custom package some of their products for fund-raisers such as a special FFA cheese sale.
The variety of cheese dictates whether it must be aged in one of the plant’s cold rooms. Tom said Colby and other soft cheeses are ready to sell “the next day” after production, while cheddar is aged from one to four years.
“We use an old-fashioned method,” Tom said of the plant’s production. “That’s why we have the flavor we have.”
The couple takes pride in sharing their trade, often hosting tours for school groups and others who are interested in learning about how cheese is made.
They say their biggest reward has been all the people they have met.
“It’s fun to find out how people find us. We really are blessed,” Judy said. “We’re on our third generation of customers from some families.”
“People come to visit with friends and then they come here,” Tom said.
The cheese house has had visitors from all over Michigan, throughout the United States and as far away as Russia, Australia and France.
“We’ve had fun through the years. Some of our customers are like family,” Judy said.
Although Judy, 61, and Tom, 58, said they have no intentions of retiring anytime soon, Judy said if they ever quit working “it won’t be retirement, it’ll be a vacation. We haven’t had a vacation in 22 years.”
Laura Hodges of Trufant has worked for the Hoskins’ for 18 years. “I keep things hoppin’ around here,” she said from her post at the cash register.
Sporting an apron and gloves, Hodges helps cut and package the cheese in between waiting on customers.
She said the busiest times of the year are in July and around the holidays when the business sells its special “Christmas cheese.”
“It’s a hit with everyone,” she said of the extra sharp cheddar, which hits the shelves just before deer season and normally stays around until Christmas. She said it is one of the store’s frequently shipped items.
The Farm Country Cheese House is located at 7263 W. Kendaville Road, Lakeview and can be reached by calling 989-352-7779.
This farm news was published in the March 15, 2006 issue of Farm World.