George & Debbie Crave, Sustainable Cheese & Dairy Farming (#182)

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George and Debbie Crave are committed to building a more sustainable cheese & dairy farming for the next generations. To understand how it all started, we have to go back to the ’70s, when George and Debbie Crave met for the first time at a 4-H meeting. Agriculture & farming have always been a part of their lives. George grew up milking cows with his dad and brothers on a farm, and later on, in 1980, they bought a dairy farm in Waterloo to grow and create a brighter future for the next generation. While Debbie started her career in marketing & promotion, first as Alice in Dairyland back in 1981, and later for the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture for almost 20 years.

By combining their experience and ideas, they decided to use their milk to also produce cheese. And by working together, they helped to shape what it’s known today as the Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese, with their award-winning cheese and sustainable approach to farming.

How an Anaerobic Digester (Biodigester) Can Increase The Sustainability of a Farm

In order to create a more sustainable cheese, it’s important to consider the whole production process. If we take George & Debbie Crave farm, it’s home to 3,400 cows, and if you do some math, the amount of gas and manure you get in a day is considerable. That manure can be problematic as it contains methane, carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and fluorinated gases. What if that could be used to generate energy?

That’s exactly what an anaerobic digester does. George & Debbie Crave have one at the Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese, which generates enough electricity to power their farm, cheese factory, and 300 area homes, making it a 100% Green Power farm.

And now here are George & Debbie Crave.

Full transcript below

Video on Sustainable Cheese & Dairy Farming.

Learn More About Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese


Here Are The Sustainability Principles That Guide Their Farming & Production

Check Out The Sustainable Cheese George & Debbie Crave Produce

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Podcast with George & Debbie Crave. Sustainable Cheese & Dairy Farming.


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Mike Malatesta, George Crave, Debbie Crave

Mike Malatesta  04:14

Hi Debbie Hi George welcome to the podcast.

George Crave 04:52

Thanks Mike. Good to be with you.

Mike Malatesta  04:54

You know, I’ve been, I’ve been thinking about this for a while, I don’t think we’ve had it set up for a month or so, and it’s, I was telling you before we went on yesterday I was talking to someone in Belgium and now I’m talking country Belgium, not Wisconsin Belgium, and now I’m talking to, to Debbie and George who were, you know, literally right down the road a half an hour so for me it is so it’s just great that I get the opportunity to share stories, local stories and stories of success from all over the world, I feel very lucky. I also feel lucky to be talking with farmers and entrepreneurs because my, in my experience, and it’s limited, but in my experience, personally, the people who have most meaning in my life outside of my family have been farmers at one time or another. My original business partner was farmer and then a bunch of people who joined our company from, from a farming background were just so special instrumental helpful, and just overall good people, It made me better, you know, because I don’t have the farming skills that you get when you, when you the skills you get when you grow up on a farm. So anyway, enough about me. I’m so happy to have you here I start every podcast with the same simple question. How did it happen for you.

George Crave  06:20

Well for me I did grow up on a farm down in Billy mile north of the Illinois line with my dad and my, my large family, seven of those children, my mom and dad and, you know 3540 cows at the time in 1974 You sold their cows at that time, Their response 60,000 Farms in Wisconsin the milk cow was a little red barns all over the place. We were one of those farms but we were also one of those farms that discontinued milking in discontinued farming 1978 I was able to start up again, and on a rented farm with my brother Charlie. And through the years we just continue to grow and and build and grow and build and buy and refer to other brothers joined us, Tom and Mark joined us, and we’ll talk about maybe a little bit more of that throughout the throughout the next hour.

Debbie Crave 07:13

If I was going to answer how that happened, I would have said four h, because that’s how I met George in high school. We lived in the same town, but didn’t know each other through school because we went to different schools we just met at the county four h meetings and events. It started dating in high school, and seven years later we were married. So because George and I were then together, of course, you know, you start working together and supporting each other and George was farming but I was working in marketing and promotion. I started my career in marketing as Allison Dairyland. A Wisconsin promotional person. Back in 8182, after that I worked at the state government in marketing and at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture for almost 20 years. Then I went to the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board. Then I gave George the idea through all of my work, that maybe he should add some value to the milk on the farm and make cheese and he collaborated. It was his idea I said, not sure but he got the idea from all the things I’d bring home and talk about. So, gee, how did happen. We met in four h and we work together and, you know, live together, got married, had children but also grew together, and that’s partly what it is because sometimes you have separate careers, sure American that works. I guess when we’re first married if you told me I would end up working with my husband, I would say, No way. I would like it. I need my own identity. But now, it’s okay. We complement each other fine, sometimes we don’t agree but that’s good, and it’s a great way to have our career kind of come to fruition and a little bit of an ending we’re certainly looking at moving on and letting the next generation and other great employees take over. So we’ve covered a lot of years there and how did it happen that, again, I’ll start with, we met for age, and that’s how we got started in W thanks for that for

Mike Malatesta  09:23

those people who don’t know what four h is, what can, how would you describe it what is it.

Debbie Crave 09:30

I like to use their, their slogan and motto which are learn by doing and make the best better great programs for youth, and you could join for age through a school or through a local club, and our children were in forage. Also, but I, my mother had us join Rock County four h in southern Wisconsin and George was in a different crop than me but we were the same county. So sometimes you just service activities but other, other times you have your own little projects, and you learn about flowers or dairy or in my case I did a lot with home furnishings, it was called and foods and nutrition, but also flowers, I did a lot with flowers and flower arranging and it’s just what my passion was George Of course love dairy project as did our children were coming there so it’s still a wonderful educational learning opportunity for you, and I love promoting for age still to this day internet both meme leaders and active and 42 big supporters, both of our families have been big promoters and supporters important.

Mike Malatesta  10:43

So should I assume you grew up on a farm as well and if so, what kind of farm, I did not. Okay, so you can be in 42, if you, if you’re not affiliated with fine. Okay,

Debbie Crave 10:53

kids now are from farms but let’s say March, kids were from farm. Okay, I was the girl that lived in the country and, you know, join four h but didn’t have true animals, my brother brought rabbits to the fair we entered vegetable Sabean, I had my flowers so we didn’t have a dairy farm which was so common in Wisconsin. We had dairy or beef or pigs The Rock County Fair was famous for its great livestock shows, and it still is a great pair. Now we’re part of the Dodge County Fair in Sampson

Debbie Crave 11:29

County Fair. Awesome.

