I’m always getting beaten up for my support of Wisconsin’s licensed cheesemaker program, but lately the detractors are getting a bit more vocal. On last week’s posting, an interesting argument ensued in the comment section (read it here) that instead of writing about artisan cheesemakers, I should be advocating for the end of corporate cheesemaking and lobbying for the requirement of continued education for licensed cheesemakers.

While it’s always a pleasure to have other people tell me what to believe, (I always wonder why these folks just don’t start their own blog or do their own lobbying instead of telling me what to do), I do have my own views on this subject and am willing to explain why.

So let’s briefly recap: Wisconsin is the only state in the nation to require its cheesemakers to be licensed in order to craft cheese for retail consumption. The licensing process is no small endeavor. It can take between one and two years, about $3,000 in class fees, at least 240 hours of one’s time interning under a licensed cheesemaker, and the passing of a written test, just to legally make and sell cheese in this state. It’s a considerable investment in both time and money for an aspiring cheesemaker.

There are those who argue the current licensing system was set up by corporate good ol’ boys to actively discourage new cheesemakers from entering the career field, and that today’s licensing requirements serve merely as job protection for current cheesemakers. While the cynical side of me (developed through the process of working as a city government reporter for eight years) says aspects of that argument may have merit, it is my belief that in the end, Wisconsin’s system of ensuring its cheesemakers be licensed is a good one.

Why? Despite the fairly obvious arguments that 1) requiring our cheesemakers to take basic classes in the science and sanitation of safely making cheese is a good thing (it’s been a long time since any cheese make by a licensed cheesemaker in Wisconsin was recalled for lysteria), and 2) such a licensing system speaks to the integrity and how serious we take our America’s Dairyland title, another argument has always made sense to me.

And that is — anyone who is willing to spend at least $3,000 and take two years out of their life to study the art and science of becoming an award-winning cheesemaker is the kind of person I want making my cheese. Anybody can make cheese in their bathtub. That doesn’t mean I want to eat it.

Wisconsin’s licensing system does a good job of distinguishing the wanna be cheesemakers from the real deal cheesemakers, or as my dad would say “it separates the wheat from the chaff.” In the six short years I’ve been actively involved in Wisconsin’s dairy industry, working with non-profits by helping people start-up new dairy companies and launch new dairy products, I’ve been thankful for the cheesemaker license system.

Why? It’s a very easy and early way to test how serious someone is about entering the business. It’s equivocal to a business plan – if someone is serious enough about wanting to start a business, they generally go through the time and trouble to develop a business plan. If someone is serious about becoming a cheesemaker, they research and study the licensing requirements, and despite the cost and time involved, if they’re committed to the cause, move ahead.

There is one hurdle in all this that I’ve been struggling with for awhile. And that is –what about the folks who ARE serious about making cheese, but don’t have the money to do it? I’m not talking about those employed by medium- and large-scale cheese plants (they are generally sponsored, or at least cost-shared by their employers to obtain their cheesemaker licenses), I’m talking about the small-scale, artisan and farmstead folks who genuinely want to enter the profession but have to save their money for literally years to make it happen.

That’s why, in 2010, I’ve decided to launch an annual Beginning Artisan Cheesemaker Scholarship Fund. Because of the amazing support of all the folks out there who have bought 660 tickets to my now sold-out First Annual Wisconsin Original Cheese Festival, it looks like I’ll be making about a $3,000 profit this year. Coincidentally, that’s roughly the same amount it takes for an aspiring cheesemaker to enroll in the five classes needed for fulfilling the education requirements of a cheesemaker license.

So — take note aspiring cheesemakers — watch for an announcement from Wisconsin Cheese Originals in January for how to apply for this scholarship. It’s my hope to use the profits from my cheese festival each year to sponsor at least one new Wisconsin artisan cheesemaker who is serious about entering this career path, and help him or her navigate the licensing system.

Wisconsin will always need more licensed cheesemakers and I’m looking forward to doing my part in helping make that happen.

24 thoughts on “The Wisconsin Cheesemaker’s License

  1. The concern isn't that licensing is bad. The question is whether the licensing requirements are politically motiviated, or are motivated by saftey and quality concerns. I would argue that, more often than not, the state's licensing requirements (not just for cheesemakers, but for many dairy products) are politically motivated.

