The Country Store

27 09 2009

By Sarah MilnarJan and Roy - by Meredith Hart

At the Country Store, owners Jan and Roy know their vendors personally.

On the white walls of their farm-fresh food store hang family portraits, newspaper articles and historic photos of the cheese-makers, growers and producers that supply the Country Store.

“That’s a nice family,” said Jan, pointing to a family portrait of one vendor.

Jan continued down the hall to a newspaper clipping of Green County’s Toni Blum Seitz, made famous not only by her superb baking but her yodeling skills. Jan hurried to the back office to turn on Blum Seitz’s yodeling album.

The sounds of Monroe’s Swiss heritage echoed through the Country Store.

In 2004, Jan and Roy opened the Country Store on Highway 69. The store serves the city of Monroe and many Illinois travelers on their way north to Wisconsin. The husband and wife are originally from families of dairy farmers. In his earlier days, Roy exported Wisconsin cattle all over the world. He always went for the local, quality product to export, he said.

Local Jam - by Meredith HartJan and Roy try to get products sold in their store from local vendors. They sell Klondike Feta produced just down the highway. They’ve even got a special, sealed-off spot in the cooler for Limburger cheese made by the only United States Limburger producer, the Chalet Cheese Cooperative of Monroe. Jan and Roy’s daughter grinds the wheat they sell in bread mixes. Quilts of intricate colors and patterns made by local artisans are displayed in the back. Cage-free, free-range eggs from the farm of a friend chill in the cooler. Homemade Amish breads and pies line the shelves. The Apple Crumb, Banana Cream and Chocolate Cream pies are some of the top sellers. Jan said the Country Store has a set of regulars that come in on pie days. Jan has even been invited to the wedding of one of her Amish vendors, she said.

The Country Store also specializes in grass-fed meats.The Country Store Sign - by Meredith Hart

“I can tell everyone where their meat comes from,” said Jan.

An entire cooler is dedicated to varieties of locally grown meat, including original bratwurst products such as Peanut Butter Swiss Brats, Beer Brats, and the classic Green County Brat.

Jan said she loves the locally grown meats because she can brown them and no grease appears in her pan.

The local community Jan and Roy support by selling local foods at the Country Store encourages them. Jan said some people get turned off by slightly higher prices and don’t consider quality. However, Jan tries to entice customers by keeping a variety of local products in her store.

“Every order I make is something new,” she said. “It’s exhausting but really fun.”

To view more photos of the Monroe Country Store, please see the Flickr slideshow.


Dr. Henry Najat

27 09 2009

By Sarah Milnar

Red Rose - by Meredith HartDr. Henry Najat’s knee-high rubber boots squashed in the wet grass as he ambled through his backyard garden. He used a red-handled shovel as a walking stick. A tear in the heel of his boot flapped open with each step, revealing brown wool socks. He kept walking.

“I spend a lot of hours in this garden,” Najat said.

He bent over a pink rose bush and cupped a blossom in his hand, stretching to take in its scent. Najat started growing roses 41 years ago when he came to the United States from Iran, starting his life in Chicago and moving to Monroe 10 years later. In his younger years he grew 1,000 rose bushes in the backyard. Now at the age of 76, the retired orthopedic surgeon maintains 700 rose bushes—by himself.

“The fragrance is more pronounced in the morning,” Najat said, releasing the pink blossom from his grasp.

The sunlight dries up the fragrant oils.

Najat drew a tissue from the pocket of his khaki shorts. He blotted the space between his thick-rimmed glasses and his yellow American Bee Keeping Association hat.

“I apologize for the weeds,” Najat said, thrusting the shovel into the earth, leaning on it.

Opening to the Light - by Meredith HartNajat came to the United States in 1957 as an exchange student, but decided to stay after marrying an American. In whichever country he’s lived, Najat has always had roses. He knows each rose by name, scientific and traditional. And he knows each rose by story.

The red Tabriz shares the name of the Iranian city in which he was born. The Attar Rose originally grew in the arctic, a place to which Najat jokingly compares Wisconsin’s frigid winters. The pink and yellow Peace Rose reminds him of harmony after World War II.

“I love that because I am against the wars,” Najat said, enunciating each word.

But Najat’s rosebushes aren’t just his sentimental darlings. They also serve as sweet spots for his honeybees.

Najat collects 80 to 90 pounds of honey from each of his eight hives. But he doesn’t sell it—he gives it to charity.