Mike Malatesta  11:31

Okay, one more question on your, on your answer Allison Dairyland for people who don’t know what that is, you, you describe it as a promotional, but what exactly is it.

Debbie Crave 11:41

Yes, I’m happy to say it’s still a program in existence, it’s a one year promotional job with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture where you promote and tell the story of agriculture from dairy farming to cranberries and mint and canned vegetables and potatoes and anything important to Wisconsin even a little bit on tourism, but especially that the agricultural component, and it was a wonderful job for a year and you’re employed, actually by the Department of Ag but you sure have a lot of support from the agricultural industries throughout Wisconsin especially the dairy farmers in Wisconsin, okay. She’s a big promoter of cheese and dairy and and does a lot of TV radio school visits. I think this last year Allison Dairyland has done more social media and probably calls like this is like this because of the situation with the virus but the next year she’ll be looking forward to getting out and about, amongst people to be at events like state fair or World Dairy Expo.

Mike Malatesta  12:47

Okay, thank you for that. George, what happened in 1974 that that had your father, you know, sell that sell the cows and get out of farming. Well,

George Crave  12:58

it’s always prices, you know, you talk to a farmer and see their weather prices or both and, and it was just that and it’s either get bigger or get out at that point and here’s Melbourne 3540 Cows he had plans to go all the way up to 50 pounds which would have been a decent production unit back then, but we were all just in high school and really I guess just looking at the long pole of it all, he just decided not to move forward and you know we sold our four h calves and went to work for neighbors for a few years and then we were luckily we able to start back up again. Smaller rented farm my brother Charlie and myself. Just every year it was kind of what next is kind of where, how did it really happen Mike and we always said, what next, how can we make it better. What next, and if it was shoveling corn or climbing silos, we said you know we’re not going to claim silos, we’re not going to shovel corn for the next 20 years, what to do to, to progress in our business and modernize and become a real business, and just not a farmer, farming, farmers but businessman and working in that direction also. And working working smarter, not necessarily working harder we all work plenty hard, believe me, but working smarter and and also which means using more resources around us use more expert advice use county extension office agents use, use different company representatives, you know, somebody’s selling you something that they should be stand behind and they should be your technician for whatever they’re selling you and so we’ve learned to do that and really exercise, all of those experiences.

Mike Malatesta  14:40

And do you remember how you felt when you found out or your dad told you, or whatever happened. You know when he, when he made that decision,

George Crave 14:50

or Sure yeah we were assigned, you know we we were in the living room and one night he just had something to say and we told the whole family and we were all just really quiet, and we sold our for each jobs, you know, our unicellular for aged cares but it’s just what we did and we moved on. And really, when we started farming again I said I’m just not. I’m not going to just be an average farmer I’m not going to do this just to milk cows, And we weren’t going to, I vowed that I was going to. Okay,

Debbie Crave 15:25

I would say a blessing for us is that George’s father in his 90s is still with us, he comes to the farm every day and does some woodworking projects sometimes he’s mowing the lawn but or is directing traffic meaning, telling people why are you doing that aren’t working harder, why

Debbie Crave 15:41

don’t you work harder.

George Crave15:44

The advisor,

Mike Malatesta  15:45

yeah sure,

Debbie Crave 15:46

and his sons were successful and I think it’s very, very gratifying for him, and I’ll have to say he was nervous and outspoken when we built the cheese factory because he was afraid. We goof everything up and he’ll, he’ll not be shy about telling George, you know, I was worried, but boy you, you’ve done a good job and I’m proud of you and so I think it’s really gratifying for him to see that even though he made that tough decision and it was a sad day that things changed. And we progress. The way we should, which is still working with family coming together and doing things well and showing that we can have a large family farm, and be successful. The biggest bad.

Mike Malatesta  16:34

Yeah, so that’s it I want to get back to that biggest bad thing later because I think there’s a good story there not just for farming, farming, but for all businesses when you, when you think about big as in bad debt. Why were you when George decided to go back into farming with he and his brother were you, I don’t think you guys were married yet if I got the timeframe right but it was probably getting close were you nervous about that decision because of what had happened to his father, his father’s decision and what was probably happening to a lot of farmers because I think you mentioned 60,000 farms and 74

Debbie Crave 17:14

I trusted George so much. Okay, I think I was a little naive, but at one point I remember when we were dating, he said oh I might move to Kentucky and farm, you know, my brother and I really want to farm, and I’m thankful, partly why he was able to do it with his brother and stay in Wisconsin, is that he partnered with a university professor who gave us a wonderful opportunity to get started. And I was just blatantly blindly supportive. He and his brother Charlie started milking cows in Mount Horeb, and all they did was work in milk and sleep and work, and milk and sleep and George sometimes called it mom horrible because it was so beautifully hilly but not the place to farm. and I’d go out on the weekends when I wasn’t at class, and try to cook. And gee, and for each I learned to bake bread and make cookies and really make some nice dishes that were more desserts. Okay, so they were starving. I just learned to cook anything off of them because they need anything. And they ate it. Thankfully they survived, we all survived, but it wasn’t easy times at all.

Mike Malatesta  18:29

And what about what about this university, UW professor what did what assistance would happen there.