    I have been debating with some members of the local Weston A. Price foundation about the need to establish standards (above and beyond the state's Grade A dairy lisence) for the production of farm direct raw milk for human consumption. They essentially want a “buyer beware” approach to raw milk, but I have argued that the average consumer of raw milk doesn't know enough about dairy sanitation to evaluation the cleanliness of the raw milk they are getting. I have proposed establishing a private certification agency to certify farms for clean raw milk, with standards above and beyond the state's “Grade A” dairy license (which truth be told, it does a very poor job of enforcing this license to begin with).

    The fact of the matter is, if these so-called “food saftey” folks in DATCP were really concerned about food saftey, they would set standards for the safe production of raw milk. But doing so would be bad business for the likes of Dean foods and other giant agribusiness corporations.

    There are standards for sushi-grade raw fish, and for raw apple cider (which include warning labels that the product is unpastuerized). When you go to resteraunts which serve meat, seafood, or eggs, there are warnings about potential foodborne pathogens from undercooking these food items. The same warnings should accompany raw milk, and the market should be legal with standards set for the safe production of raw milk.

    The state's approach to the raw milk issue, however, is only driving raw milk into a dangerous underground black market, where people are more likely to get sick. Once again, saftey and quality take a back seat to politics.

    Their approach to the cheesemaker's license is causing Wisconsin to fall behind the growing trends of small artisan and farmstead cheese. Why is it that we still have yet to have anyone produce a good artisan soft-ripened in Wisconsin. Why in America's dairyland do we have to look to Vermont and California to get this category of cheese?

    There's nothing wrong with having standards, but the standards should make sense, be consistant, and not punish small producers over large producers as they currently do.

  2. As far as the whole listeria from Wisconsin cheese goes, there were two cases of Wisconsin cheese being recalled from listeria contamination, both in 2000. There may be more recent cases, but these were the only two I could find through a brief google search… once again proving that licensing cheesemakers (like pastuerizing milk) is no guarentee of saftey or quality.





  3. Well, drama about licenses aside (which I don't know enough about to comment on intelligently), I think you've got a fantastic idea in your cheesemaker scholarship. Good for you!

  4. Dude, you couldn't have been more politically correct if you were on public radio. You use a common ploy of saying that Wisconsin has licensing and hasn't had a listeria recall thus linking these things together although there is no actual proof that they have anything to do with each other. Do they have people dead in the streets in all of those other states and countries. You also suggest that its good because it separates the Wanna be's out that aren't serious. Haven't checked today but don't think the state constitution suggests that this is the job of the State of Wisconsin. What was the licensing rules to do what you do and how do they get rid of the wanna be's. Don't you think that you should be required to work for 6 months on a competitors blog before being allowed to blog yourself. And shouldn't you have to take $3000 worth of, mostly, worthless classes for the State school (the only school authorized to offer them – no conflict of interest there)in order to be a blogger. Its a scam, plain and simple and is supported by the state for revenue and WCMA to quell competition. It works. The state has gone from 2800 cheese producers to 110 a 96% drop. Please don't give me that 1200 cheesemakers line again. Until they require continuing education more then half of those licenses or frauds. Bought and paid for at $25 per year. Suggest continuing education is a good idea, how could it not be, and see what your bosses say to you. Or just remain a pawn.

  5. Hi William,

    Are you coming to my Wisconsin Original Cheese Festival in November? Would be great for you to meet some of the state's finest licensed cheesemakers. The event is sold out, but I've got two extra tickets for the Rebirth of Washed Rind cheeses for Saturday at 1 p.m. Say the word, and they're yours. Happy Day! Jeanne

  6. Again no comment on continuing education which would show whether Wisconsin is actually interested in the money or the quality. I think we know the answer but you are afraid to ask the question.

    Jeanne, have you ever gone to the International cheese contest that WCMA holds every other year or the US competition that the WCMA holds every other year. Or have you been to the cheese contest in Natwick, UK which is the largest cheese contest in the world. Broaden your horizons. You will meet hundreds of spectacular cheese makers that, dare I say it, are not licensed by the DATCP. Are you suggesting that all of these people are inferior to the licensed cheesemakers. Are you suggesting that the people that bring you “Chicken Soup Cheddar” are better cheese makers then say Charles Martell that brought Double Glouster back from the brink. Maybe you could explain to my friend Randolph Hodgson the owner and founder of Neal's Yard that all of the cheeses that he imports all over the world are inferior because they are not made by a Wisconsin sanctioned cheese maker. Jamie Montgomery comes to town occasionally, maybe you could discuss this with him. (He makes Montgomery West Country Cheddar which is probably the most recognized in the world) If you are going to continue to spout the company line then you are just a talking (or writing in this case) head in it for the money.

