Josie Rozum watches as her brother and cousin start up the production line and fill gallon jugs with skim milk, fresh from their family's farm. Her mom, Debbie Takes, will arrive at their creamery in the afternoon — after milking cows — to churn up ice cream, including the seasonal favorite flavor strawberry rhubarb pie.
With a warm, sunny weekend in the forecast, the Takes family was expecting another rush of customers to line up at their creamery’s door, stopping for an ice cream cone and going home with a bag of cheese curds and a gallon of Dan and Debbie’s chocolate milk.
It's all in a long day's work for the Takes family, Farm Bureau members who opened Debbie’s Creamery last summer in Ely, a small town a few miles southeast of Cedar Rapids and down the road from Kirkwood Community College and the Cedar Rapids Airport.
The family started out selling cheese curds. This spring, they opened an ice cream parlor inside the creamery, where they also sell bottled, pasteurized milk from the family’s 150-cow dairy farm.
Unlike the milk commonly sold at grocery stores, Dan and Debbie’s Creamery offers non-homogenized, or cream-line milk. The cream rises to the top of the milk, giving it a richer flavor, Rozum explained.
“It’s good, old-fashioned milk. It’s milk the way it used to be,” Rozum said. “If (customers) are drinking our milk or eating our cheese, they know our milk is coming from a good place. We put a lot of care into the product.”
The Takes started dairy farming about 20 years ago. Debbie grew up on a farm near Swisher; Dan grew up in Cedar Rapids and was a city boy with no farming experience. When the two started dating, Dan helped Debbie’s grandpa on the farm, and he loved working with the animals and the farming lifestyle, Rozum said.
Eventually, the Takes decided to get into dairy farming when their family grew to six kids and they needed a steadier income, Rozum said.
“It was a good fit for us for a long time, but then milk prices fluctuated so much ...,” Rozum said. “That’s why we wanted to start the creamery. It was just going to be a sustainable way to keep the farm going.”
Plus, the creamery gives the Takes family the opportunity to farm together. Four out of the six siblings are now working either on the farm or on the creamery side of the business, including Rozum, who is now the marketing coordinator for Dan and Debbie’s Creamery.
“We all had jobs (off-farm) prior to doing this, but this was something we were really interested in,” Rozum said.
“A lot of farms essentially get sold off because ... no one wants to take over the farm, because dairy farming is one of the hardest jobs. There are no sick days. There is no vacation. There are no weekends,” she continued. “So this was a unique way to entice us kids with a more creative and innovative business model.”
The Takes renovated a shuttered lumber and hardware store along Ely’s Main Street to open their creamery. The inside of Dan and Debbie’s Creamery still carries the original features of the old lumber store, including the front counter where the ice cream is dished out and the wood-paneled room that now includes an observation window to watch the milk bottling and cheese-making.
Rozum said opening their own creamery also gives her family more control over the quality of milk their cows produce. The family grows all their own feed, which includes a mix of corn, roasted soybeans, alfalfa and grass. They roast the soybeans on the farm for a more flavorful milk, Rozum said.
“One of the reasons we invest so heavily in the feed is we want to do everything we can to bring the flavor out ...,” Rozum said. “We noticed that just by tweaking something a little bit in (the cows’) feed, then the butterfat (content) skyrockets.”
Cheese curds are one of Dan and Debbie Creamery’s top sellers. The curds come in five different varieties: white cheddar, dill, onion and chive, tomato basil and chipotle.
Rozum said her mom and aunts make the cheese and ice cream. They now offer 12 flavors of ice cream, including two seasonal favorites. “They love playing with the recipe and tweaking things. And they are really good at it, too. They can pick any flavor and make it taste good,” Rozum said.
As for the milk, Rozum said chocolate and whole milk are the best sellers. Dan and Debbie’s chocolate milk is made from real cocoa and sugar.
“Our chocolate milk is very, very rich. And we use a whole milk, which is why it’s so rich,” Rozum said. “We (kids) grew up on whole milk, so we wanted to offer that creamy chocolate milk that offers the full flavor. And people love it. The whole milk adds a different layer of flavor that people aren’t used to in their milk.”
In addition to the on-site store, Dan and Debbie’s milk and ice cream are available at Cedar Rapids and Iowa City area Hy-Vee stores and at several local restaurants. However, the cheese curds are only available at the creamery.
“We post on Facebook when we make fresh cheese curds and say come by when they are still warm and squeaky,” Rozum said.