“For me it’s a hobby,” said Najat. “I don’t want people to say, ‘There’s that greedy guy who’s trying to make money off the bees.’ No, no. There’s not much money in that anyhow.”

The Bees - by Meredith HartNajat feeds his bees with granulated sugar, not corn syrup, for a more natural tasting honey. His wife designed the label: “All Natural Honey From the Persian Rose Gardens of Monroe, Wisconsin.”

Najat is fond of using Iran’s historical name of Persia on the label. It makes the honey sound romantic, he said.

Najat added that he wants to maintain his Persian roots and makes sure to keep his honey natural.

“I grew up in a country where just about everything was organic,” he said.

Dr. Henry Najat - by Emily LarsonAlthough modern gardening has introduced the use of pesticides and herbicides, Najat said he wouldn’t consider using such chemicals on his roses. He fears colony collapse disorder, when chemicals accumulate inside a hive after bees pollinate chemically enhanced flowers. This suffocates the bees, he said, shaking his head.

Najat unstuck the shovel from the ground and ambled deeper into his garden passing hundreds of rose varieties. There is no best rose to grow, he said.

“The best thing is what you like it,” he said.

Then Najat shuffled up to a red rosebush growing high enough to reach his shoulders. He carefully gripped the stem, placing his fingers carefully between the pointy red thorns. Nearly the size of his thumb, the thorns were some of the largest he’d seen.

“We all hate thorns,” he said. “I’m no exception. But the thorns on this rose look like rubies when the sun hits them early in the morning. Everything in the world can be beautiful. It depends on how you look at it.”

To view more photos of Dr. Henry Najat and his roses, please see the Flickr slideshow.

Elemental Pottery

23 09 2009

By Meredith Hart

Eric's Pottery - by Meredith HartOn a dark, cold night in January when the temperature has reached its lowest low, a warm red light radiates its way through the trees. As the heat of the fire reaches up to 2,000 degrees a group of friends is gathered around feeding it wood. This is not the scene of a bonfire for roasting marshmallows but a brick kiln, firing a batch of wheel-thrown pottery crafted by Eric Friedericks of Brodhead, Wisconsin. The process, which takes up to 36 hours, becomes a party for Eric and his friends during which they order pizza, have drinks, and wait for the kiln to work its magic. The surroundings, made up of precise rows of evergreen trees once part of a Christmas tree farm, are inspiration and comfort for Eric, as well as the breeding grounds for his creative endeavors.

For Monroe’s Community of a Plate segment, we literally used a local ceramic plate for Inn Serendipity’s all-local meal. Eric chose a simple, gorgeous dish glazed with a rich blue green hue. Eric’s years of experience working with clay and his interest in staying local made him a perfect addition to the project.

Owner and creator of his own business, Elemental Pottery, Eric has been turning earth into art since his college days in Nebraska. But, becoming an artist was not always his ceramic cup of tea. Eric’s upbringing was rather unusual. His parents, being missionaries, traveled the world, landing twice in Tanzania in Africa for years at a time. While attending high school in Tanzania, Eric was set on becoming an engineer; but, after struggling through his university science classes back in the United States, he realized engineering wasn’t his thing. “That’s when I decided to be an artist,” he said, smiling through his neatly trimmed beard.

After a six-month apprenticeship under local ceramicist Tony Winchester he really got started. The plan: to become a sustainable, environmentally responsible potter.

Eric Friedericks - by Emily LarsonAnd that he has. He designed and built his own massive wood-fire kiln in his forested front yard with the help of his friends, family and wife, Bethany. All the bricks came from the demolition of the Badger Army Ammunition Plant two hours away in Baraboo, Wisconsin and as for the fire wood, he buys the scrap from a local sawmill, making use of a cheap waste material. In a small clay-splattered room in their house he has his own throwing wheel and bags of heavy wet clay. Maintaining local relationships has allowed Eric to become successful in selling his pottery at area art shows and markets although selling is his least favorite part of being an artist. He explained, “I don’t want to convince someone to buy something they don’t want.” For those people Eric makes sure most of his pieces are functional as well as unique and elegant, each imprinted with his personality.

