There are few places around Champaign-Urbana that can boast award-winning cheeses and also adorable baby goats. Thankfully, we have Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery for our daily dose of dairy goodness and zany goat antics.
In business for over fifteen years, Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery has been a Champaign staple. I talked with co-owner Leslie Cooperband about the PFF life.
Smile Politely: As the owners of Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery, can you tell Smile Politely’s readership a little bit about yourselves?
Leslie Cooperband: I’m Leslie Cooperband. We have been in business since 2005, and my husband, Wes Jarrell, and I are the owners of Prairie Fruits. We moved to Champaign from Madison in 2003. We were both professors in soil science and moved here because of our university jobs. This property came up when we moved here. We then converted the fields to perennial agriculture from soybeans and corn. We decided to become a commercial dairy in 2005.
SP: What compelled you to move to Champaign-Urbana from Madison, Wisconsin and start the farm?
Cooperband: Being soil scientists and having worked with many farmers over our collective careers, we wanted to have a small farm where we could put into practice what we were telling other farmers they should do. We wanted to demonstrate to other farmers that you can live those principles and still be profitable.
SP: Can you explain to us the philosophy behind how you run your farm?
Cooperband: At the core of our mission is this idea of care to the land and as much perennial agriculture as we can, thinking about more than sustainability, but regenerating the soil by having perennial agriculture. We also support humane treatment of our animals and a living wage for the people who work for us.
SP: How do you decide what fruit trees, berries, and crops to plant?
Cooperband: Well, when we decided to put in a small orchard, we decided to put in a small orchard. We tried to put in what would do well. We wanted to have several different kinds of tree fruits. Since my husband grew up on a small fruit farm in Oregon, we wanted to have things like peaches. However, some fruits like cherries and apricots did not do well here. For the berries we chose, the weed pressure was too hard on the berries we selected originally.
Right now, the orchard is quite old. We still have our peaches and apples and pears. We no longer have berries, but we still have an herb garden we use in our cheeses and our gelato. We always have some kind of vegetable garden we use in our farm kitchen or value-added products like pickles and jams.
SP: What’s a typical day like on your farm?
Cooperband: This time of year is kidding season. What that means is in late February, our goats start having babies. We start very early at 4:30 a.m. in the morning to check for babies. Then, we get the babies cleaned up and checked in and start milking their moms, making sure the babies get their first milk and such.
On the creamery side, we get the morning’s milk and turn them into cheeses. We make much of our fresh goat cheeses most days a week. The others we make maybe one day or so a week. Sometimes we make yogurt. Once a week, we make our gelato base. We milk the goats at 5 a.m. and 5 p.m. We have upwards of ten babies born in a day, so there is nonstop checking of babies and making sure the moms are okay while all the cheese stuff is happening. Not to mention all the orders and event planning.
SP: Two of your cheeses, Fleur de la Prairie (bloomy rind cheese adorned with dried herbs and edible flowers) and Pelota Roja (a raw-milk semi-hard cheese with a guajillo chile-olive oil rub on the rind) won awards at the 2021 National Good Food Awards. What was your inspiration behind these cheeses?
Cooperband: Fleur de la Prairie uses dried herbs and flowers from our herb garden. We wanted to have a particular style of white mold cheese to couple with the herbs and flowers.
The Pelota Roja was made in collaboration with chef Rick Bayless of Frontera Grill in Chicago. He contacted us after coming back from an event in New York, and he was all excited about us making a cheese inspired by the Spanish-styled cheese Majorero. I contacted some people to help with a recipe, and we came up with a cheese inspired by the Canary Islands (owned by Spain). We tried to make it more in line with Mexican flavors using the chili powder.
SP: What kind of processes and experimentation go into creating cheeses such as Fleur de la Prairie and Pelota Roja?