George Crave  18:37

Well, his name is Dave Wickard, and Dave was a Dairy Science Professor we took his classes when we were attending the university, my brother Charlie was a couple years ahead of me in school. And Dave always had that he came from a small farm up by Green Bay, by Appleton, but he really had a, had a desire to own some registered Holsteins you know the black and white dairy cows and owning a good pedigree, small herd of cows and he approached a few of his former students, to see if they wanted to go into partnership with them and start a small farm but they, you know, went into being a feed salesman or went back to their father’s farm or their wives fiance’s farm. And so we came along, Charlie and I came along and we wanted to farm but but didn’t have a farm to return to so Dave approached us and was its idea, and he was able to give us some financial back and he didn’t give us anything, he just, you know, it always take some assets and take some financial backing for a young person to get started, I was 20 years old. I was still going to school and driving back and forth to Madison demand more and milking cows for us for a couple of months when you’re just starting in, 78, spring of 78, and then moved away from Boyd, you know, had I didn’t even have a car had a crackpot. Five radio I always say that’s what I started with, and half interest in a canoe. That’s what we had, and all we did this work and that and then we moved to Waterloo here in 1980. We rented the farm for three years and Mount Horeb and did well and kind of learned our ropes and and moved to Waterloo and that was 1980 and then we had the farm crisis and 60% interest rates if you go back and look at your financial histories of the 380s were just terrible financially. We always cashflow, we always paid our bills our, our balance sheet was upside down, we never had a good balance sheet we never had a good, good, equity to debt ratio because we were so young. There weren’t any government programs for young farmers. And we just worked. And I call the 80s the last decade because we as Debbie said we got up, we milk cows, and we ate supper and we went to bed and we got up at 430 for for 20 years we did that, we’d come we’d get up and and milk the cows and feed them and go drive to the lake, and have Christmas and 230 in the afternoon, we’d leave the lake and drive back up to Waterloo here about an hour and 15 minutes and we walk in the barn and Christmas is over and we feed cows and milk cows and calves and the next day we did the same thing so that’s what we did and Saturday, Sunday, I tell people we have a lot of visitors here at the cheese factory and I tell them that dairy farming to full employment opportunity, we can work around the clock 365 days a year, you know, there was an ad on TV a couple of years ago 24 Seven, whatever, something like that. What’s new with that.

Mike Malatesta  21:41

And what is the reason that you ended up in Waterloo, so I’m thinking to myself okay you were your dad had the farm employed, then you rented farm in Mount Horeb, and I’m not sure how far away that is but, but I’m just kind of like take, take us through the progression of thinking like why not why not just farm in Beloit, for example, and just stay out.

George Crave  22:01

Boy Rock County is very competitive they had some they have some very reservoirs down there and it was very competitive and we also wanted to be close to, to Dave wicker, who lived in Middleton, he we wanted him to have access he wanted to have access to his herd because his cows are cows. And so, the west side of Madison is not more convenient for him to come out and and on Saturdays and help with the good, the good, but it was mostly Charlie and I did 90% of the work and my dad would come up on weekends and a few brothers would come up and help out with fixing good when they, when they good but it’s mostly Charlie and myself.

Debbie Crave 22:40

How do you end up in water. This farm became available that we’re on now, there was for sale so we started out by renting, but it has land and buildings and the house, this an opportunity, I remember driving by another place in Dane County that George said to you, we looked at that place too and how easily we could have ended up in Dade County which would have been fine, but we have such great friends and around Waterloo and we’re so glad that we ended up here in 1979 or 80, that’s when George and Charlie decided we can’t stay in Mount Horeb, it’s too small, the land is too hilly it’s just not going to be enough for two brothers and I think then you knew your third brother Tom was going to be joining the operation, so you could milk a few more cows have a little more help, so you just needed a different location, or more able to expand with

George Crave  23:35

that we had very progressive ideas for the time about capital housing and how to milk them and how to feed them very progressive, and even was more progressive than our partner Dave Wickard was even comfortable with, you know, even being a college professor, he’s like, Hey, you guys are you guys are talking way out of the box here and like I know what it works for you out west. That’s how we really can bounce rations and really keep the cows comfortable and that’s the way we always progress towards that and one of the real advantages of moving away from home though Mike is that you don’t have a tradition to hold on to, no one’s looking over your shoulder the neighbors not saying, oh you. Your dad didn’t do it that way grandpa didn’t do it that way, or you’re worried about what the neighbors say or there’s peer pressure from some of the you may have respected in the past and they think you’re not Shinola those young, those young kids, they’re going to go broke or whatever and, and we’ve heard it all. We’ve, I’ve been calling that since about second grade, and, and, you know, I don’t know if I’m going broke or getting rich, depends what what day it is, but we just keep going. And we think that was a very advantageous for us a huge advantage to come into an area where we clean we didn’t have to worry about what people thought. And, and it gave us. What could we say a chip on our shoulder to make sure we prove that we really were doing.

Mike Malatesta  24:54

I mean I wasn’t expecting you to go there with that answer that’s really interesting what you say about neighbors and tradition and those kinds of things I wouldn’t have, I wouldn’t have thought of that but as you were going through it I was like yeah, that makes perfect sense and then I was thinking about all the examples in my own life where that’s been the case, you know, you’re, you’re so close and you’re listening to people who, you know, either don’t believe or don’t see what you see and it shakes your confidence a little bit you know so if you get away from them. It’s like, even though if they’re still saying it, you’re not hearing that more.

George Crave  25:26

And what we’ve done over the years is we don’t go on broadcast that too much we as a family when we make decisions in our meetings and we say okay now this is for, you know this is kind of insider trading, this is not for the world and no they’ll find out soon enough when the bulldozers pull and or the cement trucks are coming down the road they’ll find out soon enough, but we don’t need to broadcast everything, and, and keep our business to ourselves for the most part, farming, farming is one of those businesses that if we want a new tractor and the neighbor wanted to look at it, we’d invite him over and then he could drive around the driveway, we all feel so good about sharing our story or having someone look at our cows or what what goals do you like and things like that it’s just really no secrets people just love talking about farming and, and what kind of corn they’re planning or whatever, but in the cheese business, it’s much more proprietary, how we make our cheese, how the recipes we’ve developed over the years, how we package it or even who our customers are is was quite a bit more secretive and proprietary.

Mike Malatesta  26:25

So let me talk. Let me ask you about vision, so that you and your brother 1978 or so, you start you said, we, we knew from the beginning, or at least you did that I did, I’m not in this to just milk cows. And I’m wondering what your vision was if you can remember back then when you started and how it matches up with the reality of today as I understand it, you’ve got 3000 acres and 34 3500, cows, you got the cheese you got you got all this stuff and I’m trying to think these two guys who were, you know, basically just starting with, you know, doing whatever needed to be done. I’m wondering where the vision was what you were thinking versus what actually came because, man, if you thought, what if you thought at the time that you would have accomplished what you have, I would, I would say you’re a very astute futurist, you know,

George Crave 27:27

well no today and what we really our goal was when we moved to move to Waterloo is we had about an 80 cow barn and we thought off we fill the barn up with good cows and maybe build a little south side barn, and my brother time joins us and my goal was to have 100 I remember being interviewed way back early on, when we were doing a few of these innovative practices for a farmer magazine and they said what’s your goal, while you guys are really, really on the fast track here, what’s your goal so my goal is to have 100 Really good cars, I want to have 100 Really good counsel Gribble house. Oh short sighted and you know we got 200 good cars and buy them, you’re my guy I’m here to say that I am successful. I did meet my career goals. I do have 100 Really good.

