The beginning of the story of WW Homestead Dairy is much like those of other farms across the country. The farms that make up WWH were started by family members and have been passed down through generations. WWH now consists of two farms: Walleser Family Farms, which began sometime in the late 1940s and is operated by Tom Walleser, his wife Janet, and their children Kelsey, Tanner, Trent, and Molly, and the Weighner Brothers Family Farm, which was founded sometime during the late 1950s, early '60s, and is operated by Paul Weighner, Tom Weighner '75, Tom’s wife Angie, and children Liz, Abby, Anna, Paul, and Steph, and Steph’s husband, Marshall and son, Hank. Three partners head the operations: Tom Walleser, Paul Weighner, and Tom Weighner.
Although these family farms began so many years ago, their business, WW Homestead Dairy, continues to evolve. Tom Weighner, one of the three WWH partners and overseer of the WWH creamery, explains that 2009 was a particularly challenging year for dairy farmers. During this time, it was typical for a dairy farm to lose a great deal of equity totaling up to $100,000 dollars. Weighner and his family wanted to find a way to find some stability, so about three years ago, they made the decision to become a wholesale business. WWH bought a small building in Waukon, renovated it, and two and a half years ago started their creamery. Weighner explains that they were “just trying to have a more sustainable, secure business from the dairy farm right through.”As a wholesale operation, WWH has more control over processes and prices. WWH puts this added control over processes to good use, focusing intently on the quality of their products. WWH is careful to meet state health and safety standards for their milk including the required process of pasteurization, which involves heating milk to high temperatures to kill bacteria. However, WWH is different from other creameries in that it produces creamline milk, or milk that is not homogenized. Homogenization is a process during which milk is forced through tiny nozzles at high pressures. As a result, fat particles are sheared into pieces small enough that they stay suspended in the milk, giving the milk a uniform look and flavor. Weighner asserts that homogenization of milk makes it less wholesome, saying that milk from WWH is easier to digest because it is not over-processed. Not homogenizing the milk also leads to a difference in flavor. “Even our skim milk isn’t blue, it doesn’t taste like water, it actually has a milk flavor to it and that’s from not over-processing it, too.”
Weighner also feels that the small size of the farms and the local foods aspect makes for a better product. When asked what he felt was unique about WWH, he put it simply: “Our product is local, of course, and from a known source.” He went on to explain the dilution factor that occurs with larger operations. Attention to quality is reduced when milk comes from thousands of cows from all over the country. Some producers, many of whom are in the minority, Weighner emphasizes, rely on the great quantities of milk sent to large creameries to dilute impurities from their own milk.
“Normally if you buy milk, and most of it’s high quality milk, a lot of dairy farms do a fine job of producing product, but you’re going to get milk from hundreds of hundreds of miles and it’s all shipped in from a plant, processed, and then shipped back out hundreds and hundreds of miles, could be thousands of farms worth of milk in there. If you buy a gallon of our milk, it came from 1 of 2 farms, it came from 1 of 200 cows total. And most creameries have 5 times more farms than we have cows.”One aspect in which WWH’s small size lends particularly well to quality is their choice to avoid the use of hormones or rbST in their cows. rbST stands for recombinant bovine somatotropin, a synthetic protein that is injected into cows to increase milk production by mimicking the naturally occurring protein that regulates milk generation. Weighner feels that rbST interferes with a cow’s natural regulation of her system, and that, when milk production decreases, it must be for an important reason—to maintain the health of the cow.
Products from WWH farms and creamery are some of the favorite foods of students at Luther College. The skim and skim chocolate milk, soft serve ice cream, hand-dipped ice cream, deep-fried and fresh cheese curds, ice cream bars and novelties, and the sliced cheese in snack packs all come from the WWH creamery in Waukon, just under 20 miles away from campus.For Tom Weighner, sustainability is about building a business for his family that will last years into the future. To do this, he and his partners have made cost-effective choices that ramp up efficiency both at the WWH creamery and their farms. At the creamery, a great deal of product needs to be kept cold. Typically, each piece of equipment--every bulk tank, pasteurizer, and chiller--has it’s own chiller powered by a compressor. However, to save energy, WWH cools their equipment with a single chilling unit that has 4 compressors that turn on only on an as-needed basis to keep one, 600-gallon tank of coolant cold. The coolant is then pumped to each of the 10 odd pieces of equipment in the plant that need to be kept at low temperatures.
