As the sun comes up east of Carrington, North Dakota, Maartje (van Bedaf) Murphy, ’17, kicks up a cloud of dust in her 1997 Chevy pickup. She drives 3 miles down a dirt road, where a life-sized statue of a Holstein cow welcomes her to her family’s business, Van Bedaf Dairy.
There, Maartje trades her Chevy for a Dodge dually flatbed outfitted with an 800-gallon holding tank full of farm fresh milk that will become creamy gelato, aged farmstead gouda, or artisan cheddar cheese curds. Maartje returns to her own 35-acre farmstead, where her husband and business partner, Casey Murphy, ’17, ’19, awaits, ready to get to work in their creamery.
The former dirt-floor pole barn has been newly renovated to house processing equipment for gelato and cheese making, along with a charming café area. A window on the back wall lets guests peer into the aging room, where wheels of gouda sit atop boards of Dutch pine, waiting to be unwrapped and enjoyed. Behind the counter, a press for making stroopwafels (two-layer wafer waffles joined by a caramel filling) hints at the delights that will be served along with gelato and coffee.
The day has just begun at Cows & Co., the only on-farm creamery in North Dakota.
The Dutch Duchessa
Hanging prominently above the fireplace in Cows & Co. Creamery is a 1960s black-and-white portrait of a man sitting upon a stool, milking a cow. He wears cotton coveralls and wooden clogs, the signature choice of footwear for Dutch farmers of the time.
The man in the photo is Maartje’s grandfather, Piet van Bedaf.
“He was really passionate about dairy farming, and this whole business is to honor him, my parents, and my brothers,” Maartje said. “You come in here and everything looks brand new and perfect and pretty. And then this picture is kind of a conversation starter – where we’re from and why we started.”
Maartje, whose given first name is Wilhemina, comes from a long line of Dutch dairy farmers. When she was 7 years old, her parents Conny and Corné made the difficult decision to leave the Netherlands, where land is in short supply, in search of a place to expand their dairy operation. They wanted to create a more promising future for Maartje and her brothers, Piet and Dries.
“We love the Netherlands,” Maartje said. “But they left for a better opportunity for us three kids. They sacrificed everything; they left people they love behind for a better life for our family.”
They first immigrated to Canada, where they lived for seven years before settling with their 100 cattle outside Carrington (about 2 hours southwest of Grand Forks) in 2008.
Van Bedaf Dairy has since grown to 1,500 Holstein and Brown Swiss cows, which supply 16,000 gallons of milk per day to Cass Clay Creamery (plus the milk they supply to Cows & Co.), making it one of the largest dairies in the state.
While Corné, Piet, and Dries primarily run the dairy, Maartje, Casey, and Conny are active in the creamery.
During a trip back to the Netherlands in 2018, the family visited several shops that served gelato – a softer, denser, creamier version of ice cream – just like they often did when visiting their homeland.
“It was always such a good feeling that I wished I could share the experience with everyone,” Maartje said. “So, I thought, ‘Oh, this would be so neat to bring back to North Dakota.’”
Seeing an opportunity to create an authentic European experience utilizing farm-fresh milk from her family’s dairy, Maartje went all-in.
Though common across Europe, gelato is native to Italy, so she had an authentic Italian cart shipped across the Atlantic, complete with pozzettis (traditional stainless steel serving wells). Duchessa Gelato itself is a play on words, linking her Dutch heritage with the Italian word for “duchess.”
Last year, when she decided to expand her business from gelato to gouda cheese and cheddar cheese curds, she again traveled to the Netherlands, where she stayed for a month, learning the trade from kaasmakers – Dutch cheesemakers.
It was then that Maartje created Cows & Co. Creamery, the “mother company” to Duchessa Gelato and her newest offerings of cheese. As Maartje continues to work tirelessly to refine her gouda recipe while churning out dozens of flavors of gelato, the expansion of her company is bringing media attention and visitors, who Maartje and Casey welcome with open arms despite their mounting to-do lists. After all, they’ve built their company on a foundation of caring for others.