Mike Malatesta  28:17

Congratulations. And let’s start so, so that’s a little bit about where you are now I guess I’d like to go to. You were talking about these different ideas that you and your brother had different even than, then the professor had you know what, what are some of the innovations that you’ve brought to your business that maybe others are, because like most people listening this or you said you know, when you think about farming it’s weather and prices, You know, the stories that get told that most people who aren’t farmers re are bad stories like how you know that’s farms going under farms. Farmers getting taken advantage of on pricing and this whole, you know, sort of tough to have your own destiny because you have to sell through government. I don’t know what I don’t know what it all is you know better, but how do you figure out a way to innovate with when. And I want the success story of farming because I, people don’t hear that. Like how did it.

George Crave  29:27

Always come along later, don’t they, kind of in the middle of a success story while you’re doing it you don’t, you don’t realize that that you’re in it until you turn around, look behind you.

Mike Malatesta  29:37


George Crave 29:37

But we people have asked over the years. What’s the vision you had a really real short sentence I come up with I wanted to get off the commodity treadmill. And what you just talked about is the commodity prices the commodity, if we have a big year and everyone gets a good rainfall from Iowa Indiana and everywhere in between. The price of corn is really low because it’s a supply and demand market, and there’s plenty of corn the bins are full, they’re piling corn on the ground, and it’s, it’s the real prices so you’re selling your, a lot of corn for breakeven prices. That’s commodity agriculture, it’s the same with hogs beef, even dairy, we go out we implement all of our modern production practices, we have cows producing milk that we have almond milk that we never dreamed of having cows were as productive as they are today, but everyone up and down the road has adapted a lot of those technologies also, the only way that I could see breaking away and being successful for the future of our family business was to get off the commodity treadmill, and that was adding value to our milk and that was either through through bottling yogurt, cheese, selling it to someone making a specialty milk for someone, and after about two years of research and traveling with Debbie to a lot of the different food shows and reading some of the dark side of the businesses magazines me the processor side, started to get interested in, in the processing side, and about, that was 1999 2000. And by, by fall of 2000, we were building a cheese factory.

Mike Malatesta  31:19

Okay and that same thing the commodity tread treadmill that you described applies to milk too right so if you’re just, if you’re just producing milk and selling it, you’re getting paid a fixed amount of fixed amount

George Crave  31:35

landed over all the milk that’s, that’s from Minnesota to Iowa in this region, but maybe we get paid 50 cents or $1 more per hundredweight which is about two five gallon pails of milk is, is the measurement of milk, and the fellows in California might get paid $2 less than we do in Arizona in New Mexico, and believe it or not, most people would be surprised that some of the top cow milking states in the country is California Wisconsin, Idaho, Texas, New Mexico, South Dakota. You know, you think of South Dakota, you don’t think of dairy cows but they’re, they’re growing very rapidly and that’s because the land base, and the cropping and the efficiencies that go into that.

Mike Malatesta  32:16

Okay. So, when you make the decision to to make cheese, and build a build it. Cheese pine I’m thinking to myself, you were talking about the 80s in the balance sheet thing and this that had to be, even though it was a big opportunity to have to be a tremendous risk, financial risk, and maybe other risks as well, am I right in thinking that,

George Crave  32:42

Oh yes, yeah we sat down as a whole family and the family, the brothers get together all the time we were always working side by side so we could just put the machine shattered lean on the ball tank and talk talk over a little bit of business strategy, but for this it was a big, big deal because Debbie was going to come home. The idea was Debbie was going to come home from Madison, She was going to be employed by the cheese business, I was going to leave the farm, which is right across the road from us here and come on this side of the road and build the cheese factory Debbie and I were going to run the business and hire a few professionals to help us with it, and we did. And so we came up with a much more of a solid business plan. But, yeah we borrowed quite a bit of money again, didn’t have a very good idea what we’re going, what we were doing, learned a lot. The old expression Didn’t you learn by your mistakes and boy, we’ve learned, because we made a lot of them but, but don’t repeat them, that’s for sure. And so we’ve started out selling, work with a couple of sales people, they said they could sell the product, some, some good, Some good, and a couple of years are really limping along, and really breaking even. We’ve received one or two major accounts that really were able to get us started a company that at the time I believe had 70 or 80 stores and now they have 500 So as a grow we grow a big, big slogan that Debbie and I talk about is, as long as our customers grow, we grow right along with them as a supplier, that’s what most suppliers do and when you can get those good those good anchor companies that really you go along with the long pole. And really, we help them be successful and they help us grow our business as well.

Mike Malatesta  34:33

And Debbie for you was, were you sort of ready to take on a new challenge when this all came about, or were you sort of a reluctant, like reluctant may not be the right word but kind of like, Okay. What were you feeling

Debbie Crave 34:50


Mike Malatesta  34:51

Okay, that’s fair.

Debbie Crave 34:52

Ah, not even knowing if I could really work with George. He says strong personality. I was at the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, and I had a great job, and I loved. I didn’t like the commuting, but I was used to commuting to Madison for 20 years. So yeah, it was a risk. But, you know, we have this blind faith in each other that we can do it, and so did our bankers and thank goodness they did also but we get family support, And we really had a logical idea, take her on our own milk and make good quality cheese. That’s not the only thing though, and you know you need a good story, you need a good brand you need to work it and now there’s just so many people with stories out there, that they’re even trying to steal your own story, our family farmstead green energy. Okay, this marvel at couple custard competitors or even other big companies that try to say we have a farm or that try to promote their story by using some of our wording, we just stick to our story. But yeah, I was nervous. Yeah, it was hard. It’s worked out great, and it sure wasn’t my vision, I guess I could have, I’m kind of conservative I think I could have stayed in my good state government job for 30 years because I really liked it. Okay. Work hard. But that’s what my father did he stayed in the same job for most of his, you know, career and was really loyal so I thought that’s just what I would do. And I know people are different now where they move from job to job to advance or to get new experiences that can be a good thing. I never looked at myself doing that so I really I guess this is about my third job, state government, Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board and the family business and it’s a great place to land to end up, and now we’re in such a comfortable position, but difficult of mentoring the next generation of bringing in the next group of leaders, and trying to transfer our knowledge, you know, suck that knowledge out of our, our brains and put push it into someone else, and it’s, it’s a good gratifying feeling but why I think I’ve seen this 20 or 30 years ago. Not at all, try get just both of us being open minded, helped and George mentioned the travel. We have been lucky to travel a lot for work, and because we enjoy it but we have farmer friends overseas cheesemaker friends overseas family overseas, and we learn every time we go somewhere, we don’t just go visit family we go to the grocery store we go visit a dairy farm we go see a cheese factory so we’re always learning, and maybe that makes you more comfortable with your own situation.

