In interesting news, as more Wisconsin cheesemakers move into the arena of crafting artisan and farmstead products, a promising trend is taking shape in the Heartland: more and more women are taking the lead.

Of the 1,222 currently active licensed cheesemakers in Wisconsin, less than 40, or 3 percent, are female. In the past three years, however, that trend has spiked upward – with a half dozen women earning their licenses and opening their own farmstead cheesries.

Of course, while working as a cheesemaker is by no means new for women – historically many women made cheese in their kitchens and a handful worked in cheese factories – a definite trend is developing of more women starting their own cheesemaking operations. And instead of hiring a cheesemaker, women are taking classes and completing apprenticeships themselves.

Wisconsin artisan cheesemaker pioneers such as Anne Topham of Fantome Farm, Ridgeway and Mary Falk of Lovetree Farmstead Cheese, Grantsburg, have made artisan cheeses for decades. Others, including Julie Hook, of Hook’s Cheese in Mineral Point, was the first woman cheesemaker to earn the title of World Championship Cheese in 1982, while Carie Wagner was the first woman to earn the title of Master Cheesemaker in 2001.

But in the past three years, more women than ever have decided to start their own artisan cheese businesses and earn cheesemaker licenses, including:

  • Diana Murphy, Dreamfarm, Cross Plains (pictured above). Murphy built her own farmstead cheese plant in 2004. She handcrafts fresh goat cheese and successfully sells out of production each year to Community Supported Agriculture groups and local chefs.
  • Brenda Jensen, Hidden Springs Creamery, Westby. Jensen is in the process of building her own farmstead cheese plant and has been crafting fresh sheep’s milk cheese since last fall. Her “Driftless” cheeses are already in demand in the Twin Cities market.
  • Marieke Penterman, Hollands Family Cheese, Thorp. Penterman, who with her husband and family moved from the Netherlands to Wisconsin in 2003 to operate a 480-Holstein dairy farm, is now using her new cheesemakers license to craft true Dutch Gouda. The Pentermans built a farmstead cheese plant in 2005.
  • Vicki Simpkins, Shepherd’s Ridge Farm, St. Croix Falls. Simpkins is nearing completion on her own farmstead cheese plant, where she plans to craft sheep’s milk cheese this spring.
  • Ethel Jensen, Terra Winds Farmstead, Mt. Horeb. Jensen milks cows, sheep and goats at her family farm and is currently building a farmstead cheesrie, where she plans to craft artisan cheeses using blended milks.

More young women also appear to be considering a future in cheesemaking. Kara Kasten, 22, a senior at UW-Madison with a double major in dairy science and life sciences communications, is watching the growing trend of artisan cheesemaking in Wisconsin. She decided a year ago to work for her cheesemaker’s license while attending college and expects to write the cheesemaking test before the end of 2007.

She says: “I’m not entirely sure where my life path is taking me, but I do know that I want to make cheese, and I want to make it in Wisconsin.”

Don’t we all?