Third-generation dairy farmer Kurt Bizenberger didn’t set out to make yogurt: He went broke.
“I milked 300 cows in here, twice a day,” he says, gesturing to a now almost-empty barn outfitted with some milking equipment. “It wasn’t feasible – [you] can’t afford to stay in business just selling to co-ops. The price [of milk] fluctuates so much; you never know what you’re gonna get.”
Bizenberger’s parents originally operated a dairy farm near Scott Air Force Base in St. Clair County, Illinois, but they were forced out in 1994 due to eminent domain when MidAmerica St. Louis Airport was built. The family relocated to Trenton, Illinois, and began building the new farm that same year.
“We were used to living in a valley with no wind,” Bizenberger says with a smile. “It’s so windy up here – we had dust in our eyes that whole summer – so my dad says, ‘Let’s call this place Windcrest.’ That was nearly 25 years ago.”
Fast-forward to 2009, when Bizenberger was faced with selling his family’s farm or finding a way to make ends meet. A friend of his who sold him animal feed knew a fourth-generation dairy farmer, Steve Eickmeyer, who runs a family farm 35 miles south of Trenton that supplies milk to Dean Foods and Chester Dairy Co. out of Chester, Illinois. He was also looking for a way out of the milk-price rat race.
“I searched for a long time, and I found another knucklehead like me who milks cows,” Bizenberger says with a laugh. “He invested with us [and] gave me enough money to get started.”
Eickmeyer originally wanted to make cheese – he now defers to nearby Marcoot Jersey Creamery and sells some of its cheeses at the Windcrest farmstead grocery store in Trenton – and Bizenberger wanted to bottle small-batch milk. Instead, they realized that nobody in the region was doing yogurt, despite its increasing popularity.
Windcrest Dairy began making traditional and Greek-style yogurt that year in Trenton after visiting Sugar River Dairy in Albany, Wisconsin – one of the Midwest’s few yogurt creameries – and adapting its recipe. To their knowledge, Windcrest has the smallest grade-A processing plant for a dairy farm in the state of Illinois.
“Name recognition, word of mouth: That’s how we’ve gotten the product where it is today,” Eickmeyer says. “But our competition – the Dannons, the Yoplaits – they’re huge. They throw away more than we make.”
The two dairy farmers first got Windcrest into Schnucks and Dierbergs stores in St. Louis and southern Illinois by delivering samples in person, picking up $20 in sales here and there. Eventually, Windcrest picked up larger accounts, too – including Eataly Chicago, Washington University in St. Louis, Saint Louis University and Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis – but it’s difficult to compete with national brands that work with giant food distributors like Sysco and US Foods. Windcrest yogurt is also sold in smaller stores in the St. Louis area including Straub’s, Fields Foods and Local Harvest Grocery, plus a few in southern Illinois.
“It takes a special manager to appreciate it because it costs more,” Bizenberger says. “Once you get people to try it, [they buy it].”
Greek yogurt – also called strained yogurt or yiaourti in Greece – is common in Europe, the Middle East and India, but countries as varied as Turkey to Denmark, as well as its namesake, Greece, claim it as part of their traditional cuisine. Unlike regular yogurt, Greek yogurt has been strained to remove some of the liquid whey, resulting in a thicker consistency and higher fat and protein contents.
Athens-based Fage has been selling Greek yogurt in the U.S. since 1998, but after the launch of Chobani in 2007, it really saw an uptick in popularity in the West. Greek yogurt can be used in recipes as a substitute for mayonnaise, sour cream or butter – just a quick glance at Pinterest, and you’re likely to spot recipes for deviled eggs, chicken salad or waffles, all made with Greek yogurt.
Even traditional yogurt is fairly new to the American palate: The son of a Spanish yogurt manufacturer launched Dannon in the Bronx in 1942. By the 1950s, the company declared the snack “completely Americanized” with the invention of vanilla yogurt, and the ensuing decade saw additives like fruit flavoring, artificial coloring and potassium sorbate, a preservative.
Dannon’s Oikos label of Greek yogurt debuted in 2010 following the success of Chobani: Greek yogurt sales increased nationally by 2,500 percent from 2005 to 2011. Windcrest’s plain Greek-style yogurt is made with only three ingredients: milk, milk protein concentrate and yeast cultures. As a result, it’s not as smooth as, say, a tub of Oikos, but it’s fluffier and sweeter – or perhaps just less sour. It can’t technically be called “Greek” because Windcrest uses milk protein instead of straining the yogurt.
“Ours is all-milk, all-natural stuff,” Bizenberger says. “You look at some of these ingredients with corn syrups, corn starches – it’s cheap. That’s why the yogurt’s so cheap, too.”
Eickmeyer nods his head in agreement. “And the preservative... that stuff is made in New England six months ago, and you open it up, and it looks fine. There’s a reason for that,” he adds. “That’s what we’ve become accustomed to – right, wrong or indifferent, that’s the battle we face.”