Mike Malatesta  37:55

And George did you feel when Debbie came to work with you. Did you feel like you had to moderate your strong personality so that she would feel more like, Some people have like I have like tend to have a work personality and home personality and they’re not exactly the same, but I haven’t had, I haven’t worked with my wife, closely so, so nobody knows. Yeah.

George Crave  38:23

She wishes I had a home personality but I don’t know, I, I work on. I think I’m a better listener now, and a much better communicator now than I was with my brothers, we grew up, you know taskmaster father, you know, if you want to get something done you just push harder you lean in more. If you want to motivate someone you just spoke to them a little bit louder, okay I’m sure other,

Mike Malatesta  38:51

you know what I mean yeah I do.

George Crave  38:53

And we, we, that’s how we kind of communicated encourage each other. And now we surround ourselves with employees, This just isn’t me and Deb, or my brothers, we have between the farm and the cheese factory we have 90 employees. And we learned early on that, that, most of them just want to, they’re coming here to work and get a paycheck. Do they have the same passion I have no, you know, and I have to realize it took me a little what took me quite a while to realize that they’re just coming to get their paycheck, you know I’m the one that has the guests the awards, I’m the one that that Debbie and I get to travel, they still have to come to work. And I have to treat them that way and treat them as a teammate, and bring them along, and they’re all individuals to where some portion some you pull in some you encourage and some coddle, and that’s one thing I’m really proud of this is my, my ability to communicate to almost anyone in our building.

Mike Malatesta  39:55

Right. And that’s it so yeah you have to sell this adage you know treat everybody the same is probably true, but you need to treat everybody differently in order to treat everybody the same. Because everyone responds differently and, yeah, we’re all people we’re all, we all got weird things that nobody else knows how that you noticed how it’s hard, right. So, what have you, you know, as you’ve grown to 90 people and facility, you know you got a complicated operation, what have you, or both of you done to keep up as business people and as leaders and, you know, that’s the whole new thing from probably every 10 years for you it’s a whole new thing, I’m just curious how you’ve how you’ve kept up with your education and whatever you needed to be to continue to be successful at a higher level because a lot of people tap out, you know, it’s at a certain point.

George Crave   40:50

Well, I think I mentioned earlier that we, we’ve always said what next, how can we get better, and the term now is continuous improvement, you know, you go to the different workshops and they’ll talk about continuous improvement we didn’t really adapt that phrase it was for us it was just what’s next and how can we do it better. And we just continue to carry that and now through the years, whether it’s putting equipment in or machinery or changing the changing the formulation to how we make cheese, and I very gutsy at making those changes I have a couple of people in the building and so you know you’re gonna change something, how are we going to make a small incremental change and then, you know, measure, monitor your progress. So that’s how we do it one thing when Debbie can get an expand on this is when we would travel to trade shows we attended three or four or five trade shows a year, and we travel, and you have to keep your ears open because if you can’t go and just look at somebody cupcake decoration at a trade show or a food show you’re there to see what new products are out there, where the vibe is what the new, the new trends are and being able to respond to those, and either saying hey, we have to train with them, or we’re just fine right where we are, we still have a sweet little niche, and that’s and talking to our fellow cheesemakers to really helps us are we on the right track with employees and benefits and

Debbie Crave 42:16

you have some great friends in the industry. And even though it’s proprietary, we still network a lot within the cheese world, and we help each other, how do you do this, what do you do in this situation where do we go to dinner. You might learn just as much in Holland meeting, as you would in a seminar partner conference just the same. Farmer conference as well that networking, the both of us will go to something and we’re just kind of like separate directions, what did you learn who did you talk to, how did that how, and it’s fun it’s invigorating. You know Banta your question to about how did you keep up or how do you keep up. I was thinking of the word trust because way back when George and his brother Charlie and even his brother Tom tried to implement some new technologies, just on the farm, whether it was curtain shades and a new barn, While this new revolutionary style barn for a new milking parlor. And that was 620 years ago now we have another new milking parlor, you should ask about but it took Georgia lab to trust a guy that another guy who’d milk his cows. I remember when we finally got to hire someone to milk cows with George before George, they were his cows, he knew every cow by their butter, when he was milking them, and he put in his hours, but then he finally had to hire someone to help him, so he could do more and be innovative, and that trust, to put long time coming. Well now, you know, we have to trust people to do lots of things so you hire good people. They’re part of your team, you trust them. And you can do more and succeed that, but that’s not easy and original farmer mentality on a smaller farm is that I’ll do everything, and I’ll jump on the tractor I’ll keep the calves, I’ll be the maintenance guy and then I’ll put my wife into all that heaven, it’s, it’s respectful exhausting work when you can finally get some more help and trust people, it’s, it’s,

George Crave  44:25

that’s probably one of the things that I didn’t do fast enough, is I was just so used to working. And I came up with a phrase about a year or two ago that I’m, I’m used to working, I’m used to pain, and I’m very patient and congratulations you get to work. So, Debbie, always reminds me that everyone wants to work in the pain that you I work and not everyone that willing to keep a machine running to save money, not everyone’s willing to to climb under stuff to clean it like you’re willing to so we have to figure out how to make it easier for them to clean it without, you know them getting scars on their forearms and things like that so, and she’s right, and I know that just moving into the future. We just have to make it simpler and better for our, our staff, that’s going to take over for us because not everyone, no one’s going to work like I shouldn’t have to.

Mike Malatesta  45:18

And you mentioned earlier, I think it was Debbie that mentioned this, people sort of stealing your story. And I’m wondering how many, how many stories are there like yours where there is actually a dairy farm, connected to, you know, a milk, or I’m sorry cheese processing facility or cheese making facility, is that I was asked to talk.

