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Fritz Leeman – Not My Day Job

Filed under: Current Articles,Editorial,Featured |     

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By Susan Winslow

fritz01Who doesn’t love Swiss cheese? Whether it’s nestled in a ham sandwich, perched atop Tabouli salad or flying solo on a warm baguette, Swiss cheese is a beloved staple in every American home. Indeed, the USDA Economic Research Service reports that cheese consumption per capita in the United States has more than doubled since 1975. That’s good news for Fritz Leeman, owner of Brewster Dairy, the largest producer of all natural Swiss cheese in the United States. He’s also the owner of Leeman Farm in Massillon, Ohio, home to numerous World Champion stallions and one of the preeminent Quarter Horse breeding programs in the country.

Fritz Leeman doesn’t do anything halfway. The family’s rise to prominence in the cheese industry is reminiscent of Horatio Alger Jr. and the American Dream. Fritz Leeman’s father, John, left Zurich, Switzerland in 1929 to find more opportunity for his family in a region of Ohio known as “Little Switzerland.” He landed a job as a manager at the Stark County Milk Producers Brewster plant and, in 1965, he teamed up with his son, Fritz, to buy the company.

Through their vision, strong work ethic, and dedication to staying abreast of the latest technology, Brewster Dairy grew steadily. Today, they produce approximately 100 million pounds of Swiss cheese each year, and they hold a 35% market share of the nation’s Swiss cheese market. Fritz now owns plants in Ohio, Illinois, and Idaho, where he describes the conditions for cheese making as ‘ideal,’ due to the climate, low humidity, and plentiful dairy farms. Brewster Dairy produces everything from Swiss cheese in a variety of nuanced flavors to kosher cheese and has a thriving cheese by-product business. “We sell 90% of our Swiss cheese wholesale,” Fritz says. “So, if you buy Kraft or Sargento, you’re probably buying our cheese.”

Fritz Leeman brought the same drive and vision to Leeman Farm that he did to Brewster Dairy, and through the years, the farm has grown from a couple of backyard horses to a first class breeding, training, and sales facility with a solid reputation for producing winners. Although he was not a rider himself, he loves his kids, and when they expressed an interest in horses back in the early 1980s, he and his wife, Carole, found two horses through Fritz’s contacts in the cheese business. He recalls, “One of the dairy owners that supplied Brewster Farms had a couple of horses for sale, so we bought them for the kids. We didn’t really know anything about horses at the time, but the kids loved it.”

It wasn’t long before the kids were involved in 4-H and local competitions, eventually advancing to national competitions like the Congress and World shows. “Our involvement with the horses has been a great family activity,” Fritz says. “Our kids met and worked with people from all over the United States through horses. They learned valuable lessons about discipline and hard work through riding and competition.” Carole, adds, “I don’t ride either, but I enjoy every aspect of the farm and our horse business. Our kids benefitted from the lessons they learned through horses, and we’ve made wonderful lifelong friends through the years of going to the shows.”

The Leeman kids did well in competition. All three won titles at the national level, and the breeding program began to flourish. “Our kids started out with trainer, Hank Clason, who brought them through the youth ranks,” Carole says. “We’ve had so many great horses along the way, but there are some that really stand out for me. Rosys Story really got our business going, and she was a very special horse. Our daughter, Lisa, got a great horse named No Blarney from Alex Ross and did very well. Our youngest son, Doug, showed Poco Van Linda and our older son, Jeff, had success with Cash Magnificent, another horse that really contributed to the success of our horse business. Our kids are grown, but now we’re having fun watching our grandchildren competing.

Another special horse that brought our granddaughter, Katsy, into heavy competition is Deesired Invitation. There were so many people who helped us along the way… too many to mention. But there are two who deserve special recognition: Greg Bender, our trainer who’s been with us since 1988, and Randy Yoder, our Breeding Manager who’s been with us since 1981. Both of them have been just amazing. The horses and showing have been so much fun for our family, and the farm is just a peaceful, beautiful place to be.”

