Department of Ag tours Minnesota cheese company

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Farm Forum

MANKATO, Minn. — It started as a one-man, one-cheese operation about five years ago.

But production of Alemar Cheese’s French-style soft cheeses has grown steadily over the past few years, and distribution has grown astronomically. Owner Keith Adams is now shipping cheese to numerous shops and markets in California, New York, and a bunch of states in between.

The growth has caused some additional expenses, including a 96-square-foot refrigerator, a van to take cheeses to places such as farmers markets, fancy cheese molds from Italy and France, and hiring an additional staff member, at a total cost of about $20,000.

A Value Added Grant for close to $5,000 from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture helped cover some of those costs, and the grant also helped Adams secure a loan from the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation.

Charlie Poster, assistant commissioner with the department, and Rep. Clark Johnson, DFL-North Mankato, toured Alemar on July 28 to get a look at how the grant money was spent.

“We were in a situation where we were just packed to the gills,” Adams said of his old refrigerator that he bought on Craigslist. “It was like a game of Tetris, sort of, trying to move around in there.”

Adams said the new refrigerator allows the company to double its production. He estimates the $20,000 in new expenses will bring an additional $200,000 to his $500,000 per year business.

Johnson said the success of Alemar as a small business that has grown and taken off is reminiscent of many other Mankato businesses, including Angie’s Kettle Corn of North Mankato.

“This is the story of Mankato in many ways, an economic story,” Johnson said.

Adams’ foray into the Mankato business community began when he co-owned Bagel Bros. until closing the business in 2005. After a three-year stint working at Coughlan Publishing, he decided he wanted to be his own boss again and start a business.

A native of California, Adams considered wine-making, but the start-up costs were too great. Cheese-making was a similar, less costly business that, after he delved into studying, greatly piqued his interest.

Adams opened Alemar Cheese, named after his daughters, Alex and Mari, in the former Domino’s Pizza production building on the 600 block of North Riverfront. He began by producing one kind of Camembert-style soft cheese called Bent River from organic milk.

Camembert is thick and gooey and often served with bread and fruit. The cheese has a much shorter shelf life than hard cheese and needs to be refrigerated, but it tastes best served at room temperature.

Alemar also has been producing Good Thunder cheese, washed in Surly Bender beer and loosely inspired by Reblochon; and Fromage Blanc, a smooth cheese with a bright acidity.

Alemar’s most recent addition, Blue Earth, is a large-format Brie-style cheese.

The St. Peter Food Co-op is so far the only local retailer for the Bent River cheese. But the Twin Cities has become a big market for the product. Adams brings cheese up to a Twin Cities farmers market, and numerous stores carry the cheeses.

“We’re known up there,” Adams said.

The purpose of the Value Added Grant Program is to increase sales of Minnesota agriculture products.

Representatives from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture toured other businesses of grant recipients on July 28, including Forest Lawn Holsteins in rural Nicollet.

Ashley Swenson, a veterinary student, applied her grant toward finishing installing a robotic milking machine and to improve the farm environmental impace on the Rush River watershed.