For centuries, being a dairy farmer has meant a wake-up call in the wee hours. But for the Marcoots, it’s now up to their robotic milking machines.
While sisters Amy and Beth are at the helm of Marcoot Jersey Creamery, the implementation of robotic milkers was begun by their father, John. The sisters are the seventh generation of Marcoots to make their living from Jersey Cows. The family emigrated from Switzerland in 1840 with a Jersey cow in tow, and the family is still carrying on the tradition of raising the gentle brown cows that are known for high butterfat and high-protein milk ideal for making cheese, butter and ice cream.
“I know I’m biased,” says Beth, “but they’re also known for their very big eyes and long eyelashes.”
The milking robots are a sight to behold. Emblazoned with the word “astronaut,” the giant red robots that relieve the cows of their burden almost seem like something from a science fiction book. Lasers map the cow’s udders as it eagerly chows down on some healthy treats, and a necklace the cow wears checks whether it’s ready for milking or a repeat customer just looking for an extra snack.
The milking robots, the popular automatic back scratcher brush and the calf barn where visitors can get up close and personal with the cows – all of these are ways that Amy and Beth have updated the creamery to help keep the family business going and growing.
The farm their grandparents bought in 1954 in Greenville, Illinois, is a pastoral painting come to life: happy cows, rolling hills, a red barn creamery and friendly, genuine people.
“We learned from a young age that if you take care of the land, it’ll take care of you. If you take care of the cows, they’ll take care of you,” says Amy.
Their parents never expected them to take over the family legacy, and made it clear to all four daughters that they had choices. Instead, they encouraged the girls to leave home to study whatever they wanted to pursue.
“They’re always saying that farming is a hard, hard lifestyle. If you want to leave, that’s fine; get your education and do whatever you want.’ And so that’s what Amy and I both did. We both went to the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, and Amy has her master’s degree in counseling from Eastern Illinois University. I have my master’s degree in education from Southern Illinois University – Carbondale,” Beth recalls.
In 2007, when their parents started talking about the best option for the farm after they retired, Amy decided she couldn’t bear to see the farm close and explored moving home.
“It took a while to make those decisions, but for me, it was like, ‘Boy, we’ve been doing this for a really long time, if there were a way we could try to keep what my family has done for so long, it would be really nice, but it also might not be practical,’” says Amy.
On June 5, 2010, the Marcoots officially converted the dairy operation that sold milk to a local co-op into the creamery it is today. One step in that direction was bringing on their head cheesemaker, Audie Wall.
The sisters have been best friends with Wall since Amy was 10. “She’s actually an engineer and a helicopter pilot – so she was flying helicopters,” said Amy. “I just happened to be talking to her one day, and I said, ‘Yeah, I’m going to need to find somebody to make cheese, because I cannot run the business, and make the product, and sell the product, and pay the bills, and hire the employees, and manage everything. And she’s like, ‘You know, I could probably do it.’”
A shocked Amy gratefully accepted her friend’s offer.
At this point, Beth was still determined to finish her graduate degree and was sure she was never coming back permanently to the farm. Then one day, she reluctantly agreed to come home and fill in for her sick sister at an event. “I was a little bit crabby with her – and that’s putting it generously,” says Beth, who had a thesis to finish and a mile-long to-do list back at school.
“But I went, and it was so neat to see how excited people were about our cheese and about knowing that they could buy local and that we made a great product,” Beth continues. “It wasn’t just the people who paid for the tickets. It was also the whole line of chefs who said ‘thank you so much for doing this.’ That meant a lot. It felt like we were helping people and solving a problem for people.”
That was the moment when Beth decided to go back to the farm and work with her sister and Wall to build Marcoot Jersey Creamery into what it is now.
“It’s definitely something to grow into, but I don’t want to do anything else, because it checks a lot of the boxes for passion and purpose – not just for my family and me, but for a greater whole and our communities,” says Beth.
They started with aged, fresh and farmstead cheeses like Gouda and havarti. While those cheeses were received well, they quickly realized that cheddar is very popular in the Midwest, but they didn’t have a cheese press, the essential (and pricey) piece of equipment needed to make it.
The Maplewood Farmers Market came in with the save. For the first four years, the Marcoots had been standing outside of Schlafly Bottleworks, selling their cheese at the farmers market every Wednesday, and every week the Schlafly brewery team would walk by and give Amy trouble about not making cheese with their beer. Her answer was always the same: ”I don’t have a cheese press.”
It just so happened that one of the owners of FareShares CCSA, the food hub that organized the market, was married to a Schlafly brew master. She thought Marcoot would be a perfect candidate for a Kickstarter campaign they were looking to launch to help one of their producers. The sisters gratefully agreed to participate.
The two were overwhelmed as 211 people chipped-in to help the campaign beat its $15,000 goal — enough to afford the cheese press. They immediately got to work on what would become Tipsy Cheddar – their collaboration cheese with Schlafly Beer.
“It was really neat to be at the farmers market, at Maplewood and Tower Grove, and people would come up to us and ask about the cheese press, and how the cheese was doing,” says Beth. “It was great to then have our product to share with our supporters, who made it happen.”
“I tell our staff every year before we do our events or Cheesefest or Fall Festival, ‘The first few years, I didn’t know if we’d make it, but these people kept showing up. And that’s why we’re still here today,’” says Amy.
“As a family and as a team at the Creamery, we’re so incredibly grateful that people still buy our product and are interested in asking us to make new things and that we get to keep working with people,” she continues. “A local small business doesn’t operate unless people are willing to support it. So we’re incredibly grateful.”
They haven’t just expanded and changed their line of cheeses – currently totaling 20+ varieties – but they’ve also increased the types of products they offer, thanks in no small part to Wall’s innovations.
“Everything that we get to sell has Audie’s fingerprints. She helped create or design it,” says Amy. “She will often come into my office and say, ‘Hey, Amy, I’ve got a great idea.’ and I’ll be like, ’Oh my goodness, what are we gonna have to do next?’”
One of those ideas was Extreme Ice, where they take the byproduct of whey from cheesemaking and mix it with crushed fruit to create a frozen sorbet treat that has 20 grams of protein in just five ounces. (There’s also a pup-friendly version coming in a few months called Ice Ice Doggy.) Another new creation are their dog treats, Dog-Os. When they were having trouble finding the right equipment on the market, Audie designed and fabricated what they needed to produce the cheese-based doggie delicacies.
The dog treats are now sold in 550 stores, and Marcoot cheeses can be found in Dierbergs, Schnucks and Whole Foods Market stores throughout the Midwest, as well as Eckert’s, Fresh Thyme at the Foundry, Field Foods and Straub’s, in addition to several specialty stores like Tale to Table in Maplewood.
They also sell to 150 restaurants and organizations around the Midwest including Farmhaus Restaurant, Bowood By Niche, Augusta Winery, Washington University in St. Louis, Cleveland Heath, Olive + Oak, Pie Hard and many more.
“One of our favorite things is whenever we get to take our parents out to a restaurant with our cheese or our names on the menu, you just see my dad swell with pride,” says Beth.
Moving forward, Amy and Beth Marcoot hope to continue to innovate and create new products their customers are asking for – and they hope Marcoot Jersey Creamery continues in some fashion beyond their generation.
Amy says, “We work very hard every day to build a business that is worthy of somebody wanting to take over someday.”