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Parnell resident Bridgette Brenneman, 14, is a cow’s milk allergy sufferer turned teen entrepreneur

By ANDREA FURLONG

dairy
Bridgette Brenneman, 14, mixes goat cheese in the cheese making room of her family’s dairy on their farm in rural Parnell. The family’s microdairy may never have started if it weren’t for Bridgette’s and her sister Brooke’s allergies toward cow’s milk.

Bridgette Brenneman, Parnell, had been living with an allergy to cow’s milk for 11 years when a friend of her family gave her a blind doe goat and a buckling to start her own herd of dairy goats. The gesture may have been a joke, but three years later it led Bridgette to form a microdairy.

In the beginning, Bridgette, now 14, was content with just drinking the milk from Esther, the blind doe. But shortly after discovering one of Bridgette’s eight siblings, Brooke, was also allergic to milk, the family acquired another doe. Together, the two goats produced two gallons a day, which was more than Bridgette and Brooke needed.

“We had so much milk we couldn’t drink it all,” Bridgette recalled.

The two girls did not want to waste it, so they began making every dairy product imaginable.

“They were making pudding, eggnog, smoothies, yogurt,” said their mother, Kim.

They thought they had made everything, when it occurred to them they had never tried making cheese. So, Bridgette found a basic cheese recipe in a book that used vinegar as a coagulant. She made a small amount of goat cheese and concluded the results weren’t all that terrible.

“It’s not near as good as ours is now, but it wasn’t bad,” she said.

Bridgette wanted to improve her results, so she turned to the traditional way of making cheese. She ordered a cheese kit that came with a bacteria culture (commonly used to coagulate the milk) and rennet (a substance generally made from calves’ stomachs that separates the cheese curds from the whey). That cheese was better, but Bridgette ran out of supplies, and she didn’t want to spend money on another cheese-making kit just for the rennet and culture.

About two years ago, Bridgette’s interest in cheese-making really perked up when she and her family went on a farm walk through Iowa. When they reached one of their destinations, a farm in Knoxville, Bridgette met Lois Reichert, a woman who says her business was Iowa’s first licensed microdairy. Like Bridgette, Lois was making cheese from goats’ milk and on a small scale — with about 12 goats. Bridgette kept in contact with Reichert after the visit, and secured a recipe or two, while also learning of area rennet and bacterial culture.

Throughout the next year, Bridgette experimented with different flavor combinations she found here and there — cracked pepper, chive, basil, dill and garlic. It was a hobby that she enjoyed very much, as did family and friends who tried the cheese. Several of them even suggested Bridgette start selling the cheese. Finally, after being poked and prodded, Bridgette, then 13, decided to take friends and family up on their suggestion.

 “Everybody liked the cheese, and we decided if Lois can do it, well we can, too,” Bridgette said.

Bridgette started researching dairy goat types and determined she wanted LaManchas and Saanens in her herd.

“(LaManchas’) milk has some of the highest butterfat and high protein, which is good for cheese,” Kim explained.

Through advertisements on Craigslist and local contacts, Bridgette expanded her herd from two to 22 dairy goats with Saanens, La Manchas, Toggenbergs and Alpines.

Bridgette also purchased milking equipment, a pasteurizing machine, a chart recorder (records the temperatures of the milk in the pasteurizer), thermometers and $3,500 of lab equipment. On top of all the accessories the business needed, the family also built a 30x40 foot shed for the dairy operation.

“Before you start selling your milk there are all these regulations you have to go through and we just decided it was easier to build a new shed than try to (modify) one we already have,” Kim said.

On top of the regulations, dairy business owners face many required costs, like a few hundred dollars for state-mandated licenses and tests and $100 for every county in which they plan to sell at farmer’s markets.

Altogether, the Brennemans have invested over $25,000 in their microdairy. Some of the costs they are paying themselves while some are covered by loans, including $20,000 through four 4-H loans.

Kim said the family realizes it may be a while until they can put their profits toward something other than loan payments, but they also see the potential to develop lifelong skills in all nine children.

“We’re just getting our feet wet still. This is a family business because it involves everybody. We have a bunch of little kids coming up to fill in when Brock (17) goes to college in a couple years. It’s a family business that everyone can participate in and share the profits eventually and use to help them pay for college,” she said.

Kim continued, “They can learn business skills, work ethic and character and use those skills and profit into launching their own business someday.”

THE PROCESS

The Brennemans have been making cheese with their new herd since April. The cheese-making process starts with these 21 goats. Every morning and afternoon, Bridget’s brother, Brock, 17, milks the herd. Goats walk in sets of eight from their barn and up a ladder into the milking parlor. It takes 30 to 45 minutes to milk the entire group.

After milking, Bridgette collects the milk and strains hair and dirt from it in an adjacent room where the milking equipment is stored. Then she carries the milk in silver pails through the lab, where she puts a hairnet on for sanitation purposes, and into the cheese room and pours it into the pasteurizer where it is chilled and stored until the milk is ready for pasteurization.

Every other day or basically every 32 gallons, Bridgette pasteurizes the milk, but first she must test it for antibiotics. A sample of the batch is measured in the adjacent lab room — one of those tests required by the state. Kim and Bridgette are not ecstatic about having to spend $3,500 on lab equipment that tells them something that is visibly obvious.

“If we had a goat on antibiotics, we wouldn’t milk it because if you had antiobiotics in your milk, it wouldn’t work with the cheese cultures,” Kim explained.

If the milk tests negative, the pasteurization process is started. During pasteurization, the milk is mechanically stirred by the machine, while it is heated to over 145 degrees Fahrenheit. After 30 minutes, rennet and bacterial culture are added to the milk as it cools. The additives coaugulate the milk, while separating the curds from the whey. Then, the milk is kept at 72 degrees until it is ready to be made into cheese.

When the cheese is ready, Bridgette uses a slicer to help separate curds. Then, she pours the milk into baskets on a draining table, where the milk drips into a bucket as it drains from the cheese.

When the 42 pounds of cheese is properly drained, Bridgette mixes it for under a minute and then adds seasoning. Before packaging it for sale, she weighs every portion to make sure it’s four ounces, then scoops it into a biodegradable plastic cup. Kim or BriAnne then apply professionally designed Brenneman Farmstead Cheese labels to the cups. 

Over the weekend, the family splits into two groups to sell at farmers markets in Williamsburg and Homestead Fridays and Iowa City and Cedar Rapids Saturdays. Though they’ve only been in business four weeks, they’re surprised how successful their product is. Just, the other night the family went to the refrigerator to put some goat cheese on their pizza before remembering it had all been sold at the market.

“We’re selling so much now that sometimes there isn’t any leftover,” Kim laughed.

The latest good news for the family is that their cheese is now being served at an Iowa City restaurant, The Atlas. After a waitress sampled the cheese at the Iowa City farmer’s market, she told her chef, who has put in two orders with the Brennemans so far.

“When he called, we all went, ‘Yoohoo!’” Bridgette said.

Brenneman Farmstead Cheese is sold at the Williamsburg farmer’s market, 4 to 6 p.m., Fridays. It is also sold at farmer’s markets in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and Homestead.

UPDATED June 29, 2010 10:33 AM

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