To learn about the next step in the pottery process we made our way to the greenhouse. Following the path through the young couple’s back yard to the greenhouse is like taking a trek through the North Woods. The quiet and dense tall trees are enough to deceive you into thinking that there is no one around for miles. Designated for glazing, the greenhouse has been taken over by Eric’s unfinished work. Sitting dangerously close to the edge of a countertop was a small piece carved to be the face of an owl, an animal Eric has had a fondness for since his childhood when he found one nesting in his family’s mailbox.

The Snowball - by Meredith HartWith all the idle pottery sitting around it would suggest that all Eric does is throw clay. This, however, is far from the truth. Spending his days working on a farm, Eric saves his free time for growing mushrooms, taking care of their chickens, and making biodiesel using free grease from a nearby restaurant. How does he know how to do these things? “The internet teaches you anything,” Eric explained. The Internet may have taught him the science behind these endeavors but it can’t bring the motivation. That is something that he’s always had within. “I’ve always had this need to solve problems and be self-sustaining,” which must make the intricacies of creating his own motor fuel much less of a bore.

Each time Eric spins the wheel and sells a piece of pottery, he comes closer and closer to the local community. Underneath the delicious meal at Inn Serendipity, one of Eric’s plates seems only appropriate because of his dedication to the environment and his love of art. Eric fits in perfectly to the community of Monroe’s plate of food.

To view more photos of Eric Friedericks, please see the Flick slideshow.

Klondike Cheese

14 09 2009

By Meredith Hart

Aside from the obvious activity of eating cheese, what is there to do in Wisconsin?

Go to a cheese factory, of course! And that’s what we did. Klondike Cheese Co. to be precise.

Feta in Forms - by Emily LarsonLuke Buholzer, V.P. of sales, had never given a tour as early as 7am so that day would be a first. Although Klondike does not give public tours of their facility, we were given the special opportunity to see what goes on behind the scenes. We arrived that morning to the sight of the big industrial building shrouded in a heavy fog. For the people working at Klondike, 7am is really not that early. In fact, many had been working away for three hours already. Luke was plenty chipper and happily instructed us to don sanitary hairnets, booties, and coats before our whirlwind tour of the cheese factory. To understand what we looked like, think of the 1980s TV show, The Smurfs.

Our first stop on the tour: the curd forming room. Workers in rubber boots and white coats stood around long rows of metal tubs containing hundreds of individual cheese forms. White curds flew out of a machine from another area of the building while the workers made sure each form was filled evenly. We watched from above on a platform next to two huge vats each churning 40,000 pounds of milk. Luke opened the door of one of the vats revealing mixing poles and swirling liquid.

As we worked our way through the different stages of cheese making we were consistently in awe and confusion at the incredibly self-sufficient machines. As the milk solidified, a metal slicer moved in circles cutting it into slabs. As the Feta was packed into containers, a robot with frighteningly human-like gestures picked them up and stacked them in a box. Those robots really put the popular dance move “the robot” to shame.

The local community makes Klondike’s production possible. Eighty-five percent of the milk for their cheese DSC_8923comes from diary farms within a 30-mile radius with a few from within 60 miles. Klondike’s relationship with its farming community does not stop at milk production. Once the whey has been drained off the cheese it goes through different treatments before watering 120 acres of alfalfa that is grown to feed the cows.  “We’ve got our own little circle of life here,” said Luke.

That circle of life extends to the company’s employees. Much of the muscle behind Klondike’s cheese production comes from the local community where people often times work side by side with their friends, children, and other family members. Luke, a fourth-generation Klondike Cheese maker, has worked in the family business since he was 12-years-old doing the least glamorous of jobs: washing the cheese forms. “Oh, it was terrible,” he said as he remembered washing the tiny little holes in the forms. But he kept at it and has since performed every job in the house, finally moving up to Vice-President of sales. Needless to say, cheese making was in his blood. In keeping with the Swiss cheese making tradition, the Bulholzer’s lived in a house that sits literally on top of the building for many years. For Luke and his family, that meant waking up everyday, going downstairs to the rumbling machinery and making cheese. From certain places on the property the little house is still visible on top of the building although no one lives there anymore.

Klondike’s Swiss heritage has been very important for its success in the community of Monroe but its most favored cheese is not Swiss at all. It’s the award winning Feta that they began making as an experiment 20 years ago and has since become its best seller. Turns out the Swiss can make Feta very well. “We’ve got a closet full of awards,” said Luke about their Feta. They have been among the top winners at the Wisconsin State Fair, the American Cheese Society, and the World Championship Cheese Contest. Luke raved, “There are other great cheese makers out there, so it’s really an honor.”

