NORMAL — Ken Ropp is excited to move out of his truck — his cheese production truck, that is.
“The cheese plant we’re in now is called 'Cheese on Wheels,' built by Darlington Dairy Supply out of Wisconsin. It’s a semi trailer, so it’s very confining,” said Ropp, a co-owner of Ropp Jersey Cheese in Normal. “It's served its purpose for us, but we’ve needed for three or four years to pull the trigger on something bigger.”
"Something bigger" turned out to be a $400,000, 4,000-square-foot plant under construction on the farm at 2676 Ropp Road, near the town's northern border. The plant will allow the family business to make more cheese and more varieties of cheese to sell there and at Midwest retailers.
“We’ve been doing some packaging in there, but soon the equipment will be in place and we can start doing production as well,” said Ropp of the plant. "My dream is about a year from now being able to do harder-style cheese like provolone. The problem has been (that) the harder the cheese is, the longer it takes to age, and we haven't had the space to hand on to it."
While provolone takes eight to 10 months, said Ropp, cheddar cheese can be moved in 30 days. Cheddar is an extremely popular cheese for the farm, which puts out about 30 different cheddars, including curds served by local restaurants including Destihl.
Other cheese varieties produced on the farm include Colby, Monterey jack, Cojack, Swiss and Gouda. Ropp said at one point the farm made "about 80 flavors of cheddar” but later scaled back.
The plant will also make more cheese more conveniently than the 400-square-foot, $250,000 "Cheese on Wheels," said Ropp.
“We'll go up to 500 pounds of cheese per make, versus 200 we’re at now,” he said. “Instead of doing production six or seven days a week, we can cut it back to four or five days. That’ll help us immensely on bottom line. More efforts can be put into the farm and sales work.”
Ropp, who owns the farm with his wife, Becky, and his parents, Ray and Carol, said it will continue to have 13 employees. For 11 years, they've been making cheese and selling it at the farm, though 95 percent of their market is now wholesale, including to Hy-Vee in Bloomington.
“It’s always crazy for us because we still farm here,” said Ken. “There’s just enough of us to go around, but we get spread pretty thin.”
Ken said the new plant will have a viewing room so customers can see how the cheese is made — "Cheese on Wheels" has been part of tours for elementary students — and he hopes to have a grand opening for the plant after the kinks are ironed out, possibly in June.
“We milk about 60 jerseys and put it all into cheese production. ... It’s been well supported locally, and we’re in about 240 locations in a 200-mile radius of Bloomington-Normal,” said Ken. “It’s fun. It’s our own product, so it means a lot.”