George Crave  45:45

There’s three or four I was gonna call farmstay where they use their own milk from from their cows and make the Gouda, or ice cream or artisan cheeses are washed rind cheese. So there’s, there’s a handful here you know up in Minnesota we know a couple and they’re around California as a handful, and they’re, they’re scattered around more than what we even know we’re always surprised when we go to a show and he this little farm has, has a product summons summons battling milk so I’m in Joburg. Okay, used to be very popular back in the 20s and 30s. A lot of these farms had their own little Creamery and home delivery and then of course it went away as transportation and refrigeration and regulation, became more more prevalent. And now, if you have the wherewithal and the ambition, there’s some opportunities. And did you, so

Mike Malatesta  46:45

you became a cheese maker as well. Did you. Was that what came for. Did you have a desire to be a cheese maker, or did you have a desire to add value add the milk come first. I’m assuming it’s the second one, but I don’t know.

George Crave  47:03

The artisans out there would be disappointed but for me it was really a GET and get off the commodity treadmill. Okay, for the family business without just milking more cows or growing more crops and getting ready come home, we have a young family at the time and her commuting back and forth to Madison, and really another one of my naive, confident, ideas was, If I’m on a board of directors or going to meetings and advisory boards which I was quite, quite a bit involved with 20 years ago, and I came home and I said if I’m giving co ops advice and approving their budgets or the universities, asking me to be on advisory council. I’m just going to stay home and come up with my own advice and do it myself, and kind of naive kind of confident or cocky, if you will, but that’s, that’s what I did.

Mike Malatesta  47:58

Well, It seems to have worked. So I have, and I will share that Yeah,

Debbie Crave 48:05

I think I pushed George to be a licensed cheese maker in Wisconsin, you cannot operate a cheese plant, unless you have at least one licensed cheese maker, so two of our first hires were two gentlemen that were licensed cheese makers and one is still with us today, but we thought it was important, George, get his, his license so it’s a class, a series of courses at the UW Madison that you have to take, then you have to apprentice, then you have to pass an exam is a lot of important steps, too, but I think it’s helped, George, networking with people, university professors to go to work questions. Now he’s kind of, he’s an expert at all ends in milk intake to the shipping and receiving by the love of cheese making. He really is a hands on guy in the plant not just, I’ll tell my people work hard, okay. I know you know how to troubleshoot, we have a little quality problem or a customer complaining about something, he can get to it right away, no Oh did you look at the sell by date, oh guess what you’re trying to chase that’s expired or you forgot to refrigerate it or whatever it is, there’s always a reason. You can get to it,

George Crave  49:17

there are so few more questions before you can come up with an answer. But, but, you know, just to finish up there and question Mike about cheese maker or farmer or businessman first. I remember going to the cheese conferences for the first two or three years and I felt like a fireman, I did not feel like armed I didn’t understand a lot of the equipment, you know, just look like a bunch of stainless steel to me, and rooms full of people I didn’t know. And over the years just kept going and, and there’s a couple of years I didn’t even feel like going there, he says, Come on, come on, and we’re going to go see what it looks like we’re going to get to know these people and we did and now we walk into a room and hey how you doing what’s going on your sales. How are you doing on employees now everyone’s talking about employees. Employee Relations and and availability of labor that’s Jackie

Mike Malatesta  50:10

Yeah sure, so that that I guess that leads me to. I want to get more into cheese but I’m gonna go back to technology because you. Farming is changed a lot. You mentioned how different than milking parlor the new milking parlor is from, from the other one, there’s probably a million examples but i guess i I want. I would like to know from your perspective what, what are the what have been some of the most significant technological changes that make your operation, you know, keep your operation competitive, especially as bigger farms, you know the, this, this whole big is not bad thing I want to get to other bigger farms come along and you read, you know, you read terrible stories about how you don’t you read the story about how bad Big Pharma is you don’t get the story about how technologically sophisticated a Big Pharma is and that’s what I’m interested in

George Crave  51:13

starts in the field and even from the type of plant now that we don’t grow corn we grow speed, we don’t grow here we proceed, and it all has to work to the cows ration. The protein the carbohydrates everything that comes along with, with a good ration for the cows, so everything we do on the farm is about making policy to maximize production, and some, some people a cow is really a production unit where they’re here with the nice milk, and if we can do it efficiently. It’s just not, you know, abusing the cow or the cows milking too much. No, it’s all about efficiencies too it’s all about the margin and business it’s managing the margin right thing I’m growing crops and then feeding the cow. And so, so when we feed the cow and our cows now again the technology is and we can genomically test, we’ve been, you know, we’ve been testing our cows for about 10 years or something Madrick is a degree of very science from Madison, and he’s very much into improving the cows and making the cows again, continuous improvement and making an average sized cow, making a moderate sized cow that just is just an ability to take lead and convert it into into milk, and not only the milk but the amount of butter fat and protein that are in those milk the solids, the combined bad proteins really what we use to make cheese and what we use to sell to other cheese factories if you’re selling. So all along that way and then of course comes down to doing all efficiency with our labor of handling the 1000 patients. We developed a system when I was still on the farm, much by the laughters and friends I know that are in the poultry and the turkey and the pork industry, where they’re very efficient about when they pigs are born, they grow them up for so long, they move to this pad, and by the time they get to the end, they’re ready for marketing, same seconds in a dairy farming you’re just kind of like Oh, the cow. Cow didn’t get pregnant, she’ll get pregnant next time and she’ll have a calf and some and then it gets hot and we get out in milk and then they we can’t get pregnant again and then they get pregnant, that’s all and all this type of not really what I’d call systematic. Okay we just did we do this Tuesday we do things. And then hopefully by Saturday. All we have to do is milk cows and that’s not tech machinery we don’t move cows, we don’t do other types of work on the weekends so we developed that type of system and we were one of the first ones to really do that and we go to the fair and things and people say, Well, you might come come to a fair I had to move cows right to clean yards and we do that on Wednesday afternoon at two o’clock I mean, that’s when we do that, that’s when we scheduled it, so it’s kind of it’s one of those deals about, you know, managing your business not managing your life so your business doesn’t manage you, or what’s a term they call work, work on your business,

Mike Malatesta  54:09

not in your business on your business,

George Crave 54:11

work on your business not in your business so you know it all sounds great, but here I am I’m still I’m calling around the chief vacuum this morning.

