HAMILTON COUNTY, Iowa -- On such a bitter cold morning, it’s hard to tell what a life this is.
“Personally, I like this weather for working in!" laughs Kevin Dietzel, bundled against the single-digit temperatures.
His good cheer is no act. This is his pleasure.
“That fermentation," he says, holding up a handful of rich hay, "makes it like candy for the cows — they love it.”
Don’t let the 1952 Oliver tractor fool you, Lost Lake Farm in Hamilton County is new -- not quite three years old.
The Dietzels named it for nearby Lake Cairo--drained in 1895. The shoreline is still visible from the air. The farm, with just 80 acres and 20 cows, is dream come true.
“For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be a farmer,” says Dietzel, cracking a gap-toothed grin.
Not just any kind of farmer, a dairy farmer. It's a hard life and an even harder business. It's the kind that made the loan officers reach for a door to slam.
“Essentially, they laughed us out of the office because they were like ‘Nobody is starting dairy farms.’”
Kevin and his wife Ranae weren’t just any young couple. They’d grown up farming - -loving the science of it -- and found each other in college.
"We'd go out on dates and talk about farming," Ranae laughs. "Yeah -- we did that."
They had a plan. They wouldn’t sell milk. They would make cheese. A skill that Kevin had picked up along the way -- something Ranae could help with when she wasn’t working her job as a soil scientist at Iowa State.
They scraped the money together, but…
"Definitely a lot of people told us ‘Look, the price of milk is really bad right now, corn is really high,'" Ranae remembers, "and we would say, ‘We’re not selling milk, we’re not selling corn -- this is a totally different business.'”
It starts out the same; cows milked before dawn, milk filtered and collected. But it's then sent to their cheese room, where the Dietzels trade a dirty job for an exceptionally clean one.
Kevin and Ranae spend three to four days a week dressed head to toe in hair nets, elbow-length plastic gloves, and rubber boots as they make cheese.
“Cheese-making is about 75 percent washing and about 25 percent actually working with milk and cheese!" Kevin laughs.
Between the washing, scrubbing and rinsing, the milk slowly transforms.
Kevin opens the large Pasteurizer to look in on the heated milk, treated with rennet and culture.
“So now it’s all coagulated and it’s ready to cut the curd," he points out.
Curds are separated from the whey. Whey will fertilize the farm fields, and the curds are spooned into hoops.
These will settle into Lost Lake’s “Burrnt Oak Camembert” and be accented with special charcoal, ground by hand.
“This [charcoal] began as a 200-year-old oak tree," says Ranae, "that used to overlook the lost lake.”
It’s spooned over the cheese, which is allowed to settle again. Charcoal has been used to preserve and flavor cheese for thousands of years.
Kevin holds up a half-wheel of the Burrnt Oak Camembert, revealing the thin wheel of charcoal within.
“After six weeks, it’s going to turn into this,” he says.
The persnickety world of fine cheese reveres the term “hand-made," and you will find no shortcuts here.
Ranae meticulously folds each wrapper by hand, using a method she learned on YouTube.
“The people who are toughest on us about our Camembert are only people who grew up in France,” she points out.
Camembert was today’s project, but last week it was Emmenthaler, and before that Iowa Alpine. They all gather in the humid “cheese cave” to age, and, well, turn.
“If people have seen moldy cheeses before, then they’re impressed," Ranae smiles, "and if they haven’t seen moldy cheeses before, then they’re a little scared.”
But on the plate they see the beauty, and when it’s sold at farmers' markets and to fine restaurants around central Iowa, they get to know it.
“They can say ‘I got this cheese at this farm,’" says Ranae, "and then they can go on and tell the story about our farm--how the cheese was made -- and talk about the cows.”
Speaking of the cows, the Dietzels' are old-world breeds with richer milk.
And it wouldn’t be fair to just show them in the cold. Because it’s in the summer that they, and this farm, are in their element. An oasis of green goodness, born of the black Iowa soil, warmed by an open sky.
“I think more small farms like this would be really good for Iowa’s soil health," says Ranae, "and I think that these small farms can fit within the corn/soybean sort of landscape that we have here.”
It's worth noting that Ranae Dietzel has a PhD in sustainable agriculture and agronomy from Iowa State and a masters in soil science from Cornell University.
Kevin has a biology degree from the University of Minnesota-Morris and considers himself a true "dreamer."
“It’d be great if there were hundreds of cheesemakers in Iowa," he says, "and Iowa were a destination for people to come to and taste our regional cheeses that you can’t get anywhere else. How awesome would that be?”
That’s a longshot, but this is the place for those. And these are the people undaunted by hard work, and certain of its rewards.
You can visit the Lost Lake Farm website here.