The Factory in Motion - by Meredith HartIn addition to the 80,000 pounds of Feta produced daily, Klondike excels at making Havarti, Brick, and Muenster cheeses. While advancing from vat to churn to conveyor belt to forming to curing, the milk moves closer and closer to becoming another Klondike batch of excellence. Although Klondike lets distributors put their own labels on their cheese, they don’t worry about the loss of credit. “We just want to be cheese makers,” explained Luke genuinely.

For nearly a century they’ve been extraordinary cheese makers and with the family’s  enthusiasm and the cooperation of local farmers, that’s what they will continue to be.

To see more Klondike Cheese photos, please see our Flickr slideshow.

Inn Serendipity

10 09 2009

by Emily Larson

DSC_9098Bed and Breakfast: a wonderful combination. At the Inn Serendipity in Browntown in Green County,WI, two comfortable beds wait in cozy rooms in classic four-square farmhouse, but breakfast is decidedly a break from tradition—there are no pancakes with maple syrup, sausage links or crispy bacon strips to be found. Instead, co-owners Lisa Kivirist and John Ivanko create a delicious and savory breakfast plate, chock full of herbs, fruits and vegetables from their beautiful organic garden outside. “We’re convinced we can change the world one breakfast at a time,” said Lisa.

Inn Serendipity provides sustainable accommodation for hundreds of curious guests. It is innovative and inspiring and serves as model for business owners, ecopreneurs and individuals alike. Lisa and John grow about 70% of the food they serve for breakfast in their own garden and almost everything else they purchase locally in Green County. With such a large and well kept garden, they can and freeze produce for the winter. They also have a straw bale greenhouse where they experiment with growing tropical plants like papayas as well as transplants in spring. Currently, the bottom level dries onions and garlic and hosts a sprawling Lego city for their seven year old son Liam, while upstairs tropical plants grow year round, including a papaya plant that produces one papaya every six months.

Inside the house, a wood stove heats the house in the winter and offers extra burners for boiling water and simmering DSC_8867marinara sauce. In the garage, next to the diesel Volkswagen Jetta, sits a 1974 electric CitiCar which runs off the electricity generated by an off-grid solar electric system. John uses the CitiCar to run nearby errands. “Not even Jay Leno has one of these!” he said with a laugh, gesturing to another serious example of his family’s commitment to low impact living.

“We don’t believe sustainability should be about sacrifice,” John said as he stirred homemade Fair Trade-certified chocolate syrup into his Equal Exchange coffee to make a mocha. Guests discover that at Inn Serendipity, breakfast can be sustainable in more ways than one.

A typical breakfast at Inn Serendipity includes zucchini feta pancakes made with zucchini from the garden, feta cheese from Klondike Cheese Co. in Monroe, WI and fresh eggs from the Country Store in Monroe; tomato crouton casserole with fresh-picked tomatoes and basil from John and Lisa’s garden, crunchy croutons and GranQueso cheese from Roth Käse USA Ltd. in Monroe; raspberry streusel muffins rich with garden raspberries, Country Store eggs, plain yogurt from Sugar River Dairy in Albany, WI and a twist of lemon; and raspberry smoothies with plain yogurt from Sugar River Dairy with a taste of Dr. Henry Najat’s honey. To complete the Green County Plate, John and Lisa served this breakfast on a plate from nearby Elemental Pottery in Brodhead, WI.

The farm is entirely run on the wind and solar power generated from their turbine and solar electric panels. The wind turbine whirs overhead at an estimated 20 miles per hour, John said, but it will shut off if it gets too windy. Lisa and John envisioned a turbine on their property while they watched their clothes blowing frantically on the line. Now their very productive turbine and solar collectors produce more energy than they can use, and they sell power back to the grid. But for Lisa and John, the green energy of Inn Serendipity is not about money; it is about transparency, education and possibility.

DSC_9132“It’s not just the return on investment, but the return on environment,” said John. Lisa and John use Inn Serendipity to show their guests, community, and nation (due to their coverage in Newsweek and USA Today) that renewable energy can be integrated into our daily lives. Inn Serendipity is a means to leave the earth in a better place than Lisa and John found it. Their earth mission, as John said, is to improve quality of life, raise their son, Liam, and build community.