While his family and horse business was growing, Fritz was also balancing the demands of a successful, growing business. “My dad was passionate about making cheese,” Fritz says. “While I definitely inherited his enthusiasm for the cheese-making process and all that goes into it, my primary focus has been more on the business side, so it was a good fit. These days, it has grown to the point where I have good people in charge of the plants, so I have more time for my family. My philosophy is, you bring in good people, let them do their job, and produce a quality product you can be proud of. You listen to your customers, give them what they want, and your business will take care of itself.”

He brings the same ethos to Leeman Farm, saying, “As for the horses, like any business, it’s important to find good people who are the best in their field and let them do their job. We have a great team at Leeman Farm, and they continue to produce world class horses.” While he thoroughly enjoys the horses, working around the farm, and going to the shows with his kids and grandchildren, Fritz has found the right balance between his horse business and his cheese business.

He is proud of the growth of Brewster Dairy and its contributions to the world food market. “We have grown from one plant to three, and we are dedicated to producing the highest quality Swiss cheese,” he says. “Our plants have state-of-the-art technology, rigid quality controls, and an excellent research and development team.”

The company is also very in touch with its markets. He explains, “For example, we know that in general, the areas around the East Coast and Southern Florida prefer a bland-flavored Swiss, so we produce a mild type of cheese for that region. We know that the Midwest into the upper Midwest wants a sharper Swiss, so that’s what we provide for that market. We also have a Kosher plant in Idaho, and we are seeing growth in the market for Kosher Swiss cheese. You always have to be looking for that new market, new flavor, or new idea to grow.” He explains that consistently producing top quality Swiss cheese is a combination of art, science, and patience. “Swiss grows slowly. For every 100 pounds of milk we use, we produce eight pounds of Swiss cheese, whereas makers of cheddar yield around 10 pounds per hundred pounds of milk. It’s called a different make-procedure.”

Fritz offers a basic description of the difference between producing Cheddar cheese, which takes about a week to be done, and Swiss, which takes up to seven weeks to cure. “We watch the cheese carefully through the fermenting process while the eyes, those holes you see in the cheese, are formed and pop,” he says. “Swiss cheese rises as it ferments, and it is good for people who have lactose intolerance. Because the fermenting process deletes all the sugar, the final product has no lactose.”

Leeman has also developed his business so nothing is wasted in the production of cheese at his plants. Leeman explains that the byproducts of cheese production are also a valuable commodity. He says, “Whey is the byproduct of cheese production. It contains proteins, minerals, and sugar that can be separated, and the dry protein is sold as its own product to producers of sports and energy drinks, baby formula, and other foods. Minerals and proteins are sold to producers of cattle feed, and lactose is used in the production of many candy products. The cheese market on the whole is growing internationally, with American cheese being exported to Europe, China, and Japan. Today, it is a growing global economy and, if you’re not part of it, you’ll fall behind.”

That same dedication to serving the market with integrity and quality can be found at Leeman Farm. Set on 200 acres, the farm is home to an expansive indoor arena, 30 stall training barn, 20 stall broodmare barn, and state-of-the-art breeding facility. They are fully equipped to handle breeding, artificial insemination, embryo transfer, and ship cooled and frozen semen. The farm also offers mare care for foaling out in addition to their own breeding program.

