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CannonBelles Cheese Builds Momentum

By Dan Lemke

A trio of southeastern Minnesota women is proving that in business, where there’s a will, there’s a way.

For several years, friends Deeann Lufkin and Jackie Ohmann had tried their hands at brewing beer and fermenting grapes for wine. Along the way, Ohmann married a dairy farmer, so the duo decided to try fermenting milk instead of making wine or beer.

In 2012, Lufkin and Ohmann made their first batch of mozzarella cheese. They then moved on to cheddar cheese. Friends and family liked their creations, so the two friends pondered the possibility of growing their cheese-making interest into a business.

“Neither one of us had any dairy experience, but we knew our friend Kathy Hupf used to have a dairy farm of her own, and she grew up on a dairy farm,” Lufkin recalls. “We asked her to join us in our venture, and we didn’t even get the full question out before she said ‘yes.’”

Building a Business
Having an idea is one thing, but Lufkin admits none of the three partners knew much about starting a business.

“We knew nothing,” Lufkin says “I have a degree in meteorology and was an Air Force meteorologist. Jackie was a youth pastor, and Kathy worked in a church at the time. So, none of us had any experience in starting a food business whatsoever.”

The lack of experience didn’t deter the trio. Instead, they dove headlong into learning about cheesemaking and business development. They toured about a dozen cheese plants in Minnesota and Wisconsin and talked with business consultants. They also enlisted the help of the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation and SCORE. Lufkin even attended a cheese making short course at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.

“We really depended on asking people questions, attending lots of seminars, really just trying to reach out to people who had experience and could guide us through the process,” Lufkin says.

About eight years ago, the trio incorporated, rented capacity at the University of Minnesota’s pilot plant, and started making their first commercial cheeses.

What’s in a Name
The three women all live in southeastern Minnesota. As their business developed, they were approached by Dave Maroney, the director of economic development and planning for the city of Cannon Falls. He told them Cannon Falls had a lot of local food enterprises, and the town would be a good home for their business.

“We came, talked with him, spoke with John Peterson at Ferndale Market, and quickly figured out that this was the exact town where we should be,” Lufkin says. “We fell in love with the town so much that we kind of named ourselves after it.”

Even though the business was incorporated, they didn’t have a name or a logo. Lufkin’s sister had a connection to someone working with small business development who provided them with seven pages of name options. The winner was CannonBelles Cheese because the name reflected the business’s location, the fact it was woman-owned, and it paid homage to the women’s love of cows.

A Growing Operation
CannonBelles Cheese opened its Cannon Falls plant in April 2022. They produce a wide variety of artisan cheeses, including gouda, four different flavors of cheddar, four different flavors of Colby, and queso fresco, which is a Spanish-style cheese. The company also produces eight different varieties of cheese curds. Lufkin says CannonBelles Cheese is hoping to add mozzarella by the end of the year.

CannonBelles Cheese produced about 5,000 pounds of cheese in 2023. The Cannon Falls plant is fairly new, but the company is building capacity and increasing production.

“We’re seeing our sales increase,” Lufkin explains. “We more than doubled sales from the previous year. Our production last year was probably half of what we will make this year. We just keep growing.”

Production isn’t the only thing increasing for CannonBelles Cheese; so is the number of locations selling their craft cheeses. CannonBelles Cheese is the only Minnesota cheese being sold at Fresh Thyme Markets, plus their products are in about 75 stores and food co-ops across Minnesota.

“Our partner Kathy keeps getting us into more stores,” Lufkin says.

Lufkin says they plan to add at least one new cheese every year to the CannonBelles lineup. They’re also working to expand their markets throughout Minnesota and the Midwest. However, the group is working to build solid, sustainable growth at a pace the business can successfully manage.

Stores aren’t the only locations where CannonBelles Cheese is available. The business worked with the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute (AURI) to get nutrition labels done on their products, which opened the door to other marketing options.

“We developed nutrition labels for their whole line of products,” says AURI Senior Food Scientist Lolly Occhino. “The added information gives them the opportunity to get their products into more places, including school districts.”

CannonBelles Cheese is now included in Minnesota’s Farm to School program. Under the program, local foods are purchased, promoted, and served in school cafeterias at mealtimes, as a snack, or in classroom taste tests. CannonBelles products are available in Hopkins, Roseville, Cannon Falls, Robbinsdale, and several other Minnesota school districts.

“We worked with AURI on getting those labels done, and because of that, we were able to get into schools, which has helped us grow even more,” Lufkin explains. “January and February are tough months for cheese

because people have gorged themselves on charcuterie boards over the holidays, but the schools have helped us through this January, February downturn. Schools have been big for us, and because of those nutrition labels, we’re able to sell to them.”

CannonBelles Cheese is not only building its own local business and brand, but the company is also supporting other businesses and farmers in the region. Lufkin says about 90% of their ingredients come from within 25 miles of Cannon Falls. For example, they source peppers and garlic from local farmers, and their spices and seasonings are made in Northfield.

“We really try to get the best and most local ingredients that we can. Our milk is from five miles away,” Lufkin adds. “We always partner with our food friends around us when we can.”

Long Journey
Lufkin admits the process of moving their idea for cheesemaking to an established business has been a long journey. While they were deciding whether or not to pursue a cheesemaking enterprise, the partners met with a Minnesota creamery owner who told the women it had taken them seven years to get their business up and running.

“We thought, there’s no way we could do that. Well, it took us seven years,” Lufkin says.

The women partners navigated the process of learning how to make cheese and how to develop a business, even while building their cheese plant during the COVID-19 pandemic, which added a year to their timeline.

“The rewarding thing is just watching the business grow, observing our sales increase coupled with how much more volume we need to make is all kind of exciting,” Lufkin explains. “The difference between our company five years ago and now is just astronomical. Seeing the potential and watching how we’ve been growing is what keeps us going.”

In addition to producing cheese, CannonBelles Cheese also operates an ice cream and coffee shop in Cannon Falls.

To learn more about CannonBelles products or to order online, visit