My good friend Annie Jansen and I met up in Champaign County! The county is located in the heart of east central Illinois. Terri Reifsteck of Visit Champaign County helped us find some wonderful spots to tour. Their motto is “outside of the ordinary” and I see why. The activities we did were truly, outside of the ordinary!
Annie and I met at our first stop, the wonderful Prairie Fruits Farm & Creamery!
Visit to Prairie Fruits Farm & Creamery
Lisa Wells greeted us after we parked and entered the barn where we watched a group of hard workers putting up hay! Lisa a new hire brought her decorating and marketing skills to the farm and creamery. Here they make cheese and gelato out of goat’s milk! “We are known for our farm to table meals. We also have private and small events, and we are going to start offering classes and we have cheese tastings,” Lisa added.
Leslie Cooperband and her husband Wesley Jarrell own Prairie Fruits Farm & Creamery. They have been in business for 16 years. Leslie and Wesley were both in academia. They moved from Madison, Wisconsin to Champaign for jobs at the University. She fell in love with French goat cheese at the farmer’s market in Madison. Living on the farm, and learning about the goats and cheese was an easy transition. “My background is a PhD in soil science.,” Leslie said.
Leslie took us on a specially arranged tour. Currently they are open only on weekends.
They hope to offer them again come July. We were so excited to see the goats! Annie had a goat on the farm growing up, but the goats were a new experience for me. First came the cheese making, then the herd! Leslie introduced us to several impactful staff members. We met herd manager Erica Peters who has been with them for 51/2 years. Then she introduced us to Mary and Ellie both part time milkers. “We have a staff of about 14,” Leslie explained, “both fulltime and part time. There are two fulltime employees in the creamery. I am the head cheese maker.”
Prairie Fruits Farm & Creamery Cheese!
She showed us the area where the cheese is made first. This is a hyper clean space so we were not allowed in and only peered through the doorway. Leslie explained that as the cheese ages white mold grows. “This cheese, the camembert, is in the brie family. We wrap it in paper as it ages. Cheese is a living thing and each will be put in paper.”
Sophie Seidel was working with the cheese when we toured. “It is important to have a tight wrap on the cheese,” Leslie added. Each cheese has its own label. They offer cheese for sale at the farm and in Urbana, Bloomington and wholesale in Chicago where they make deliveries.
Chef Mark Shoemaker joined the team last year and he is training to become the head cheesemaker one day.
Cheese plates at the farm
On the farm they milk 110 does and have over 200 goats in the herd on the property. “Megan Reynolds makes our gelatos and manages the garden and runs the store. We make gelato, cheeses and have local meats and beer. You can build your own cheese platter when you visit,” Leslie said.
Annie and I admired the pavilion and after tasting the cheese decided we definitely want to do this sometime soon! “It is very peaceful in the pavilion where we have seating. Have a cheeseboard and hang out with the goats!”
Leslie said that Megan just wrapped up goat yoga classes. She added that Lisa is upping the decorating and more! “We start offering communal dining in mid-to-late July to October. We work with chef’s and local farmers.”
As for the fruit part of their name, Leslie said they do have an orchard. If they have fruit just depends on the season. With how busy they are with the goats and cheese they have cut back a bit. With the crazy Illinois weather sometimes it cooperates for fruit growing and sometimes not.
The Goat Herd!
The goat herd consists of La Mancha, Nubian and a cross of the two. The goats have a choice of two barns they can go into. “I let them choose which barn. Their diet is pasture based which means the majority of the diet is of pasture. We are certified from an animal welfare approved agency, and adhere to their standards,” Leslie added. “It is really the gold standard for livestock.”
It was interesting to learn that the goats are foragers and like to eat from trees and high up. Their specially made hay feeder is created with that in mind.
Until our tour I didn’t know that the goats had their own social hierarchy. Each goat has a name depending on the theme from the current year. This years theme is based on Food items! Besides the hoop barns where the goats go, we saw a bit of pasture and peered at the fruit orchard where the “kids” stay in calf hatches.
We saw where the goats are milked at the 14 goat milking station. There we met Allie who wraps up the rest of the all girl milking team!
Between the cheese, the goats and the tour, what a wonderful place to visit!
Lunch at the Black Dog Smoke & Ale House
After our great farm visit, we headed into Champaign proper. There we met up with Terri and had lunch at the Black Dog Smoke & Ale House. This old train station offered an amazing backdrop for dining along with great food. I had BBQ chicken and a wonderful cornbread. “The train station was vacant for a long time,” Terri said adding how the owners of the Black Dog added a porch and made this a wonderful restaurant and location.
They have been open since 2015! Best of all is the location is near some great sculptures. “The second oldest train station has shops too,” Terri added.
The Sculptures in Downtown Champaign
We saw a few neat sculptures when we parked to eat. We followed Terri to Visit Champaign to see the great mural outside of her office space and take a picture together! Along the way she pointed out where several sculptures could be found. “There are over 200 pieces of public art,” Terri said.
While we were not able to see them all, Annie and I did our best to scout out several in a BIG block walk! Right off the bat we saw a colorful sculpture that caught Annie’s eye called La Diva II by Ruth Aizuss Migdal. “It was such a vibrant red and so graceful,” Annie said.
We walked all the way to the Virginia theater where we saw, and I sat next to the statue of Roger Ebert! Then we also saw the West Side Park where I spied my favorite piece of art “Double Dutch” by Gary Bibbs. The park had several lovely sculptures. The only issue we had was it was really hot and we were tuckered out by the time we walked back to the Black Dog where we were parked. “Don’t go on a blazing hot day!” Annie advises.
But we loved what we saw!
The Gardens in Champaign
This almost needed to be done on a different day. We were about too tired to really take in all the beauty we saw. We stopped first at the amazing IDEA and Children’s Garden. It was so whimsical and fun. I loved how creative this was and I know my grandchildren would have really enjoyed it.
The Japan House/Arboretum Gardens was nearby. We walked from one garden to the other. The Japan House was closed, however, we circled the serene Japanese Garden along the way.
I want to come back to Champaign County and visit the museums. I want to see the Champaign County History Museum that has been updated. The Krannert Art is also calling our name, so a visit back is in the works! We may need another stab at the gardens at that time as well with more time.
Champaign County is a diverse, educated community that has something for everyone. We hit a bit a country, urban and a mix or rural and art to fill our day. Have you been to Champaign County lately? If so, what was the favorite thing that you saw while you were there?