The two men agree that Windcrest’s yogurt has a consistent flavor, despite the lack of processing, because they control what the cows eat and where the milk comes from. They feed their herd (which is about 90 percent Holstein; there’s at least one cow “with a little Jersey in her”) a mixture of hay, corn, grass and nutritional supplements.
“I think our connection is that much more intimate because we raise those calves that make the milk to do this,” Eickmeyer says. “It’s really near and dear to our hearts. [With] the big guys, a truck goes to the farm, picks up the milk and comingles it with [milk from] 10 other producers. They unload it in a big milk silo, and 20 people touch that milk. Two weeks later, it’s on a shelf. There are days [at Windcrest] where within 24 hours of when that cow was milked, [the yogurt] is on the shelf somewhere.”
“Once a week, everything’s turned,” Bizenburger adds. “It’s fresh, and it’s a big taste difference.”
“That’s the beauty of what we do,” Eickmeyer agrees, “and that’s where our customers appreciate us.”
Six days a week, milk is pumped from eight cows at 101ºF into a holding tank; it hits a cool 37ºF before being pasteurized at 186ºF for half an hour. The milk is then squirted, along with active yeast culture, into plastic yogurt containers emblazoned with Windcrest Dairy’s signature farmstead windmill on the label. (This process varies depending on the flavor being made.) It’s then transferred into a 110ºF, temperature-controlled room for six hours and left to ferment. The preservative-free Greek-style yogurt is often on store shelves and in school cafeterias across Missouri and Illinois by the next morning.
The machine that squirts milk from the pasteurization tank into 6- and 24-ounce plastic containers is new and was recently installed; Windcrest’s original machine, which was purchased used, served the dairy for four years. Today it’s sitting out in the grass, waiting to return to Wisconsin. Kittens of various colors peek out from underneath it, and across the lawn, donkeys graze, goats sit atop a wooden platform, multicolored ducks waddle across the gravel and fuzzy black baby pigs scurry out from a barn as a farmhand pours leftover milk into feed bowls. Bizenburger says these animals are there “just for fun” – when school tours stop by, which happens often, kids love petting and playing with them.
Windcrest makes regular and Greek-style yogurt in plain, vanilla, blueberry, raspberry, strawberry and peach, plus vanilla latte made with coffee from St. Louis area-based Stringbean Coffee Co. Bizenburger met Stringbean owner Pete Cohen four years ago at a local farmers’ market, and they bonded over a shared love of coffee and Boston Terriers.
“The Windcrest Dairy Vanilla Latte [Greek yogurt] started when my hot coffee was added to his yogurt cup… it was runny and gross,” Cohen explains. “After nearly six months and a lot of trial and error, Kurt perfected the Windcrest-Stringbean blend.”
Originally, Bizenberger and Eickmeyer planned to grow their own fruit to use in the yogurt or source fresh produce from local farms. Yet to be certified as a grade-A product, everything that goes into the yogurt has to be certified grade A, as well, meaning you can’t just pull juicy peaches off the vine at a local orchard.
“We couldn’t, unless we wanted to spend another half a million dollars on fruit alone, because the fruit has to be pasteurized just like the milk,” Eickmeyer laments.
“To my knowledge, there are only two [fruit-processing plants] that do that – one on the West Coast and one on the East Coast. They’ve got a natural advantage out there. It’s not as simple as we thought in the beginning.” (This same standard doesn’t apply to coffee, which is considered a flavoring, or for the organic cane sugar used to sweeten Windcrest’s vanilla yogurt.)
Despite growing retail locations and cafeteria accounts, the two men say Windcrest is just barely eking by; the goal is to land larger accounts like schools and hospitals. When school’s in session, Windcrest does 1,000 pounds a day, six days a week, but Bizenberger says it has the capacity to do 4,000 pounds a day.
Bizenberger is Windcrest’s only full-time employee, but there are three or four part-time workers who help. Cows are at a minimum right now at Windcrest: Dairy farmers sell their wares wholesale but have to buy things like feed at retail price. Bizenburger reckons it costs about $6 to $7 a day to feed a cow; if they had a herd of 100 cows, that’s $18,000 a month spent on feed alone, plus added costs like veterinary services.
“[It’s] all I know – I don’t think educated people would do this, quite honestly,” Eickmeyer jokes of dairy farming.
“We love the cows,” Bizenberger says and nods, adjusting his Windcrest Dairy-branded baseball cap. “You gotta love the cows.”
“Dairy farming is twice a day, 365 days a year,” Eickmeyer says. “I’ve got a son and grandson and two daughters – I hope dairy can be a part of their lives, as well. You never know.”
“The goal is to get this place full again and use all that milk,” Bizenberger adds. “That’s the dream.”
Windcrest Dairy, 14898 Old Trenton Road, Trenton, Illinois, 618.224.7802, windcrestdairy.com