Cooperband: For the Fleur, we started out with really small batches and tested out different combinations of herbs and flowers. The many small batches helped us test the different ways of the milk going from a liquid to a solid to change the texture of the finished cheese to what we wanted. The Pelota had quite a bit of experimentation and the little nuances to get the flavor and texture that Chef Bayless wanted it. We went to Chicago and did a tasting, and they were very pleased with the results.
SP: I’ve heard Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery has baby goats! How can people enthusiastic about cute baby goats come by and see them?
Cooperband: Historically, we’ve done Babies and Brunch as an open house. This year, we were very concerned about managing crowds, as we can normally have over 1,000 on a Saturday morning. Because of that, we switched to a reservation format.
We have four days in April with 50 people allowed per hour over a four-hour period. We charge a fee that includes a sweet or savory grab-and-go item and the opportunity to have an intimate baby goat visit. That said, people who place online orders for pickup on Saturday afternoons between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. can stop by and pet the babies. We will have regular weekend hours starting May 1st.
SP: How has the pandemic affected the operation of the farm?
Cooperband: It had a huge impact on us last year as it hit right at the start of our kidding season in March. We lost 80% of our business overnight because restaurant partners had to close. Because of that, we had to start an online storefront which turned out to be a great thing since we got a lot of orders through the online store.
We also lost income from agritourism business as we could do just one outdoor goat activity for the entire year around Halloween. That was it. We also had to limit the number of people who could come inside.
SP: Are you looking for any kind of help to run the farm? If so, what kind of help is most needed?
Cooperband: We are actually looking for someone to help in the creamery right now. There is so much milk for cheese that I need another part time person. We are also looking for an agritourism coordinator. Both are described on our website. We know a lot of people want to do things with the goats, but we have a lot of staff in that department. It is less glamorous to make cheese.
SP: Who are some of the local businesses you partner with at Prairie Fruits Farms and Creamery?
Cooperband: We partner with several other farms such as Blue Moon Farm, and we have partnered with breweries in the past to do farm dinners featuring their beers.
We are part of a farm aggregator named Down at the Farms that is run by Marty and Will Travis in Fairbury, Illinois. They aggregate products from farms in Illinois and take them to Chicago. This was vital to our success last year and this year. Down at the Farms basically has a Google spreadsheet where they let people know what is available based on what is entered into the sheet by farmers. Down at the Farms sells to individual customers and also restaurants or grocery stores.
SP: Are you looking for additional local partnerships?
Cooperband: You know, we are all about partnerships. We would love to work with other entities that share our values. If we could host some COVID safe events, we’d welcome some partners in the name of agritourism.
SP: If people want to buy from Prairie Fruits Farms and Creamery, how can they do that?
Cooperband: Right now, people can buy primarily through the online store or if they are out during Babies and Brunch, the main door is also open. We are also at the Urbana Farmer’s Market starting in May from 7 a.m. to noon. Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery will be open Saturdays and Sunday from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. starting in May.
SP: What are the seasonal things people should pay special attention to while they’re available?
Cooperband: Right now, we have some fresh chive and lemon zest chevre. The goats are the priority right now, so we have les focus around the peaches and such due to the freezes we’ve had over the years.
We are hoping to do some events this summer such as tasting wine, beer, and cheese. Also, we hope to do some farm dinners this summer depending on social distancing requirements. We’re trying to slowly get back into pre-COVID offerings.
SP: Is there anything you’d like to say to the Champaign-Urbana community?
Cooperband: I would like to say thank you. We have the most amazing community here in Champaign-Urbana. Our community supports farms like ours in such an important way. I couldn’t ask for a better community. Whatever we bring to market, people are willing to try. When they knew farms were hurting form the pandemic, the community showed up in droves to buy whatever they could. We have a community that cares about what the farming community provides. It’s a great place to be a farmer and a peacemaker. I feel like we have a really dedicated community that embraces what we are about.
Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery
4410 N Lincoln Ave
Sa 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. (Babies and Brunch)
Sa 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. (online order pickup)
Sa+Su 1 to 4 p.m.