Kokoborrego Cheese Co. Is Finding Its Footing After Two Years of Personal Tragedy
How a small-batch cheese producer is persevering after a family death, a barn fire and a pandemic
Last year, Ohio’s award-winning Kokoborrego Cheese Co. celebrated 10 years in business. But it was a muted celebration. The past two years have dealt the Sippel Family Farm and its sister cheese business devastating blows: first a pandemic, then the death of one of its founders, then a devastating barn fire. Somehow, they’re still pushing through. Owner Lisa Sippel sums up her feelings about the milestone this way: “We’re still here. When we bought the farm, people said we were too young. When we tried new things, they doubted us. But at 10 years, we’re still here.”
When Ben and Lisa Sippel and Lisa’s brother, Ben Baldwin, launched Kokoborrego Cheese Co. in 2011, they aimed to better diversify their farm and CSA offerings. Based in Mount Gilead, Ohio (“in the middle of nowhere,” Lisa calls it), Sippel Family Farm was the first Ohio farm to make sheep’s milk cheese. The farm, which started out selling primarily farmers market produce and CSA shares, launched its cheese venture to provide a shelf-stable product they could sell year-round. Due to the aging requirement for raw milk cheeses, it took six months for the Sippels to see a profit. Now, Kokoborrego makes more than 10,000 pounds of cheese a year, selling its line of six cows’ and sheep’s milk cheeses in local farmers markets, Midwestern specialty retailers and through distributors like Chef 2 Chef and Yellowbird Foodshed.
The hard times started with the pandemic. In 2020, Kokoborrego lost most of its restaurant accounts and had more cheese than it could sell. “Our direct avenues of selling became pretty dry,” Baldwin recalls. “That started to happen as soon as [the] sheep’s milk started. It was a struggle to find places to store it all.”
There were a few bright spots. Loans from the Paycheck Protection Program helped mitigate some losses, online orders from across the country picked up and sales at specialty retailers increased.
“There was a period where people were looking to support small producers,” Baldwin says. “They’d track us down and place orders that way.”
And customers were looking to treat themselves, says Jennifer Williams, owner of Weiland’s Market, which sells between 20 and 50 pieces of Kokoborrego cheese a week. “People weren’t going out as much, they were treating themselves to buy whatever. So, they’d buy a case of wine and a bunch of cheese,” Williams says.
In 2014, Ben Sippel was diagnosed with melanoma, a type of skin cancer that farmers are particularly at risk of developing because of sun exposure. At first, he was able to work through his treatment, and he went into remission for nine months. But in May 2020, it became clear that Ben was in a lot more discomfort, his brother-in-law remembers. “Seeing someone who’s 40 years old going through that sort of stuff was hard to see,” he says. A month before Ben passed away, the family brought hospice into their home. “He wanted to be there,” Baldwin says. “And we wanted that for him, as well. The last three weeks with him was easily the most awful period we’ve had at the farm.”
Ben died in July 2020, just shy of his 17th wedding anniversary. Lisa and Ben had been together for 23 years. Ben’s death brought about a renewed commitment to the family’s cheesemaking operations, based partially on Ben’s love for the farm and a desire to keep the farm running—both for their two kids and for his memory.
“It’s been a lot,” Lisa says. “But we have to do whatever we can to make it work for us. I don’t want to sell the farm, and the kids don’t want to sell the farm. The one thing that is constant is to keep making the cheese.”
Losing Ben, who, according to Baldwin, was “the hardest-working person I’d met in my life,” led to pragmatic operational changes to the farm. His death led to Kokoborrego selling a herd of close to 100 sheep, which had become too difficult to manage. They now buy milk from local vendors. They also brought in turkeys, ducks, geese and chickens for egg and meat sales.
“I know that he would be OK with whatever changes I make,” Lisa says. “He was a full-time farmer. Keeping the cheese going was the most important thing.”
In November 2021, the Sippel family was faced with another challenge. The farm’s storage barn burned down after a heat lamp for the chickens fell and ignited nearby hay. The loss included baby chicks, a woodshop for making charcuterie boards, the machinery shop, hay storage and equipment. But for Lisa and her family, the biggest losses were sentimental items connected to her late husband, including his tools and a boat he was building shortly before he died.
Insurance covered the financial loss, and nobody was hurt. But the emotional impact was great. “I can’t get the tools he inherited from his grandfather back, the physical connections to him that my kids no longer have. Wrapping my head around that is hard for me,” Lisa says.
Baldwin helped to salvage old hand tools and hardware from the boat, with a goal of integrating existing materials into future wood projects, so that Ben’s work may live on in some form. While the loss was particularly painful for Charlie Sippel, who had inherited his father’s tools, Baldwin was able to inspire his teenage nephew to build a new woodshop. “I told [Charlie], ‘If your dad had the option to build a woodshop from scratch, let’s make the one that he would want to make,’” Baldwin says.
“Keep Pushing On”
Throughout the challenges of the past two years, Kokoborrego’s local and Columbus food communities have come to the family’s aid.
The Worthington Farmers Market launched a GoFundMe campaign to support Lisa and her family when her husband was sick. When the barn burnt down, the local community—and customers and friends from Columbus—showed up to help clean up.
And Kokoborrego has avid fans. “We’ve seen a lot of the same people for the entire 11 years that we’ve been around. Seeing how much people enjoy what’s being produced at the farm is a strong motivation. We know we’re never going to work our way to the
1 percent being a tiny cheese producer, but that’s not our goal,” says Baldwin, who is committed to producing quality cheese that is easily accessible to a wide customer base.
Positivity is at the family’s core. They view rebuilding the barn as an opportunity and are looking ahead to even more changes.
Lisa and her brother want to increase the farm’s online presence and is considering an online market where they can sell cheese, milk and eggs to a CSA-style customer. “That’s where we’re headed—we’re trying to get more food and groceries to the end user,” Lisa says, though Baldwin stresses that the farm’s artisan cheeses will always be at the center of what they do.
Sales have started to rebound. As of early March, Kokoborrego had reached 70 percent of its pre-pandemic sales. “You would have no idea what had happened to them,” Williams says. “They haven’t missed a beat. The quality of the cheeses is great. From a human connection, my heart breaks for them. As cheesemakers, they’re getting it done; they’re going forward.”
And Ben’s memory is driving this family farm’s resilience. “Before [Ben] passed, his biggest worry was that when he was gone, we wouldn’t be able to make it work, and that all he’s helped to build would be for nothing,” Baldwin says. “But I told him that we would keep pushing on and find ways to succeed. Not just for us, but also for his kids. Since then, it’s been my motivation.”
This story is from the April 2022 issue of Columbus Monthly.