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Fresh From The Farm

Imagine tasting a spoonful of creamy, fruity yogurt that’s so fresh you can hear the cows mooing as you’re eating it.

At Country View Dairy in northeast Iowa, the Rapson family milks their 150 Holstein cows just a short walk from the processing facility where their farm-fresh yogurt is cultured, chilled and packaged.

Country View Dairy isn’t just the first on-farm yogurt shop in Iowa; it’s also one of the first in the United States.

And business is growing. In the last year, the number of retail stores offering Country View Dairy yogurt has grown from 15 stores in Iowa to 200 retail locations in seven states today.

Yet back in 2011, when Farm Bureau members Dave and Carolee Rapson first started making yogurt on their dairy farm, they weren’t sure if there was a market for their unique product, Dave explains.

“We’ve had tremendous support from the local community,” says Dave, as he took a break from chores on his family’s dairy farm, located east of Hawkeye on Highway 18.

“If it wasn’t for the local (food) movement, I probably wouldn’t have tried this ...,” he adds. “It hasn’t been easy. You really have to be committed.”

The Rapsons and their five children moved to Iowa from Michigan in 2002. Dave had worked with dairy herds since he was 17 years old, and the couple had always wanted to run their own dairy farm.

Then in 2009, dairy prices dropped to record lows, and feed prices rose, putting Iowa dairy farmers in a tight financial squeeze.

“We don’t own a lot of ground here. When feed prices went up, we ended up realizing that buying feed hardly worked, and getting more ground is really tight in this area, and most everywhere,” Dave says. “So we decided to work at the other end and value add.”

So they did a lot of research and visited other dairies that were processing milk on the farm, including Hansen’s Dairy, owned and operated by Jay and Jeanne Hansen and their family in Hudson.

The Hansens bottle their own milk on the farm and also make ice cream. Jay Hansen suggested that the Rapsons look into making yogurt since it was a relatively untapped market. He referred the Rapsons to Sugar River Dairy, a  family-run yogurt company from Wisconsin.

The Rapsons worked with Sugar River Dairy and Iowa State Uni­versity Extension dairy specialists, and they did a lot of taste-testing, to come up with their own recipe for yogurt.

If you’ve ever tried Country View Dairy yogurt, then you know it’s like nothing else in the dairy aisle. The yogurt is smooth, creamy, not too sweet yet not too tart.

Because the milk is non-homogenized, the cream rises to the top of the carton. The yogurt is also made without gelatins, thickeners or preservatives.

Ever heard of artisan cheese? Well, Dave likes to call his yogurt “artisan” as well. And while cheese and bottled milk sales have declined in recent years, consumer demand for yogurt continues to soar.

“It’s the fastest-growing dairy products ..., and nobody else around is doing farmstead yogurt in the Midwest,” Dave says.

The entire yogurt-making process takes 24 hours, from cow to finished carton. The Rapson family milks their cows three times a day, with the first milking shift at 4 a.m. The milk is sent through a 200-foot pipe that connects the milking parlor to the processing building.

There, the milk runs through a pasteurization tank, and probiotic cultures are added. The yogurt is still in liquid form when it is cartoned and sent to the incubator room, where the yogurt sits for a precise time and temperature in order to set. The probiotics thicken the yogurt naturally.

“It’s really hard working with active cultures. Five minutes here or five degrees there make a huge difference; you could have runny yogurt. We’ve worked and worked and worked on it,” Dave says.

Before shipping, the Rapsons’ oldest daughter hand-stamps the expiration date on the top of each yogurt carton.

Country View Dairy also offers a line of Greek yogurt, another trendy item in the dairy aisle, particularly for folks looking for high-protein foods.

Most U.S.-made Greek yogurt is made by straining the whey from the yogurt to make it thicker and up the protein content, Dave explains. Country View Dairy doesn’t strain its Greek yogurt, but instead adds milk protein concentrate.

Dave says the family worked with an Iowa State University food scientist to develop their Greek yogurt. The specialist explained that the whey-straining process can make yogurt taste acidic, or dry, which isn’t how it’s supposed to taste.

“But our Greek yogurt doesn’t have the after-taste or chalkiness,” Dave says. “That’s why on our sign, we started saying, ‘The way yogurt should taste.’”

Country View Dairy’s newest Greek yogurt flavor, lemon custard, is now the top seller. They debuted the yogurt after letting visitors at the Cedar Rapids farmers market help taste-test it last summer.

In addition, Country View is getting into the frozen yogurt business. The dairy is making frozen yogurt mixes for Yotopia, a locally owned yogurt shop in Iowa City and North Liberty (see article on page 6), and for the Target headquarters dining center in Minneapolis, with 8,000 employees.

The dairy hopes to expand into other frozen yogurt shops and restaurants, especially now that school is out for the summer, when local school cafeterias won’t be buying yogurt until classes resume.

In addition, the Rapsons have opened an on-farm store. So if you’re in the Hawkeye area, stop by and grab a few cartons of yogurt for the road, and sample their newest frozen yogurt flavor — chocolate — for just 50 cents a cup.

You can listen to the cows moo and peak through the observation window and see Carolee and her staff making the next batch of yogurt. Eating doesn't get much more local than that.