Other steps toward greater efficiency appear in WWH’s transport and delivery methods. In the past, they used an old Freightliner truck that got 7-8 miles per gallon. Now, they’ve purchased a more fuel efficient used Mercedes-Benz Sprinter truck and in doing so, have cut their diesel usage by about 50%, spending only $120-150 per week on fuel rather than the $300 per week they spent previously. The truck’s unique look has become somewhat of a joke around WWH; It sports a large green chicken on the side, left from the previous owner. “I think we can probably convince [people] that we have chicken milk,” Weighner jests, chuckling, “that we’re milking chickens.” Keeping with the ideology of a family farm, Weighner’s niece will apply the new graphics.WWH also tries to maximize efficiency through strategic delivery route combination with other farms and organizations in the area such as Country View Dairy and the Allamakee New Beginnings Food Hub. Together, they work together to plan deliveries to places like Dubuque, Des Moines, and Houston, MN.
At the farm, renewable energy generated by 3 outdoor wood burning furnaces heat water that circulates into the barns and houses. Brush and downed trees on land adjacent to the barns fuel the furnaces. Weighner explains that before the installation of the wood burning furnaces, WWH went through 9000 gallons of LP each year, a number that has now been reduced to less than 1000 gallons. In addition, WWH also saves on fossil fuel by heating one of the farmhouses with geothermal technology.
Weighner explains that the appeal of these changes is twofold: “...it’s stuff that helps the environment, helps sustainability, but it also, it’s all steps that help us, it saves us money at the same time. It’s kinda a no-brainer when it’s saving or making you money along with the good it does, you know--it’s kind of a two way street there.”When asked about his feelings regarding the local food movement, Weighner highlights benefits to the community. The WWH Creamery in Waukon, previously an abandoned building, is now a hub of activity. “...besides renovating this building that was sitting here empty for 5, 6 years, ...we’ve got 7 full-time and 10-12 part-time employees--those are all jobs in the local community that weren’t here 3 years ago.” Weighner explains, “I think it’s pretty easy to overlook that part of the buy local, grow local [movement]--it’s not only for products...if just two farms can do this and add all these jobs right here to the community that’s a pretty big thing.”
Weighner feels that because of the changes occurring in agricultural markets, it’s unlikely to see a slowdown in the growth of factory farming any time soon. “A lot of the big farms, they’re family farms--there’s a dad and he’s got 2, 3 sons or son-in-laws, and it’s just the way it’s gone, they’re forced into getting big...because it used to be that a farm, a 120- ,160-acre farm could support a whole family and maybe even another family. The way it’s gone now, it takes 1000s of acres to do that, and they wanna stay in farming and that’s, it’s kinda a conventional way to do it…” However, although factory farming may be the convention, Weighner stresses that communities should consider closely the benefits of small farms and the local food movement. “I think this grow local type thing is good, I think people need to take a closer look at what this does for a community, an area.”It seems that community members and patrons of the WWH creamery have noticed the high quality of the operation. Weighner explains how satisfying it is to hear the positive feedback of these individuals. “...pretty regularly, people come in and tell you how much they appreciate what you’re doing. ...a lot of people realize the amount of hard work and effort and sacrifice it’s taken to get this up and going. …you hear that, [and] you know you’re appreciated, and that makes you feel good.” It is clear that Weighner is proud of what he, his family, and WWH have accomplished. “I do like to do in-store demos,” he said, “...it’s fun to see the look on people’s faces when you get them to try your product, the disbelief that what they’re drinking is actually skim milk because it tastes like milk. ...It makes you feel good, that’s very satisfying.”
When asked for advice he might give to farmers who may be looking to make energy efficiency changes, Weighner emphasizes the ingenuity of his fellows in agriculture. “Well I think, as a whole, farmers are pretty good at looking for ways to get more efficient and save money… They’re pretty innovative…” He recommends considering “unconventional” methods for making a more sustainable business by looking to solar, wind, or wood-fired furnaces as important technologies. “There’s always better ways to do things,” he points out, “You’ve got to keep looking.”