Debbie Crave 54:20

Good at hiring consultants on the far okay. Everybody can’t know everything, plus we don’t, we don’t have enough cash flow or want to buy every latest greatest tractor. So we have neighbors that do help us with harvesting that do help us with some of the field work, or a guy that might help our son, with a nutrient plan for the cows, so that you know using the resources available, certainly we do that on the cheese side and I’m always thanking the university and the Center for dairy research and dairy farmers of Wisconsin, great associations we have, there’s great dairy farmer associations in Wisconsin education allies and support why side professional dairy producers of Wisconsin, but on the cheese side we also have Wisconsin specialty cheese Institute networking mechanisms, featured speakers and whatnot. So, we have great resources for Gary in Wisconsin, whether you’re a farmer, for instance. 

Mike Malatesta

And is your cheese sold as your brand, or is it sold private label or is there a combination of things going on?

Debbie Crave  

Both. Much of our cheese is private label across the country, and we’re proud of that it’s, it’s great but the family, it’s really important to the family, and George II as well that we can find Kray brothers farmstead cheese brand, especia lly locally and throughout the Midwest and we have been following in some local stores.

Debbie Crave  55:55

And so, we also sell off our website. We’re always trying to expand that our own brand. It’s not easy to build a brand so we’ve been patient and logical and really always just sticking to our story, which is that family and farmstead story, and also green energy, we haven’t really talked about it but we have a bio digester system on our farm that takes the cows waste and processes it into electricity. Ultimately, okay so we’re doing all kinds of good things for Mother Earth, and for carbon, we call ourselves carbon neutral carbon negative.

Mike Malatesta  56:34

So let’s stay there because my, my whole career has been outside of my podcasting has been in the waste business so this is this, and transforming waste into a resource is very interesting to me. I don’t think many people know what an anaerobic digester is, I don’t think many people know anything about this particular green energy. So, um, so let’s, let’s just. Why did you do it, I guess is the first thing because as I understand it digesters are very expensive like cheese plants and everything else they’re expensive to build. So what was the motivation for doing it first and foremost and what has been, what, how does it work and what’s the impact into you in the community.

George Crave  57:17

Well it works as we take the waste from the towers in the cheese factory we have two large 750,000 gallon tanks above ground tanks with a big dome dome over the top and the waste inside there is rapidly decomposed, which produces methane gas a byproduct of that rapid decomposition is methane gas, highly combustible natural gas that is captured and fed to a huge internal combustion engine just like you have in your car only this engine is the size of your car and 800 horse, and turns up that produces enough electricity to power of the farm the cheese factory in about 300 columns in our community, and it’s running right now. As long as we keep female fuel into it which is the cow waist and the cheese factory waste. We keep producing the methane gas that powers the big engine, it’s a big machine it’s a standalone little business we call clean fuel craves. And it’s a standalone off to the side of the barns produces lectricity heat for the farm, it doesn’t get rid of the waste through the manure, all those nutrients go back out into the fields to be next year’s fertilizer recycles nutrients back into the fields, and then also the little fibers that come through that system go back into the cows for cow bedding. So, the bedding is almost worth isn’t worth as much as the electricity 1000 stalls to get better at about twice a week, on the farm, and we’d be about four or five semi loads of sawdust or sand or papers that we’d have to use for straw that we’d have to use to bet the cows. In this way, it’s just the recycled fibers that have already gone through the cow to make the meat and milk and, and the manure in the afternoon.

Mike Malatesta  59:10

And as I understand how digesters work it’s sort of like what you were describing, you were describing the cow as a production unit and a digesters. Kind of like that too, right where I mean, you’re, you’re, you’re producing methane, but you’re also kind of getting you have to blend like with your cheese waste and your manure. Those, I would think kind of complement each other because one’s got a higher than other I’d say for methane gas production but you got to get it right. Otherwise, it, it’s like a stomach right it doesn’t really want to work right.

George Crave  59:47

Okay, I know it takes a lot of takes a lot of waste and we produce a lot, and the cheese factory also one of the biggest product we make on the cheese factory is the way water or the permeate. After we take the milk and we take the cheese out of it the fat and protein and mineral out of it, we take the whey protein out of the way, and the butterfat out of the waste stream, which is about 80% of the milk that comes over here, about 75% of that milk, ends up going directly pipeline back to the farm it’s yellow water looks like looks like Powerade if you will, yellow water that goes to the farm and is fed to the cows, and the remainder goes into the methane Digester, that’s really sugar water, the lactose, that is rapidly fermentable also. It’s a great feed or a more fuel for the digester

Mike Malatesta  1:00:38

and Deb mentioned carbon neutral so one of the RAPs that, that cows get these days is the methane production right it’s like they’re bad, because they are polluting you know they’re damaging, adding too much co2 And, but, your system is actually collecting all that so it’s not decomposing and breaking down outside on the ground somewhere. It’s actually all being fed or channeled into the digester so you’re so to go carbon neutral is like a really big thing that, again, you don’t get that side of the story. People are talking about how animal production for food is, you know, going to kind of destroy the Earth sort of thing over time right such

Debbie Crave 1:01:24

a misconception sadly so when it’s really more our transportation industry. We have a logo that we developed called produced with renewable energy and it’s a cute little cat with a green leaf on its tail and then around the outside of the circle it says produced with renewable energy and that green logo we call it is on our cheese packaging, keep promoting and telling that story because everyone talks about solar and wind and biodigesters are a great secret, and need to be talked about more, it’s cloudy by us today, and we’re still producing electricity as George said, and I don’t I can’t even tell if it’s windy, but when it’s not windy, we’re still producing.

Mike Malatesta 1:02:09


Debbie Crave 1:02:12

How waste and the cheese factory waste there in 65 days of the year, it’s, it’s just a great system. It is very expensive, and it doesn’t really breakeven. There needs to be more support for this type of system and technology for farmers to be able to adapt it or even communities. So hopefully there’s, there’s more support in the future and for energy companies to adequately compensate a business that’s producing renewable energy, right. Important talking points down the road.