“There’s a different sense of community we weren’t able to have in the city,” John explained of their decision to move from Chicago to Browntown; they sought a strong, interdependent community and had to leave the city to find it. At the entrance to Inn Serendipity sits a beautifully painted wood sign welcoming guests to the bed and breakfast, hand crafted by their neighbor down the road. “Money is not meant to ever change hands,” admits John.  The neighbors receive muffins and produce in exchange for sharing their talents. It’s this interdependence and reliance on personal relationships, this exchange of services that Lisa and John value so highly.  They dedicated their Rural Renaissance book to other neighbors, affectionately called “Uncle Phil” and “Aunt Judy”; they are related not by blood, but values, concern for the environment and, as it turns out, the CitiCar.

When asked about their dreams and plans for the future, Lisa doesn’t imagine “bigger” to be part of the equation; doing what they do better, certainly, but most importantly, deepening those community connections that help make Inn Serendipity successful.

To see more pictures from Inn Serendipity, please see our Flickr  slideshow.

Roth Käse

2 09 2009

By Emily Larson

The countryside of Green County, Wisconsin is dotted with examples of Swiss heritage. Swiss-style chalets, restaurants serving traditional Alpine foods like Fondue and Raclette, yodeling farmers and the Swiss flag in the Monroe, WI crest are just some instances of the proud Swiss culture in “Little Switzerland.” It seems only natural, then, that Green County would produce the first Alpine-style Gruyère cheese in the United States.

The Roth Käse Ltd. cheese company began in Switzerland in 1863, and is now run in part by the 5th generation of the Roth family. In 1991, Fermo Jaeckle, a cousin of the Roth family, began Roth Käse USA Ltd, with the goal of producing fine European-style cheeses in the American dairyland. And so Roth Käse found a home in Monroe, WI in a beautiful Swiss chalet built in the traditional style with the cheesemaker’s residence above the factory, and began making exceptional cheese. Their first mission: crafting and curing Gruyère.

Gruyère cheese, named for a town in Switzerland, is crafted in copper vats and cured on wooden boards;DSC_8981 these elements, along with fresh milk, starter culture, and enzymes, are vital in creating the classic flavor and texture of this washed-rind cheese.

Since its founding in 1991, Roth Käse has been making exceptional, internationally renowned specialty cheeses in the heart of Green County. They routinely win awards at the World Championship Cheese Contest, World Cheese Awards, American Cheese Society and the US Championship Cheese Contest for cheeses like their GranQueso, Buttermilk Blue and Grand Cru Gruyère cheeses. But despite these international accolades and connections, Roth Käse remains rooted in Green County.

One of Roth Käse’s core values is to “share the success of our business with our employees, shareholders, customers, vendors, and the local community.” Because of this value, Roth Käse cannot be separated from Green County. All the milk that becomes fine cheese comes from within a 40 to 60 mile radius, and usually from small farmers with 40 to 80 heads of cattle. They routinely donate cheese to charity events, and give all their proceeds from Cheese Days, the biennial Monroe celebration, back to Green County. They’ve also helped members of Green County start their own artisan cheese productions. The many cheese producers in Monroe are all friends, and connect over their mutual love of cheesemaking– “we all depend and rely upon each other,” said Director of Marketing Kirsten Jaeckle. Many of their employees have gone through the Green County Leadership program, which connects young professionals and encourages them to stay and strengthen Green County. “We’re committed to helping develop Green County,” Kirsten said.

DSC_8972In addition to fostering community in Green County, Roth Käse creates a strong community among their employees. Kirsten said they seek to treat all their employees like family, and since many of them are, that isn’t very difficult. The Jaeckle and Roth families are committed to producing outstanding top quality cheese and encourage this dedication in their employees, both as a work ethic and in the love of cheese.

Preparing a fondue for guests in the Roth Käse Culinary Education Centre, an employee discussed how working at Roth Käse has increased her appreciation for different types of cheese. Before she worked at Roth Käse, she ate standard Wisconsin cheddar and mozzarella; now she speaks lovingly of the delicious taste of GranQueso, but acknowledges the unique flavor did take some getting used to. Even her nine year old son doesn’t like grilled cheese sandwiches with Velveeta anymore, she said with a laugh. The love of cheese and pride in the cheesemaking culture of Green County is so palpable that the phrase “eat cheese or die” doesn’t seem too far off the mark.

To view more photos of Roth Käse, please see the Flickr slideshow.