A longtime dream to open a family business has evolved into a community asset that quickly has gained a loyal following.
Dan and Debbie Takes started dairy farming in 1998 on their farm outside of Ely, Iowa, a town of just less than 2,000 people between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City.
Debbie spent her childhood on a family farm near Swisher, and Dan, originally from Cedar Rapids, grew to love farming as he helped Debbie's father with chores while he was dating Debbie. The two went into dairy farming after the youngest of their six children was out of diapers, but as the years passed, they wanted to do more with the milk from their herd of Holstein cows.
Milk prices weren't always stable, so they examined how to add value by processing their own milk and developing their own products to make the farm a more sustainable operation, says Josie Rozum, one of the couple's daughters.
Three of Rozum's brothers also are involved in the business.
In 2013, the family took the plunge and purchased the former Vavra Lumber building on Ely's Main Street, with the goal of opening their own creamery. It took three years to renovate, but finally, Dan & Debbie's Creamery opened July 20, 2016.
Rozum, 27, who serves as the creamery's operations and marketing manager, remembers the day well.
"At 8 a.m., we started making cheese," she says. "We posted a message on Facebook, and within five minutes, we had customers walking through the door."
The building, at 1600 Main St., accommodates not only the pasteurizer, bottling machine and other equipment, but a viewing station, retail store and seating area.
A Vavra Lumber apron, vintage milk bottles and other memorabilia line the walls. In the store, pasta sauce, Bloody Mary mix, goat's milk lotion, lamb, pork, elk and beef products — all locally produced — and more have joined the creamery's cheese curds, farm-fresh bottled milk and handcrafted ice cream.
Rozum says new products — such as loose-leaf tea from Bettendorf and creamed honey from Winterset — are added every week, which provides variety for customers and an outlet for small, local businesses.
Ely has a convenience store and a bar and grill, but residents travel to Cedar Rapids or Iowa City for much of their shopping. The creamery, open most afternoons, offers another option.
"The tables are completely full on the weekends," Rozum says.
Education is another component of the enterprise. Rozum leads tours for students and visitors, who also may watch milk being bottled and cheese being made from the viewing station's line of windows.
Visitors often are surprised at the amount of work involved in the operation.
"Your food doesn't just show up in the grocery aisles. There's a lot that goes into it," Rozum says. "This helps (visitors) understand where food comes from."
Besides the storefront, Dan & Debbie's milk and cheese curds also are sold at most Hy-Vee stores in the Cedar Rapids and Iowa City area, and are used at a growing number of restaurants.
Customers rave about the whole milk with its creamy top, while the rich chocolate milk has attracted its own legion of fans. The handcrafted ice cream is offered in a number of flavors, including vanilla bean, salted caramel and strawberry cheesecake, as well as seasonal pumpkin spice and cherry chocolate chip. The creamery's cheese curds are available in a variety of flavors, too.
Rozum says the creamery's milk is different from "standard" milk because of its freshness, as well as the cows' diet. They are fed corn (grown from seeds that are nongenetically modified organisms) and grains grown on the family farm.
The family's 150 black-and-white Holsteins are more than just livestock. Debbie, who does the milking, gives each a name, including Jetta and Honda, which were inspired by cars.
The cows produce about 1,000 gallons of milk total each day, and about 10 percent of that goes toward the creamery products. While standard milk might not reach the table until 10 days after a cow has been milked, Rozum says, "with our milk, most people are buying it within three to four days."
Customers have asked if Dan & Debbie's might offer butter, cream and yogurt in the future, and the family is thinking about it.
"We're really happy with where we're at right now," Rozum says.