More than 250 farmers and industry reps showed up at the first ever state-wide goat conference last week in Barneveld — confirming my earlier theory that goats are indeed “hot” in Wisconsin.

One of the most engaging speakers at the day-long event was Arnaud Solandt, president of Montchevre in Belmont, a goat cheese processing plant that has probably doubled its size in the last five years. Arnaud was born and raised in southwestern France and cheese has always been part of his life. His grandmother owned and ran a gourmet cheese store in his hometown. His father was director of sales for the local cheese factory.

However – and this is where the story gets interesting – Arnaud never planned on following the family roadmap into the cheese business. His dream was to be (dramatic pause and drum roll here) …. a weatherman. This announcement by Arnaud in front of the standing-room only crowd drew a few audible gasps from the audience and I immediately decided that I liked this guy.

Because here’s how Arnaud got into the cheese business and here’s why he is now running arguably the most successful goat cheese operation in America: while he was going to college, his father was killed and his mother severely injured in a car accident. The principals of the French cheese companies that his father was representing asked Arnaud to put his studies aside for a few months and help them manage the U.S. office. Because he’s a stand-up guy and needed to help support his mother and two sisters, he said yes. And he’s never looked back.

Today, Arnaud is in charge of an operation that is no doubt the lifeblood of tiny Belmont, Wisconsin, population 871 (I grew up there and can attest that the factory, along with the neighboring Lactalis cheese plant, probably employs a good quarter of all village residents).

Arnaud’s 80,000 square foot factory produced over 6 million pounds of goat cheeses in 2006 and purchases 37 million pounds of milk from 210 area dairy goat farmers. Not only is this plant directly employing 120 local people, it’s also the main source of income for 210 farm families. It is truly the cornerstone of Lafayette County.

And then of course, there’s the cheese. Arnaud graciously donated something like 40 pounds of goat cheese at the conference for sampling and it disappeared fast. Montchevre makes dozens of products including the usual suspects of fresh chevre, crumbled goat cheese, feta, chabis and crottin.

Their newest product is sensational – Darsonval (pictured above) is a unique and natural semi-soft washed rind goat cheese – lightly pressed and aged for 90 days. It is an ideal table cheese and carries a mild and sweet goat flavor – perfect for introducing to your friends who are not yet goat-cheese lovers. Plus, it’s absolutely beautiful – put a wheel on your table and watch the “oohs and aahh” commence.

However, beyond the business aspect of the operation, and perhaps even beyond the amazing cheese his cheesemakers craft, are Arnaud’s parting remarks at the conference: when people ask him if he likes his job, he says he thinks back at all the years and replies: “I love it! Thank God! Because it’s the only thing I have ever done and probably the only thing I know how to do.”

And he does it very well. Congratulations to Montchevre for its dedication to raising the bar for all goat cheese in Wisconsin, the Unites States and perhaps (dare I say) even France. Montchevre has come a long way. I’m eagerly looking forward to its future.