Dave Jisa of Jisa Farmstead Cheese is a farmer through and through. After earning a degree in agronomy, Jisa returned to the family farm to join his father Lad’s dairy operation near Brainard, Nebraska. There he continued refining the lessons he learned growing up and honing new production practices and techniques that enabled them to increase cropland for feed and slowly grow the dairy herd.
In the early 2000s, after milk prices dropped, Jisa began researching value added ways to use the milk, such as crafting ice cream or artisan cheese. Relying on the expertise and experience of other cheese makers in the extended family and food technologists at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s (UNL) pilot cheese plant, Jisa invested in building a 6,000 square foot plant and thus began making cheese as a hobby, eventually turning it into a viable business.
The Holstein dairy cows residing on the Jisa farm enjoy a total mixed ration prescribed by a nutritionist primarily composed of grains grown on their own farm: corn, corn silage, hay, alfalfa hay, and trace minerals. The 350-head herd produces milk 305 days a year, taking a “60-day vacation” in calving season. “It’s a seed to cheese operation,” shared Rod Johnson, Marketing Director, “The operation buys seed, raises dairy cows, and sells the resulting cheese.”
Milk, time, and temperature are key factors in the simple but meticulous practice of cheese making. Twice a day the “ladies” are milked and the Grade A whole milk is taken a short mile down the road to the cheese plant, where it is pasteurized and placed in a large vat. Cultures and enzymes are added based on the type of cheese they plan to make, the milk is warmed, pH tested, and the mixture stirred. Curds develop, the whey is drained, flavors are added, and curds are either pressed into 40-pound blocks or remain as they are for the popular fresh curd product offerings. The blocks are aged and cut into 8-ounce portions that are attractively and accurately labelled and packaged for sale.
Jisa Farmstead whole milk cheese is high in nutritious Omega-3, providing a wholesome, tasty treat for consumers. Their cheese curds are featured on the menus of several area bars and restaurants; so much so that the team is now developing and testing a pre-breaded curd targeted for release this spring.
Jisa shared how they come up with the unique and interesting flavors, “We make whatever sounds good or what we think is popular.” One example is the collaborative Boulevard Tank7 Farmhouse Ale Cheddar, a tangy, nutty delight born of a challenge from a friend who claimed Jisa couldn’t make a good beer cheese. The Havarti Bell, a Havarti cheese with red bell peppers, is a one-of-kind offering, as well.
The UNL Dairy Store carries several varieties, including the sassy California Garlic Pepper Nuggets, zingy Aged New York Cheddar, and the award-winning Rosy’s Cheese Curd Snack Pack.
Working closely with the Nebraska Winery and Grape Growers Association, the Jisa family knows local wineries are keen to serve other local products, so wine and cider lovers will find Jisa Farmstead Cheese on tasting room charcuterie boards and tucked into picnic baskets. Several small farm stands and area grocery stores, some as far as Kansas City, carry the products, and recently the team participated as a vendor for local brewer Divots Brewery at the Divots Big Chill Beer & Cheese Festival in Norfolk, NE.
Farmer’s market season is a busy one for the operation, staffing multiple stands across the eastern part of the state selling small-batch flavors and interacting with customers. Periodically, they offer an open house at the homestead farm stand where folks can observe cheese making in action through a large observation window (check website before you go for availability and hours of operation).
The farm is naturally sustainable – it makes fiscal sense to produce minimal waste and reuse where possible. To wit, the whey drained off the cheese vats is fed to the young cattle, and the crops naturally fertilized with animal waste.
It’s truly a family affair for the Jisas, as sons David and John are both heavily involved in the farm and dairy and cheese plant operations. David’s son loves to be around animals, giving hope that the farm will endure to become a fourth or even fifth generation endeavor.
The team at Jisa Farmstead Cheese strives to provide their consumers with a full-flavored, whole milk farmstead cheese and is proud to share a piece of their farm with customers. Using natural resources, they are able to feed people, create jobs, and care for the land. “This is our way of life and what we get excited about – the cheese business is an opportunity to share a little bit of our farm with customers.”