At long last and to the glee of many, Willy Street Co-op is now offering organic (MOSA-certified), locally grown, family-farmed, single-sourced, glass-bottled milk. In terms of our Co-op’s product priorities and the P6—Cooperative Trade Movement, this Osseo, Wisconsin farm and Grade-A dairy facility rings all the bells and whistles. Carla Kostka and her two sons, Barry and Jake, were on hand recently when we visited the dairy, cheese cave and nearby farm where their 150 Holstein cows are milked twice daily, producing 5,000 pounds per day.
A fourth generation farmer, Carla’s husband Wayne Kostka began researching organic farms and methods as a way to sustain and keep his family on the farm during his lengthy recovery from a work-related injury during his job as a stone mason. The Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference in LaCrosse was an important event in determining their next step. “We were looking for an additional way to make farming more profitable and entice next generations to stay within the farm,” Carla said. “For years, [the kids] have been told to leave the farm and that’s the way it was going and now, as people are becoming educated about the foods they want to eat, there’s only one place to get it and it’s from a small farm.”
Once home from the conference, Wayne and Carla were determined to begin farming organically and were prepared to make their big announcement, “We came home and told the two oldest boys we’re going organic and they said, ‘We are?’ And we told them, ‘Yeah, we are.’ We went down [to LaCrosse] and really looked at it and we were really pleased with what we saw,” she recalls. “For us to see now, 10-plus years later, the way our land is producing—we are now getting better yields, and in a good year our production is higher than it ever was with the other crops. We’re very dedicated to organic.” Of their transition to organic, Jake later added, “I know people were looking at us funny; the weeds were a little out of control at first, but we’re growing crops better organically than we ever did conventionally.”
Having finished with the day’s production in the dairy, Jake, also the cheesemaker, gave us the grand tour of the large plant while two workers finished cleaning the bottling equipment. Built from the ground up over five years ago by the family and their construction company, the dairy boasts an impressive assemblage of equipment. “We installed everything here, so it’s been quite a process,” Jake explained. “You can’t find small equipment to fit our operation; you have to have it made.”
The two gleaming 150-gallon pasteurization vats stood empty, having already been cleaned after the morning’s production. Once tested to rule out the presence of antibiotics, each load of milk from the farm is pasteurized using the traditional vat process, where the milk is heated to the required 140 degrees and held at that temperature for 30 minutes before bottling. (Unlike the High Temperature, Short Time (HTST) method, which quickly heats the milk to 167 degrees then, just as quickly, cools it down.) Jake expressed his preference for the more traditional vat method by saying, “We try to keep as much of the good stuff as we can in there,” referring to the enzymes that are spared by applying less heat. Also non-homogenized, the Castle Rock bottled milk’s fat cells, large and undisturbed leave in place that authentic and one-of-a-kind taste. Jake leads the bottling two days a week (Monday and Friday) and other days are reserved for making more Castle Rock products—cheeses, ice cream, churned cream.
After touring the dairy, we were invited to visit the cheese cave where all of their cheeses are wrapped and aged. A stunningly constructed facility near the family’s home, it suddenly became quite obvious where and how they decided upon their name. Both the house and cave were covered in large boulders and stones, imparting a very castle-like quality. The Kostkas built the cave into a hill, then created the large, hygienic workroom inside as well as several cinder-block-lined coolers where their blue and cheddar cheeses are aged.
Next we took a short ride across the countryside and arrived at the farm where Barry and his family tend the cows’ 800 acres where their forage grasses and a small bit of corn are grown for their animals. Castle Rock cows mingled and rested on sawdust in a large barn on this cold and rainy day, some curious to discover what these strangers might be offering, but most stayed put, comfortably chewing their cud. To maintain a consistent flavor of the milk, the cows are fed a regular diet of balage—a mixture of forage grasses and legumes kept at a relatively high moisture content (40 to 60%) rolled up in big round bales and then wrapped in plastic for preservation. Jake explained that balage is as close to grass as you can get year-round, but the cows go outside everyday and will venture out to graze on pasture if they choose to.
In another barn, a small herd of their own replacement calves of varying ages were each housed in their own pens, where they’ll stay until weaned off milk before joining the herd. Behind a closed door at the end of the calf barn, we stepped down a small flight of stairs into the pristinely clean pit of the milking parlor. The large overhead doors on far end of the room were closed but Jake explained how the doors are opened allowing the cows enter on their own and file into the 16 milking stalls. From the approximately three-feet-deep pit, the cows’ udders were close enough for a person in the pit to easily reach in and attach the pneumatic apparatus that pumps the milk to the bulk tank. Currently, Jake explained, most of the milk produced on their farm is used for their bottling and the cheeses, but a third of their organic milk is sold to Westby Creamery in Viroqua.
Jake added that while growing up on their conventional farm, “We never made any money,” so when his parents made their big announcement, he remembers thinking, “It ain’t gonna hurt to try something different.” While many farm families require at least one member to work off the farm to make it all work, Jake said, “Our construction business is what helped the farm make it for the last 40 years. Now they’re slower than they’ve ever been in 40 years, but with the dairy operation, we’re closer now than we’ve ever been, but it’s still tough.”
The Kostkas credit their animal care as the key to the quality of their milk and set aside three or four times a year to invite business customers to come in for educational days. Consumers are invited to visit the farm on September 10th when they’ll be hosting an open house on the farm and plant.
As we were leaving Osseo, one statement Carla made during the interview kept looping in my mind, reminding me how much they’ve accomplished in such a short time all the while taking a huge risk. As they enter their eighth year of this business, Carla, grandmother to 18 children said, “We’re just hoping there’s someone who’s going to continue the farming with us.” As one who fielded many of the requests over the past couple of years from Co-op owners asking for glass-bottled milk, I have a good feeling that with such a strong family and progressive farming philosophy, I think their chances are better than good.
Whether you make a special trip or stop in on your way to another destination, the Castle Rock retail store in Osseo is open for business and you can see their complete line of delicious organic products while getting a good view of the production facility through a large plate glass window.
For more information about Castle Rock Dairy, see their website at: www.castlerockfarms.net.