Mike Malatesta  1:02:50

Feels like there’ll be a lot more pressure on that than perhaps there’s been right. So two final things I want to talk about if that’s okay one is family business and you’re transitioning, you’ve got third generation folks working family folks working in. Now in any business transitioning, whether it’s a farmer, or, or widget maker is very difficult. You’ve talked about labor, being an issue and you know all of these things I’m wondering how you’re thinking about, well what are some of the challenges of transitioning your business to the to the next generation. Now

George Crave  1:03:36

well as far as a lot of magazines are full of articles about legacy and leadership and transitioning. And I think one. The, the transition word gets so scary sometimes but when you look at your whole entire life, every, every six months or a couple years is a transition from from going to school, to be getting married and having children to your children getting a driver’s license. That’s a big one. Yeah. And then all the way through and then through your career also and now we get looking at this part of our career we’ve been looking forward to it because we’ve thought about it for a long time one thing when we were in business that they were heard as we had to always treat it as a business and he made sure that you know this is a business and it’s not successful, then we’ll just call it a day. And we’re going to get paid if the price of milk was good and the price of milk was bad, we were still going to get a paycheck and hence, you’re not going to save the business by not paying yourself. That’s one thing that you have to get, get in your head. So as you’re transitioning, we’ve talked about it. First of all you have to talk about it as a family from early on, you have to talk to your children about it you have to let people know that these are what we’re expecting for the next generation if you want to be involved here, and we developed bylaws or they’re kind of little rules you would say, several years ago about if you’re going to work here want to be an owner someday you have to go through these difference. And we’re proud to say that three of the next generation are legal owners and there’s more to come. Our son is a licensed cheese maker here I got her hopes to come back someday or nice works here at the business, you know, very important. And not only to them but also transitioning to leadership and responsibility to the next generation just not only owner so there’s several aspects of transitioning, we’ve hired consultants for all different aspects of the transition from from professional coaches to to effectively meeting facilitators to transition experts, this is what we’re going to do for the next three years to walk us towards the smarter. We’ve all embraced that.

Mike Malatesta  1:05:51

Okay, so last thing big is not bad. Kind of piggybacks on this transition thing to what, why is big, not bad. And I’d like to hear both of you. Tell me why you think that, and what is this vision we talked about before, from 1978, and where you are now what’s, what’s your vision for 2000 Whatever 50

George Crave 1:06:29

What was the first question,

Debbie Crave 1:06:30

Why big isn’t bad. Let me say this since I probably still remember going to a farmstead newsmaker meeting you years and years ago at the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, we were invited, and I remember a sheep milk producer saying to us in the room. Well I guess you’re Farmstead, because the sheep and goat producers that were truly farmstead. We’re so proud of their stories, and they really didn’t want to see the dairy cow farms that people coming forward plus. At that time we probably only know 500 cows but that just seemed too big and it couldn’t, couldn’t be right, so there’s unfortunately in our society there’s always been this fear of Oh, you’re too big. We talk about it from a family standpoint, we have four, we used to have four brothers who ran the operation. So, you know, dividing it out and cast wise, it wasn’t big, it really was what was needed so everyone had a specialty, you know, George was the cow milk or another brother did the Philips another brother managed the crops and field work, so it really made sense, and you could share economies of scale and make things so much more efficient. You have maybe more cows. We only did what makes sense. So for us it’s been about family, not big, but people kind of remind you, the regulator’s like to remind you, or the negative kind of PR people that truly don’t know what they’re talking about. And so we’re always telling our story because if we don’t, someone else will point about my vision that George kind of brought up it’s a good thing here so we didn’t have the neighbors or dad, or someone else watching us. When really, that’s what we have now for our sons and daughters and nephews and nieces, and that’s not always easy for them, it’s not always easy. The Georgia Bar. Hike says What was that tractor out or what are you doing or why aren’t the calves blah blah blah. And I’m like George, let them manage their own way. That’s it, you know that’s common. It’s really hard. My vision is that we can step away, comfortably, and we are, and we can, you know, let the next generation lead the way. They will learn how and it’s going to look different, and feel different and might not feel comfortable to us but hopefully it is to them and the last I’ll say is we did hire an awesome person from Iowa, a woman who’s an expert at succession planning, we met her at a conference, she works with a lot of farmers, she’s been fabulous. She has brought us along a path that is comfortable, scary but comfortable for everyone. And we’re still working on it, and we will be, and thank goodness there are people that can really know the ins and outs of these scenarios because it’s, it’s scary and otherwise you just keep doing GA D, he’d be in his case desk and over at the fire until he was 85 years old, driving everyone that’s what we want. What would you say, 

George Crave 1:09:59

I would say I think that the big. The biggest is fine, we’re not big. There’s a lot of farms, larger than us. You really have to look at really what your determine cheesemaking is your char huar Or your territory, and where we are, and this is where we are, we can’t move east or west because of land constraints. And if you outgrow a good production unit, and get out of balance then your profitability really suffers and your efficiency suffers so you have to know where the sweet spot is really in any business, and I think we’re in a sweet spot here. As far as the future. I’ve came up with the term that I want to mentor and manage my way out of a job. Maybe my next generation of leaders, mentor them and manage them, so that if I don’t come in tomorrow morning or night. To do that we take off and next February. Debbie and I that the business is getting you on that way, and we made, the only way you can really make that happen is you have to make a public no secret, you have to tell people, I don’t I don’t plan on being here and two years from now, you’re going to be in charge, you’re going to help them, and you’re going to answer the phones, you’re going to do sales, you’re going to, to still be in charge of maintenance and let people know that that’s what their future is also just not my future but their future.

Mike Malatesta  1:11:20

Right make their future bigger than their past. So by setting a goal, they can set their own goals based off viewers. Hmm. Very smart. Well Debbie enjoyed this. Thank you so much for coming on the show and spending an hour or so with me and my audience has been really fun getting to know both of you and inspirational and it’s also been say that’s what it’s really been impressive. Congratulations on your success and I know we didn’t get to half of what we could have but we got to a lot, I think, and yeah I’m just really grateful portunity

Debbie Crave1:11:54

Thanks, trip down memory lane.

Mike Malatesta  1:11:56

You’re welcome. How do we want people to get ahold of you if they want to contact you, what should they do

George Crave

We have a very nice website to learn more about us. And, otherwise they can email us,

Mike Malatesta  1:12:14

Simple enough. All right, thank you so much. Thank you.

Debbie Crave 1:12:19

Wonderful to speak with you.

Mike Malatesta

Mike Malatesta

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