  7. William, I am crushed that you don't read my blog enough to know that I've blogged live from the U.S. Championship Cheese Contest, the World Championship Cheese Contest and every American Cheese Society conference since 2006. I am also very familiar with the Neal's Yard Dairy folks, and have served on educational and tasting panels with Randolph. He's a great guy. You're right, there are some amazing cheeses being made all over the world, including some amazing cheeses I had the honor of tasting while in India for three weeks last year. Wisconsin by no means has the market on good cheese. I just happen to live here, so eat more of it than anything else.

    Thanks for your comments on cheesemaker continuing education. It would be interesting to see how many cheesemakers would be interested. I'll talk amongst the industry and see where it goes.

    Let me know if you want the Stinky Cheese Seminar tickets. I'm saving them for you!

  8. Jeanne:

    I like the “name dropper” comment about being in India for 3 weeks, very smooth. I'm sure your readers will be impressed.

    Asking cheesemakers if they want an added expense, ummm, wonder what the answer will be. Ask them if they would like to drop the fee to renew their lisense, or stop having inspections or maybe eliminate drug testing. Get real. It is the state, not the cheese makers that is the problem. Again I will say, if the state was actually interested in quality and not just the colour of money they would require the same standards that they do for, say it with me, plumbers and contractors and teachers and even master gardeners.

    I never did get an answer as to whether you think that cheesemakers with a WI lisense make better cheese then the 99% of unlisensed cheesemakers. I will assume you will dodge the question again as it makes a joke of the concept.

    I have an interesting idea. Check with UW Food Safety to see if Dr. John Lucey is a lisensed cheesemaker. He is Irish and designed a very popular cheese here called Dubliner. Let me know.

    I will have to pass on your tickets as I am not really right around the corner. Thanks for asking though.

    Toodle Pip

  9. I wish other states had similar licensing programs. Personally, anybody preparing food for me should have some type of checks and balances system in place to ensure they know what they are doing. The licensing program was not designed so WI could tout that their cheese is better, it was designed to help prevent some people who may not be aware of all the sanitation issues from making poor quality cheese and making people sick.

    I agree that there is incredible cheese in the 99% that don't have licenses. It is the half of one percent of the 99% who make dangerous cheese and ruin it for the rest.

    FYI…I am not affiliated with the government and do not have a company line.

  10. Break Dancing Worm-

    You are right. There should be checks to make sure that the food we are eating is safe.

    That is why dairy farms, milk hauling trucks, recieving stations for milk, and the creameries themselves must be inspected and licensed.

    Does a chef or kitchen worker have to go through a year+ long process before they are even allowed to do their job? No. At most, they have to attend a 2 day course on kitchen sanitation and food prep saftey, and pass a test at the end of it. And of course, the kithcen/food prep space has to be inspected and certified.

    Granted, to be a really good chef, you probably want to go to culinary school or work under an accomplished chef, but this is a different matter than food saftey.

    Pretty incredible, how accomplished this cheesemaker licensing program is, isn't it? There are plenty of cheesemakers who have gone through the whole DATCP licensing program, who make pretty poor and second-rate quality cheese. Most chefs who go to culintary school or spend a year+ under other accomplished chefs at least make decent food. The same cannot be said for DATCP's licensing program.

    The thing to understand about Wisconsin dairy, is that it is incredibly politically charged, because it is very controlled by the large industrial milk processors. Why, in a state with a huge black market for fluid raw milk (some say the figure is as high as $18 million a year) has DATCP not established a licensing program for farm-direct raw milk? Can you imagine the amount of money they would make if they charged even, say $100/year for a simple license to sell raw milk?

    Well, guess what? Dean foods, Organic Valley, and a whole slew of huge milk processors would stand to lose a lot by such a licensing program. Not to mention it would begin to raise a bunch of questions about why raw milk cheeses aged under 60 days are still illegal, thus opening the floodgates to competition from fresh raw milk cheeses from Europe.

    I can't emphasize enough how “food saftey” is just a guise for all this stuff. Food saftey is not the motivating factor. Politics and corporate bottom lines is the motivating factor.

