GROWING UP with four brothers, Mark Crave BS’88 learned early how to play well with others. On the Craves’ farm near Waterloo, Wis., he and brothers Charles, George and Tom (all graduates of CALS’ Farm and Industry Short Course) share the duties-and the honors, too. They’ve won a pile of awards for their artisan cheese, made in a factory on the farm, and at last year’s World Dairy Expo, the four jointly earned the title of Dairymen of the Year.
For some of us, it’s hard to imagine running a business with siblings. How do you and your brothers do it?
Well, it’s difficult for me to answer that because I’ve done it for so long.We try to show people that we do things from the field to the cows to the cheese-every step.There are definitely different dynamics to being in a family business. It forces you to do a lot of things that you should do anyway in any profession-treat each other with respect, as adults, as professionals-and if you do those things you get along pretty well. It’s when you revert back to some of your childhood tendencies or carry a lot of baggage that you start running into trouble
Which of you has the hardest job?
I’d say that I’m the key … Seriously, it’s pretty complex. I’m the herd manager, and I’m responsible for all of the cattle and all of the people that take care of the cattle. If this were a factory, my role would be production manager, because everything we do, be it growing crops or fixing tractors or changing tires, it all comes back to producing milk. That’s our only revenue stream here-producing milk and selling surplus livestock.
For a lot of family-run businesses, the key to success is sticking to tradition-if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. So how do you keep the business fresh and new?
It’s definitely a balancing act between using the experience you have and incorporating it into new technology. And to be honest, I think a lot of progressive farmers have done a good job of doing that. We’ve always tried to take what we know, look at the new technology and say, ‘Okay, this makes sense to us because of the background we have,’ whether it be from our experience as farmers or our education.
So why did having the cheese factory on the farm make sense to you?
We’re in the specialty cheese business, so we do have to differentiate ourselves. You used the term ‘fresh,’ and that’s really a proper term-we try to keep it fresh and we try to bring people out to the farm. We try to show people that we do things from the field to the cows to the cheese-every step. And that’s what seems to get people excited. It’s a good-quality product, and we can show them where it comes from.
One cool feature of your web site is that each of your wives contributed recipes using your products. Are they involved in any other areas of your business?
George’s wife, Debbie, works full-time with the cheese factory-she helped develop the web site. My wife has a full-time job, so she has no day-to-day involvement with the farm, other than what I tell her over the dinner table.
Do you have a favorite recipe?
I like a lot of them, but one of the favorites is the one that (my wife) Tina contributed-the toffee torte. It’s rich and good after a holiday meal or something like that or with a cup of coffee. It’s a family recipe that she modified to use our cheese.