Business

Dan and Debbie's Creamery in Ely marks 20 years

Family owned dairy started with 24 heifers

Dan and Debbie's Creamery in Ely. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Dan and Debbie’s Creamery in Ely. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
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Every morning and evening, Dan and Debbie Takes milk their 150 cows.

It’s a process that takes seven hours each day.

But building up their operation on their family farm outside of Ely has been a long time coming.

From an initial herd of 24 heifers on Oct. 29, 1997, the couple has expanded their operation to 150 Holstein cows. They also operate a single-farm creamery in Ely that processes and sells milk, cheese curds and ice cream.

Dan wasn’t raised on a farm — but he married someone who was.

“Her family raised hogs, and I farmed with them for four years. I bought a little farm with the intention of getting on my own,” said Dan, 59. “I didn’t know anything about milking cows. A good friend of mine got me hooked on cows and I bought and started raising bottle calves.

“One of my neighbors with dairy cows let us come up and milk cows with him. We did that for several months.”

Starting from scratch, the couple built their facilities with their own labor to handle a herd of about 100 cows.

“To hire everything that we needed to have, including a barn, milking parlor and related equipment, everybody told us that we needed to be milking 250 cows,” Dan said. “There’s no way we were going to milk 250 cows starting from nothing.”

A few months after they finished the milking parlor, they were able to purchase a herd of 82 cows from a retiring dairy farmer.

But the pair have run into some obstacles along the way. Two years ago, the couple put a down payment on a second barn adjacent to their milking parlor, but the contractor later filed bankruptcy.

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“We lost a lot of money and we’re still recovering from that,” Dan said. “We’re hoping to get started on the barn again next year.”

He said the existing barn is 20 years old and needs to be remodeled. It was a state-of-the-art barn when it was constructed, but improvements are needed after the second barn is available.

“We are going to tear out the stalls and make them a little bigger,” he said. “Cows are really hard on things and you can’t do any remodeling with them in the barn.”

Dan and Debbie’s Creamery was born out of Dan’s desire to control what the family was paid for its milk.

“I had the idea of processing our milk in the back of my mind for quite a few years,” he said. “This building came up for sale and it was near our farm.

“I was getting older and I knew that if I was going to do it, this was the time.”

Four of the couple’s six children are working in the business. The farm raises crops that are used as feed for the livestock

Dan and Debbie visited creameries in Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin before opening their own in Ely. While some of the creameries were located on farms, they wanted to have separate facilities to eliminate potential contamination.

After three years of remodeling work, Dan and Debbie’s Creamery opened for business. The creamery has the capacity to process 25 percent of the pasteurized milk from the family farm and the remaining 75 percent is sold to Wapsie Valley Creamery in Independence.

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“We would like to eventually process 100 percent of the milk from our farm,” Dan said. “That’s going to require us to hire more people and we are particular about who we hire because we are making food.”

“We also are looking at processing some additional products,” Debbie said. “We are making cheese curds, which are soft cheese, but we might some day make harder cheese that will require space for aging.”

Dan and Debbie’s Creamery sells its products in the Cedar Rapids, Marion, Coralville and Iowa City Hy-Vee Food Stores and New Pioneer Food Co-Op.

“About 25 restaurants purchase our milk to use it for cooking,” said Josie (Takes) Rozum, who focuses on marketing, operations and sales for the family’s business. “We’re also selling our products in a lot of specialty stores in Amana and Kalona as well as independent grocery stores and supermarkets like Gary’s in Mount Vernon.

“Cornell College in Mount Vernon buys and serves our ice cream. Our retail store at the creamery has been far more popular than we anticipated.

“We are right off the bike trail between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City. We get a lot of traffic on the weekends and our bike rack stays full in nice weather.”

Debbie said one of the challenges the creamery faces every day is knowing how much product to produce.

“Milk and cheese curds have a relatively short shelf life, unlike ice cream that is frozen,” she said. “You don’t want to process too much, but you also want to be able to satisfy demand.”

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