    I like Jeanne alot, but I think she is wrong on this count.

  11. BDW:

    Just so you know. The licensing program does not require you attend any classes if you work for a big cheesemaker because they will just sign off your card. In addition, as has been pointed out repeatedly there is no continuing education requirement so once a license is issued you are in. Some of the people with a license have had it for 30 or 40 years and have not made cheese in 20 years and yet they can start tomorrow to make cheese again. Their license is still valid.

    I agree that people should learn what they are doing, but that applies to all people not just individuals that decide that they want to try this and exempt the big companies. The classes would make sense if they were required on an on going basis for all licensed cheesemakers. Don't you think a few things have changed in the past 40 years. Where do the licensed people learn of those changes, they don't. So don't fool yourself into thinking that this is some kind of altruistic move on the part of the state. Its financial and political right down the line.

  12. FYI, You folks have no idea what so-called “big business” is in Wisconsin's dairy industry. Try working in the Southeast or perhaps the Southern Plains.

    Honestly, I know that there are some things that are out of our control and that “big businesses” do things that we may question as ethical or simply reasonable. However, I am going to say the same thing I say to dairy producers I work with, figure out how to be competitive. It is easy to sit back and complain about “big-business” keeping the man down as well how things are politically motivated…I still work with dairy folks in WI, so I know what you are saying. However, there is so much out of our control, so find a competitive niche to combat what you can't control. If I owned a WI cheese business I would incorporate stricter guidelines than what is on the licensing program and market that as a way to combat the issue.

    I contend that much of how you feel is shared by our friends accross the ocean in New Zealand. Perhaps one day we will eliminate subsidies or perhaps our dairy industry (especially cheese) will remove its trade distortion policies. Perhaps if that were the case we would really have a level playing field.

    I am not even going to talk about the raw milk issue, that as you say is another topic and I have mixed feelings. I will say though, as an economist, that $18 million figure is not a figure I would hang my hat on, nor are some of the other dairy industry economic indicators I have seen lately.

    I agree that finacial and political motivators are issues here. No disputing that. Even though the licensing program might not be preferred, do you think there is any merrit to it? Look, the point is that I agree to some extent that the cheesemakers license distorts the marketplace and claims WI cheese is better or safer really are about as strong as that $18 million dollar figure on raw milk. The key is that market and life distortions will continue for the New Zealanders as well as those who want to simply make cheese and become entrepreneurs. Either way, find a way to compete until policies can be changed.

  13. I thought they had closed New Zealand and is there an Old Zealand, holland perhaps.

    I agree you should work on a niche but if no one trys to put an end to this licensing farce then WI will continue to fall behind in small operations.

    Actually, requiring that you work for a competitor to get a license in any field is illegal by federal trade commission rules as it is anti competitive and allows the established cheese producers, can we say WCMA, to control their own competition. Seems like a fair system to me. Trying calling a few cheese producers and tell them you would like to work in their plant for awhile so you can start your own cheesemaking business. Wonder what the response would be?

  14. Break Dancing Worm-

    You say “figure out how to be competitive.”

    I think I already have it figured out. Go make cheese in another state which isn't so hostile to artisan cheese and dairy producers.

  15. Jeanne:

    This is an email that I received today…

    Dear William,

    I am not a state licensed cheesemaker and I do not believe they have such a thing in Ireland.


    Dr John A. Lucey
    Department of Food Science
    University of Wisconsin-Madison
    1605 Linden Drive
    Madison, WI 53706-1565

    Fax Number: (608) 262 6872
    Tel Number: (608) 265 1195
    Mobile: (608) 239 2042
    e-mail: jalucey@facstaff.wisc.edu

    John Lucey created the cheese that you will see in every grocery store in the world called Dubliner. It is great cheese and, can you believe it, he is not a licensed cheesemaker. I guess that means that there is an excellent chance that people world wide are dying from his cheese. He also teaches classes to the people attempting to get a cheese makers license. Poetic justice.

    The problem that I have with your position is that instead of being unhappy with the status quote which is clearly unethical and illegal you want to help people deal with the situation. Its like saying I oppose slavery, but rather then try to end it I will instead give the profits of my endeavors to help make the slaves more comfortable within slavery.


  16. I personally know John Lucey and for you to connect his statements to me believing in and perpetuating slavery is absolutely abhorable. My participation in this conversation with you is ending. Feel free to continue to argue with yourself.

