WESTBY, Wis. (AP) - Al Bekkum doesn't see his new venture as a golden opportunity. It's a lighter shade of yellow than that.
Bekkum, who owns and operates Nordic Creamery, just opened a farmstead butter plant and retail store on the farm that has been in his wife's family for almost a century.
Other farm families in the state make cheese, ice cream, milk or even yogurt with milk from their own animals. But Bekkum's is the state's first on-farm creamery that makes butter.
"To compete anymore, you have to have a niche," Bekkum said. "I can't just go out there and make a cow cheddar. It doesn't matter how great it tastes, you're still going to compete with everybody else who is doing it."
In butter, Bekkum found his niche. For more than 20 years, he's been licensed to make cheese and butter, and he worked at Westby Cooperative Creamery and Mt. Sterling Co-op Creamery before launching Nordic Creamery in 2008.
Two years ago, he began making butter to sell at farmers' markets and restaurants, and he continually sold out.
Bekkum's butter products include a summer butter, made from the milk of cows grazing on summer grasses, and flavored butters such as maple syrup, cinnamon sugar, and garlic and basil. Still to come are other seasonal butters, cultured butters, whey butters and goat butters.
The butters are beginning to show up in Madison-area stores, and the new plant will help him meet demand beyond that.
"I've got a list like you wouldn't believe of restaurants that are waiting for butter," Bekkum said.
Bekkum made the butter at Sassy Cow Creamery near Columbus, with cream skimmed from the company's milk. He made the two-hour trip at least weekly, sometimes twice. The smaller churn there made 50 to 75 pounds of butter at a time, and Bekkum churned 10 to 12 batches.
"There were days I'd leave at 7 o'clock in the morning and I wouldn't get back 'til 3 in the morning the next d ay," he said.
The product proved popular; Bekkum has sold as many as 300 12-ounce tubs of butter, priced at $6, in one day at Chicago's Green City Market.
Bekkum and his wife Sarah have six children ages 4 to 17. The time away from the family to make butter and to make his cheese at Cedar Grove in Plain began to add up.
"I think I put 56,000 miles on my truck one year," he said. "It got to the point where I just said, 'We've got to take a leap of faith and try to do something here,' and we started talking about this place."
Bekkum joined a growing list of dairy producers who keep the operations on their own farms. Norm Monsen, senior ag market specialist at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, estimates more than 20 farmstead creameries have started in Wisconsin in the past decade.
"It's a good thing for the state of Wisconsin and our dairy industry," Monsen said. "These new creameries, the people who are doing them are innovators and inventors. They're making wonderful dairy products that sometimes prompt the rest of the dairy industry to be more innovative and creative and responsive to what consumers want."
Monsen said operations such as farmstead creameries sprouted from the desire to add more value to the milk, but also as a response to consumers who are more curious about where their food comes from and the stories behind it. And the rise of farmers' markets created a ready market, Monsen said.
"Quite a few farmers take a look at this but, boy, it's not for everyone," Monsen said. "The family has to have the resources. And who is going to milk the cows if they're making cheese or butter? How are you going to sell it?"
Bekkum hasn't answered one of those questions yet because the family hasn't begun to milk its own herd yet.
The Bekkums have raised heifers and the first calves will be born in January. By then, the question of milking will have to be answ ered.
"I joke to my wife that the two or three hours she sleeps a night are wasted time," Bekkum said.
The Bekkums are breeding their cows to eventually have a herd of Norwegian reds. It's a tip of the hat to their heritage, not to mention appropriate to a place that was once farmed by a couple named Ole and Lena. Ole Langaard, Sarah Bekkum's great-grandfather, began farming the land in 1917.
Other members of her family are part of the farm operation, too.
Time with family and the chance to create something for the family were part of the Bekkums' plan.
"The reason we did this was to pass it on to the next generation," Bekkum said. "I could have made a lot more money doing this for somebody else, but we're hoping that at some point, someone will want to take it over. We've got six kids - the odds are somebody will want to."
There's room to grow, Bekkum said, but he doesn't want it to grow beyond a family-sized operation. He has four employe es now, and his children work in the business, too.
The new churn makes 200 pounds of butter at a time, and Bekkum said he might add another churn and pasteurizer. Bekkum said the plant could make as much as 2,000 pounds of butter a week.
The facility also serves as a cut-and-wrap location for Nordic Creamery cheeses, which Bekkum makes at Pasture Pride Cheese in Cashton. Bekkum also makes ice cream, which is sold in the retail store that is part of the new creamery. It has a back porch where visitors can sit with an ice cream cone and check out the view from atop the Bekkums' ridge.
The Bekkums also raise beef cattle and the store sells meat from their herd.
"We built the store kind of as an afterthought," Bekkum said. "The plant is where we plan to make our money and what we really needed to get built. We thought if we build something here, and we had a nice little store, we could maybe bring people out who want to come spend an hour on the farm.
"If I could have gone to a place like this as a child, I would have been in seventh heaven."
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.