Friday, February 15, 2008

Wisconsin Cheese Marketer Buys Tennessee "Cannabis Cave" To Create Agri-Tourism Opportunities

Fermo Jaeckle is well-known in the dairy industry as a co-founder of the Monroe, Wisconsin-based Roth Käse USA, which has gained fame and many awards for its artisan cheeses. So it’s not surprising that some people were taken aback recently when Jaeckle purchased a Tennessee cave that was at the center of an infamous marijuana growing operation.

The cave, located 40 miles from Nashville, made headlines in 2005 after a Drug Enforcement Task Force researched and built a case over a five year period of time prior to moving in to shut down the illicit pot growing operation. It turns out that, concealed under a million dollar vacation home, was the entrance to an ancient, natural cave, housing a massive marijuana farm, with high-tech lighting and climate-control systems to nurture over 1,000 hydroponically grown pot plants. Besides a massive growing room, parts of which are 20 ft. high, the cave was also outfitted with offices, a kitchen, bedrooms and restrooms. The Drug Enforcement authorities say the owners of the cannabis cave had made millions of dollars selling the pot over several years.

The area Drug Task Force arrested the pot farmers and seized the property. The house burned down some time later, under mysterious circumstances. The house fire caused little damage to the complex 150 feet under it, however, and in December the Drug Task Force auctioned off the property with the unique cave improvements intact.

That’s where Fermo Jaeckle came in. He heard about the auction from his attorney, Rowland Lucid. Because Fermo’s brother Andre lives in Tennessee they decided it might be great property for legitimate agricultural use.

Jaeckle admits that he was surprised to hear that he had made the winning bid. Now that he, his brother Andre, along with their cousins Ulrich and Felix Roth, and long time business associates, Steve McKeon and Nella DiManno own the property, they are eager to utilize the amazing improvements made to the cave by the previous owners, and are evaluating multiple options. While some high-tech scenarios are possible, other potential uses reflect time-honored agricultural practices.

Caves, with their constant temperature and absence of natural light, have long been used in food production such as aging wine and growing mushrooms. And, in the industry closest to Jaeckle’s heart, caves have traditionally been used to age cheese. For example, the classic Gruyere cheese made by Roth Käse USA in Wisconsin is aged to perfection in temperature- and humidity-controlled curing cellars. For centuries this process was often best done in caves.

While Jaeckle and the other owners intend to form a partnership with Roth Käse to distribute products grown or processed at the Tennessee property, Roth Käse does not own the cave property and will not move any of its production to Tennessee.
The owners are exploring how they might work with local Tennessee agricultural concerns to create products for the marketplace at this property. This approach reflects how Jaeckle and others worked with a team of skilled cheesmakers, managers and marketers to develop Roth Käse into a leading maker of authentic cheeses. In addition, Roth Käse’s Wisconsin plant has become a tourist destination, with a gift shop and self-guided tours through a specially constructed observation gallery in the cheese production facility.

Jaeckle and his partners see exciting possibilities for converting the notorious pot cave into an agricultural and agri-tourism facility. With the money they paid for the cave property going to support drug enforcement programs, and with the prospect of creating a productive agricultural enterprise, the owners are on their way to transforming this former enterprise for “potheads” into one for, ------ you guessed it.----- “Cheeseheads.”

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