Family-owned Honeysuckle Cattle Company got its roots in dairy, and has grown into much more
By Dwain Hebda
If there’s one thing you can say about Heather Cox and her adventures in farming outside of Rosebud, Ark., it’s that it’s been a family affair.
Cox and her husband are co-owners with her parents of Honeysuckle Cattle Company, a commercial cow-calf operation, but that’s just the latest incarnation of the family spread.
“My parents, Raymond and Cendie Daley, actually started the farm as a dairy in 1990,” she said. “They had kinda started doing it with my dad’s parents and then decided that they would go out on their own and buy a farm. That’s when we moved out to Rosebud; they bought their first dairy cows and decided that they were going to operate a dairy full time.”
The elder Daleys loved the business but it didn’t always love them back. Milk prices were a mercurial thing and Raymond kept his full-time job as a police officer to help make ends meet. Ironically, it was one such period where prices were down that the family was inspired to launch the product that put the operation on the map.
“In 2004 is when we began making cheese under Honeysuckle Lane Cheese,” Cox said. “The main reason we did that was milk prices had fallen and you could no longer make a living off of just being a dairy farmer. They needed something to supplement the farm and to use up the milk. We were actually the very first certified raw milk cheese plant in Arkansas.”
The cheese-making business started slowly at first, finding an outlet in the area farmers markets, notably the Argenta Market in North Little Rock. In time, the farm found a clientele with area restaurants, which helped it gain steam even though as a non-pasteurized (raw) milk product, Honeysuckle Lane Cheese had to observe strict production requirements.
“We made white cheddar, yellow cheddar, jalapeño cheddar and colby. And the reason we made those is we were only permitted to make hard cheeses. In the state of Arkansas, with raw milk, we were strictly limited to those varieties,” Cox said. “At that point, raw milk was something that people weren’t sure about and so there were a lot of restrictions on what we could do with it.
“With the raw milk, we also had to age it for a minimum of 60 days. Once we went through the cheesemaking process, the next day you would take it out of the molds and you would vacuum seal it and store it in a cooler at 42 degrees for 60 days. Then we could cut it up and sell it.”
All restrictions aside, the brand flourished. At its peak, Honeysuckle Lane Cheese was cranking out 500 pounds of product a week, utilizing the total output for the farm’s 40 dairy cows. Milking the animals twice per day—to say nothing of the labor-intensive cheesemaking—represented a lot of work and eventually the demands of the farm started to collide with family members’ life events including Heather’s pregnancy and her grandmother’s cancer diagnosis. The family decided to go on hiatus.
“We sold out in 2015; we sold every bit of our dairy herd, all of our cheese equipment, everything. We did not foresee us getting back into it,” Cox said. “A year later, my grandma had gotten better, we had our son, Jasper, and my mom was like, ‘I want some cows again.’”
In the meantime, Heather and her husband, Nathan, had started a beef herd on the farm, as a less-labor-intensive way to keep their hand in agriculture. And while the family did re-establish a scaled-down version of their cheesemaking business, it was to be short-lived.
“My dream has always been to open some kind of Arkansas products farm store,” Cox said. “We all started brainstorming and at first the only option was to open it at the farm. And that sounded great, but we live about two miles outside of town and it’s just enough that we knew we wouldn’t get the traffic we wanted.”
“Then my dad was working the night shift and he saw them put the ‘for rent’ sign in the building that we now lease. He sent us a picture of it and he said, ‘This is it.’”
Once again, the dairy cows and cheese equipment went out the door. In its place, Honeysuckle Cattle Company on the farm and Honeysuckle Mercantile in Rosebud, carrying forward the name made famous by the small family dairy that started it all. In her dream farm store, Heather’s joined full time by her mom and sister Amanda, who greet customers, run the on-premises bakery, sell Arkansas-made products and laugh over shared memories.
“We’d established a brand with [the dairy] and we wanted to keep it going,” Cox said. “We are proud of what we did with the cheese and being the first in Arkansas. Now, there’s several more [cheesemakers] in Arkansas. We’re proud to see that being carried on.”