Getting Back to the Good Ol' Days Pays in Northwest Florida
A Dairy Tale Ocheesee Creamery in Calhoun County offers its customers increasingly rare commodities — fresh milk sold in glass bottles and farm-made butter By Lee Gordon Originally published in the June/July 2010 issue of 850 Magazine
In front of the Ocheesee Creamery at Shady Nook Farm is a sign perfectly suitable for a dairy farm: “The hills shall flow with milk.” Joel 3:18.
And flow it does at Ocheesee, a third-generation family farm in the Calhoun County town of Grand Ridge that is home to more than 100 free-range Jersey cows. The milk is then delivered to local stores in glass bottles, an old-fashioned packaging system said to keep it fresh longer.
Paul and Mary Lou Wesselhoeft bought County Line Farm from her family in 1989 and renamed it Shady Nook. Twenty years later they opened the Ocheesee Creamery, a storefront at the farm where the family felt it could better control its own product.
“Finding a market takes patience and perseverance,” said Mary Lou Wesselhoeft. “Sometimes you bottle too much, and sometimes you have to scramble to make more. Having a quality product is very important, and consistency, being pleasant to the customer and doing all you can to make and keep them happy will help to keep them coming back.”
For Wesselhoeft, the creamery was the logical next step after spending most of her life on a dairy farm. Her husband, however, began his career as a dairy farmer with far less experience. Paul Wesselhoeft worked on farms in Ohio but spent most of his time making hay and wasn’t too familiar with bovines.
“I was nervous about the cows. I had never fed cows,” he said. “She milked for her dad, and I said, ‘All these cows are going to die on me!’ But they survived.”
Ocheesee Creamery Opens
The couple had been tinkering with ideas on how to expand Shady Nook Farm, one of only 140 dairy farms in Florida. Dairy farming wasn’t as profitable as it used to be. In fact, the industry was in dire straits, and there was plenty of uncertainty in the price of milk. The Wesselhoefts decided it was time for the family to rethink its business model.
“After dairying for 18 years and selling our milk to a cooperative, we realized that much had changed since my parents’ days of dairying,” Mary Lou Wesselhoeft said. “To stay in business, we needed to be in control of what we received for the price of our milk.”
The goal was to process their own milk and sell it at a storefront adjacent to the farm. But as with every business, the Wesselhoefts would need money. And in a down economy, that wasn’t easy to come by. They quickly learned that not everyone was on board with their idea. Banks refused to fund their project because they weren’t familiar with what the family was trying to accomplish. So the family reached to a higher power.
“We were able to get most of the funding from USDA,” Mary Lou Wesselhoeft said. “We had a state director who believed in us and understood what we were trying to do, and he made it happen for us.”
In late 2009, the Wesselhoefts officially expanded Shady Nook, opening Ocheesee Creamery on the Calhoun-Jackson County line, a $200,000 storefront where customers can watch the milk being bottled. The family bottles whole and skim milk in addition to its pasteurized, non-homogenized cream-top milk, a customer favorite. Ocheesee Creamery also is the only Florida dairy making its own butter and the only producer of milk sold in recyclable glass bottles. To the novice, that may not seem like a big deal. But to Paul and Mary Lou Wesselhoeft, it makes their farm unique and more attractive to customers.
“We chose glass bottles for several different reasons — milk tastes better in glass, it is better for the environment, and because we are pasteurizing our milk. (And) it was nostalgic,” Mary Lou Wesselhoeft said. “Many older people enjoy our product because it reminds them of their growing-up days. We needed to create a market that was different, since we were a small farm.”
The staff at Ocheesee is small. In addition to the owners, who at the age of 55 still work long hours, the creamery employs one full-time staff member and two part-time workers. Mary Lou Wesselhoeft milks the cows, sometimes twice a day, while Paul Wesselhoeft hits the road, sometimes for days at a time, to deliver the milk. It’s a personal touch that the customers like, but it doesn’t leave him a lot of down time. Some days, he hits the road at 2 a.m. and doesn’t return until 9:30 that night, only to do it all again the next day.
“It’s something you have to want to do,” Paul Wesselhoeft said of his hectic schedule. “If someone hands you something and you decide, ‘It isn’t for me, it’s too much work,’ then it’s easy to get out. But if it’s something you want, you put a lot of time and effort into it.”
A Family Affair
County Line Farm was purchased by Mary Lou Wesselhoeft’s father, Monroe Yoder, in 1953. It was there that she and her seven siblings learned the finer points of farming.
“There were eight of us, and we all had chores to do before and after school,” she recalled. “We learned the importance of working together and responsibility.”
All the kids took turns milking the cows, but Mary Lou quickly took to the process. As she grew older, most of that responsibility fell to her, which was fine because she loved the outdoors and knew she was helping her family at the same time. But eventually, she would leave home and head off to college.
Paul Wesselhoeft and Mary Lou Yoder met in Ohio in 1973 and married three years later. Soon after, they moved back to Florida to be closer to her family’s farm. He worked in construction while she was a stay-at-home mom to their four kids. But construction was an up-and-down industry, and Paul Wesselhoeft wanted something steadier. So he returned to school to become a registered nurse.
As the years went by, meanwhile, Monroe Yoder was ready to hang it up. That’s when the Wesselhoefts put a plan in motion to take over the family farm. And with a little financial assistance from Paul Wesselhoeft’s father, they were able to buy it.
“We started out with 30 Jerseys,” Mary Lou Wesselhoeft said. “(Paul) continued to work as a nurse till we could get on our feet. Our four children were excited to be on a farm and helped out so much.”
Just recently, the creamery made its first step toward expansion, cultivating its first batch of chocolate milk. The hope is to expand on that and make homemade ice cream, yogurt and cheese — something their loyal customers are anxiously awaiting.
“When depends on being able to afford the purchase of the machine and when we are comfortable with adding it to our other products,” Mary Lou Wesselhoeft said. “We purchase different cheeses from Ohio and sell it here on the farm. That gives our customers more to choose from when they come to the farm.”
Right now, the creamery’s milk is marketed at a variety of stores in North Florida, including McDaniel’s grocery in Sneads, Main Street Produce in Chipley, Piggly Wiggly stores in Blountstown and Bristol, For The Health Of It in Seaside, and three stores in Tallahassee.
“There are several bakeries and coffee shops that also use our milk, cream and butter,” Mary Lou Wesselhoeft said. “We are the only farm in Florida to make butter. It is a lot of hands-on labor, but the customers really enjoy it.”
The Wesselhoefts have two daughters, Heidi and Heather, and two sons, Ashley and Pierre. Heather has a dairy farm in Ohio, Heidi is a home-school teacher, Ashley is a massage therapist and Pierre works in construction. But the Wesselhoefts hope that Pierre will one day take the reins at Shady Nook, continuing the tradition of the family farm.
“I hope he takes over the bulk of it, and Mary Lou and I can help when we have to,” Paul Wesselhoeft said. “We’ll help until we keel over.”
As his wife points out, people will always need to eat and are always appreciative of good food.
“Farming is a way of life,” Paul Wesselhoeft said. “It is rewarding. It takes commitment. Being on the farm has been rewarding, and our community has been very supportive. We are grateful for the privilege to provide milk for our customers.”