Of all the farms in Kansas, it’s possible that none smell like Jason Wiebe’s. The sour scent of whey coming from the small outbuilding on his property is different from earthier smells from pastures and manure.
But it’s what goes into Wiebe’s signature cheeses. The final product is a smooth bite with a creamy mouth-feel, and even a sliver can leave the consumer feeling as though they’ve just guzzled a glass of fresh milk.
Good cheese was nothing new to the Wiebes. Making good cheese, however, was another story.
The third-generation owner of his family dairy, Wiebe heard an off-hand remark at a Wichita seminar that a small-time cheese dairy could be profitable.
That was about 15 years ago. Since then, Jason Wiebe Dairy north of Durham has become a licensed cheese manufacturer with products available all over the country.
“This stuff is selling for $30 a pound in California,” Jason Wiebe’s wife, Sheri, said, referring to their special Cottonwood River Cheddar cheese.
Jason Wiebe said he thinks his cheese plant is the only one in the state that uses milk from its own cows. Other, large-scale cheese operations bring in milk from other dairies. The Wiebes know exactly the type of product that goes into their cheese.
“The cheese is very creamy because we have pretty high-fat milk,” Jason Wiebe said. “We have a mixed-breed herd.”
He said 33 to 40 percent of the dairy’s milk supply is processed into cheese while the rest is sold as milk. He was interested in a cheese operation because he could have ownership of the product.
“With milk, you take it down the lane, and it’s whatever price they give you, and a couple weeks later, they send you a check,” he said.
With cheese, however, the Wiebes can introduce their own flavors, such as bacon, jalapeno, habanero, chipotle, and Cajun. They also use raw, unpasteurized milk for some of their products.
“It’s in the cow at 101.5 degrees, and during the cooking it gets up to 102, so it’s pretty consistent,” Wiebe said. “People think raw milk is healthier, and it probably is. I think some of the flavors get destroyed in the pasteurization process.”
Wiebe said the decision to start making cheese potentially saved his family farm.
“If we hadn’t started the cheese operation, I’m not sure we’d be milking cows anymore,” he said.
The Wiebes installed a cheese plant right on their property, after a couple of years producing 40 pounds a week in their kitchen to sell to family and friends. Initially the building that held their cheese-making equipment was a 16-by-16-foot room, but they have since expanded that space to accommodate their current operation.
A large, rectangular vat sits in the middle of the production room. A cylindrical batch pasteurizer is in the corner, empty for the moment. The sharp smell of sliced jalapenos mingles with the unique whey scent.
“I can tell from the smell they’re making the jalapeno cheddar today,” Wiebe said.
Aaron Herbel, who works full-time at the dairy, mixes in the jalapeno flavoring with 5,500 lbs. of cheese curds in the heated cheese vat. Wielding a stainless steel shovel, Herbel scoops the curds into smaller steel containers lined on a horizontal cheese press, which looks like a conveyor belt on pause.
Jason Wiebe’s son Benjamin helps as well, closing the containers full of curds, turning them on their side, and compressing them. A large jack sits at the end of the conveyor, and Benjamin, upon lining up all the containers, tightens it to squeeze together and condense the containers.
Small holes in the containers allow whey to drain out and sluice down into a drain on the floor, which is covered in the white, watery substance.
“It looks like a lot, but most of the whey is drained out in the cooking process,” Herbel said.
As the containers of curds pack together, they consolidate. These will be made into solid 40-pound blocks of cheese. Some will be shipped across the country as whole blocks, while others will be sliced into approximate one-pound rectangles and sold as early as two weeks later at local markets, such as Carlsons’ Grocery and Dale’s Supermarket.
Others may be stored in a nearby refrigerated trailer where, over the course of the next year, they will be aged.
The cows outside are lowing together in a shelter, while more than a dozen farm cats roam the property, all looking well-fed.
A dairy is a logical place for a cat to stay, given all the milk on the premises.
“You’d be surprised,” Wiebe said. “They like the cheese, too.”