The farm is proud of the stallions they call the “Founders.” Marshall Coker (1997-2007) was a multiple Champion sire that produced a long line of western pleasure, english, halter, and futurity champions. Snazzy Story is a 1981 sorrel stallion and a winner of over $36,000 and multiple Championships. How Bout This Cowboy is a sorrel 2007 stallion that was the Reserve World Champion of the Two-Year-Old Snaffle Bit Western Pleasure in 2009. Willy Be Invited is a stunning, black 1998 stallion with a blue-blood pedigree and impressive show record including a Congress Championship, AQHA Superior in western pleasure, multiple futurity wins, and an AQHA Performance ROM with points in both western pleasure and hunter under saddle. These magnificent stallions will be standing to the public.

fritz02

“Marshall Coker was our first stallion, and he was a good horse,” Fritz says. “We are always striving to produce the best quality foals, so we research the bloodlines and performance records and make crosses that will yield quality foals. We’re very excited about the offspring from our stallions, and we track their progress. We take a lot of pride and pleasure in seeing the owners of horses from our breeding program out there competing and doing well. One of Willy’s get, Willy’s On The Green, had a World Champion at the Youth World Show and Reserve Champion at the Open World Show. We were thrilled with that, because that’s what we’re breeding for; quality horses with the combination of personality and athleticism to make them fun to own and able to compete at any level.”

Although the couple’s children no longer compete, their grandchildren, Katsy and Kyle, have done exceptionally well in the show ring. Kyle has successfully shown his horse, A Certain Blaze, in amateur western pleasure. This talented mare recently produced a handsome colt by Fritz’s stud, How Bout This Cowboy. Katsy is showing a number of horses, keeping the family on the road to competitions year-round. Fritz and Carole are adamant about building their program with crosses that combine pedigree, disposition, and the talent to win at the elite level. Their mare, Onlygoodtilmidnight, won a Championship in Two-Year-Old Western Pleasure at the AQHA World Show in 2010 with Gil Galyean in the saddle. Katsy achieved Championships in Three Year-Old Open Non-Pro Western Pleasure and 3-Year-Old Limited Open Non Pro Western Pleasure with a unanimous decision under all judges at the Congress in 2011. This talented mare has also produced three colts through surrogate mares and the family sees great things ahead for her and her progeny. “She is really exceptional,” Carole says.

The Leemans recently bought Tinseltown Fly Guy from Shawn Flarida, one of the only competitors to top the NRHA’s five million dollar mark. “Tinseltown Fly Guy is an amazing horse,” Fritz says. “Shawn has continued to compete with him because they are a powerful team. He took the Open Level 4 Futurity Reserve Championship with this stallion. Katsy, who loves reining, has been having a great time riding this horse on the farm.”

Katsy is also an avid competitor on the Auburn University equestrian team where she has been a consistent winner for the Tigers, most recently winning Most Outstanding Player in Reining at the Fresno State meet. The Leemans noticed a need for quality horses in the Auburn program and generously donated three of their own. Fritz is modest about the generous donation, stating, “They do a good job in the program at Auburn, but they can always use nice, well-trained horses.”

fritz03With grandchildren to carry on the family’s legacy in the show ring, a thriving breeding and sales business, and an internationally successful cheese business, Fritz Leeman has no interest in slowing down. He laughs when he glances at his wife, Carole, and says, “How do I do it all? I have a great wife. The truth is, we’re not big party people. My idea of a good time is to go to a horse show, enjoy watching our horses go, followed by dinner with friends, and home by 10. That’s pretty much my philosophy for a good life. We could be somewhere on the Florida coast doing nothing but sitting out by the pool, but that sounds pretty boring to me. I’m happy out riding my tractor on the farm, and I wouldn’t trade this life for anything.”

Carole agrees, saying, “It’s been a fun ride. There’s no place else I’d rather be than on our farm. I love the beauty and peace and watching the babies in the spring. Even though I don’t ride, except an occasional ride on the horse my son used to show, I love being around the horses, being involved in our horse business, and going to the shows to watch our horses, our children, and our grandchildren. You fall in love with your horses, and they become family too.” With fifteen foals on the way this spring and their grandchildren carrying on the family legacy in the show ring, the future promises to be busy and exciting for the Leemans.

For more information on Brewster Dairy, visit www.brewstercheese.com.

For information on Leeman Farm, visit www.leemanfarm.com.

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