The Duchessa of Cows & Co.
From the Netherlands to North Dakota, Maartje (van Bedaf) Murphy, ’17, serves up handcrafted happiness
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.
Churning out accolades
In December 2020, Maartje (pronounced MARCH-ah) got some news that took her breath away: she had been named to Forbes Magazine’s coveted list of the 30 Under 30 brightest young entrepreneurs in food and drink for 2021.
“As a small-town North Dakota girl, I would never expect something like this,” she said.
But her business, Duchessa Gelato, had been gaining recognition around the state for serving up the creamiest cool treat wedding guests and farmers market patrons had ever tasted. Maartje and Casey, along with other family members, were packaging thousands of pints of gelato every week to keep up with online orders that she would hand-deliver to 11 stops across the state.
Now propelled into the national spotlight, Duchessa Gelato was ready to expand, and inspired by her European roots, Maartje was already dreaming about what would come next.
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.
Cream of the crop
All her life, Maartje says she’s been a nurturing person. “I’ve always been caring and loving. I always wanted to be a nurse.”
She chased that dream, graduating from UND with a bachelor’s degree in nursing in 2017, going on to work as a trauma nurse in Sanford Medical Center’s emergency room in Fargo.
When her business exploded in 2020, she found herself being pulled away from her original dream toward another one.
“Now, I care and love and give to people through sweet treats and savory cheese. I care for them in that aspect, and help create some happiness,” she said.
Maartje made the most of her UND experience, first participating in track and field, then cheerleading for the hockey team while completing her rigorous program studies. All the while, Casey was by her side, studying to be a physical therapist (he continues to practice at Summit Physical Therapy & Sports Performance in Carrington).
She draws a parallel between her time as a 400-meter hurdler to her current experience as a small business owner.
“I tell people it’s a good race to run because you’re so focused on the hurdles, you forget that you’re tired until you cross the finish line,” she said.
While her strong work ethic was instilled at an early age by her family, she credits UND for honing her life-work balance, introducing her to lifelong friends and teaching her skills that apply to this day.
“I loved my time at UND … I met some amazing professors and my best friends there. I learned a lot of really good things that help me as a business owner, along with some things I am going to want to know as a mom.”
Life is gouda
Maartje and Casey, both 26, are expecting their first child in October. Around the same time, the couple is planning a soft opening for their new Cows & Co. Creamery space, with a grand opening next summer.
“I want this to be a space of sharing the experience that I would have in the Netherlands when I would go get gelato or go to a cheese farm with my grandparents,” Maartje said. “I want people to be able to feel the feelings that I had back there.”
Recently, Maartje was again recognized on a national 30 Under 30 list, this time for Young People Impacting Agriculture by Farm Progress Magazine. Cows & Co. hired its first employee last spring and will continue to expand alongside Maartje and Casey’s dreams.
Eventually, farm animals including cattle and sheep will welcome guests to the property, whose aesthetic is pulled together by a classic white dairy barn and silo on the edge of the yard. They have already begun partnering with other regional food and drink entrepreneurs, such as Molly Yeh of Food Network fame, and plan to partner with more, like Dakota Sun Gardens & Winery down the road from them.
“I would like to ship our gelato and cheese all over the nation,” Maartje says. “And then, if we ever do become successful enough to share it with people around us, we want to find good charities to donate to. That’s my main goal: to give back to the community and to some organizations that are near and dear to my heart.”
This story originally appeared in the UND Alumni magazine.
About the author
About the author
Alyssa Konickson is director of Storytelling & Content Strategy and editor of UND Alumni Magazine at the UND Alumni Association & Foundation.