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Small, but Mighty: The Power of Niche Marketing

Karen Bohnert

May 4, 2021

Seventh-generation dairy farmer, Ken Ropp from Normal, Ill., graduated from the University of Illinois in 1993 and went to work in sales before coming back to his family farm, Ropp Jerseys, in 2000 to join his parents Ray and Carol. "We had record milk price when I came back and then six months later a record low," Ken says.

Soon after the Ropp family spoke to their lender, they knew they would need to do something different to take the rollercoaster scenario out of the equation.

"Central Illinois is bare landscape when it comes to dairy cattle," Ken says. The Ropps’ are one of four farms in their county milking cows and Ken firmly believes that if they did not do something to add value to their dairy, they would have been out of the dairy business 10-12 years ago. "We put all our eggs in one basket by pursuing to build a cheese plant and we are very blessed it all has worked out," Ken adds.

The family business was thriving until Covid-19 hit. With the shutdown of restaurants and wineries, the Ropps’ report they lost 50% of their business overnight.

"Dad and I had a hard conversation last April while milking cows one morning, not sure if we were going to make it," Ken says. Two weeks later they were asked to put a bid together for the food box program. Their bid was accepted 48 hours later.

The initial bid was for 2,500 pounds of cheese a week, and just a few days later that order was increased to 45,000 pounds a week.

"It was a group project that helped a lot of local people out. We were cutting cheese 24 hours a day, three shifts a day to get the orders filled," Ken says. "Many people who helped with this were people who lost their jobs and this gave them something to do. This is the true essence of how this project was supposed to work."

Asking themselves where they could find a new opportunity allowed the Ropp family to compete in the industry while only milking 60 cows and farming 450 acres. Ken's advice to other producers in the same situation is to ask themselves, "Where can we compete and what advantages do we have?"

For the Ropp family, their advantage was twofold - Their location and milking Jerseys gave them an economic advantage in terms of efficiently producing cheese. Both made perfect sense for them to open a cheese shop on Ropp Road in Normal, Ill.



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