  17. JC
    I have been reading this blog since it began and am, once again, amazed that you make your living writing. Don’t order that Porsche just yet. Let's review. Sentences are supposed to be one complete thought. You knowing Dr. Lucey (as was mentioned before another name dropper comment) and the comment on slavery have nothing to do with one another. In addition, the writer of the slavery comment never suggested that you believe in or believe in perpetuating slavery it was an analogy. One would think that you would understand analogies but apparently you don't. I, for one, never saw this as an argument nor, do I think, did anyone else. It is a debate. Apparently you were on your own with that thought, as you often are. And finally I love the way that you bring up your righteous indignation to use as an excuse to terminate a debate which you are clearly losing. I am sure that we all feel better knowing that Jeannie Carpenter, legend in her own mind, is opposed to slavery. I know I will sleep better tonight.

  18. I'm surprised by the tone of this debate. Are we really angry that Wisconsin licenses its cheesemakers? When we established this short course based licensing alternative, it was celebrated as a modern, education-based approach to receiving a cheesemaker's license. I'm surprised to see it decried as some sort of conspiracy. WDATCP reported recently that 10 persons have received a state cheesemaker license via this short course path.

  19. John – The point is not how many people have pushed through this ordeal but rather whether it is a legitimate exercise of governmental power. It is interesting that the new “short course” requires you to go through various classes with the only place that those classes can be taken is the UW system. Horrible conflict of interest. I agree with a number of people that have mentioned the lack of continuing education as obvious proof that the goal is not quality cheesemakers. Big companies just sign off their perspective cheesemakers, no classes, no waiting period and no additional classes. If classes are good for small cheesemakers they are good for big companies as well. I was poking around in the WI websites and found that beauticians have a continuing education requirement with no potential for feeding listeria to the masses. The most interesting thing is that the people that test the milk coming into a cheese plant have to be recertified every two years but the cheesemaker himself just sails along with his life long license. It is not up to the state to decide if a person is serious. They should check on safety, which they do with inspections on dairy farms and dairy plants. A butcher requires no license. Its a scam. I don't think it should be ended, I think it should be made legitimate. All new cheesemakers have to take the classes, no bye for big companies and there should be a continuing education class required before you can renew your license. This class could update the cheesemakers on new rules, policies and programs that are available. A test should be given. The class could be a short course of a few days.

    So what is the argument against this everyone get educated and a continuing education requirement. Simple, the state in collusion with the WCMA want to limit the competition which is clearly unethical and illegal. In addition the WMMA wants to march out that famous 1200 licensed cheesemakers number that Jeanne likes to yammer on about. If you required continuing education half of those cheesemakers would be gone because they no longer make cheese. That would cut back the states revenue and cut back on that silly statistic.

    I would like to hear from anyone that has a legitimate reason that continuing education would not be in the best interest of the cheese making community. I would especially like to hear from all of those lettered people, WCMA, WMMB, DBIC and DATCP, whew!

  20. I would agree with Trish that William's reference to slavery was simply an analogy. We don't live in the 19th century anymore. Though we don't have slavery today the way we did back then, we are also capable of inflicting much more severe wrongdoings against our fellow humans with our military industrial state.

    I think a more appropriate analogy here is not to slavery, but to Fascism — when business controls government, and that is exactly what we have in America today.

    If you haven't seen it yet, there's a documentary to see called The Future of Food that deals with this issue in relations to farming and food — http://www.hulu.com/watch/67878/the-future-of-food

    In our case, talking about the dairy world, it is not so much the cheese makers who are the victims of oppressive government policies, but the dairy farmers and their animals. We are really facing a situation here where DATCP and the large milk processors/haulers want to keep farmers in a slave-like subserviant position with their policies — policies that can really only be described as food fascism.

    If anyone is following what's going on with the whole raw milk issue and NAIS in Wisconsin, its really really super scary. Amish farmers being dragged to court for refusing to violate their religious beliefs by registering their farm with the NAIS system (National Animal Identification). DATCP issuing subpeonas to every farmer who sells raw milk, trying to obtain their entire customer list. Wisconsin has been particularily aggressive as of late in pursuing these policies against farmers, which are so blatantly done on behalf of corporate agribussiness.

    Truth be told, this whole cheesemaker's license is a pretty minor and petty concern compared to some of the stuff that's happening on the farm front. There is little question that DATCP is controlled by corporate interests, and as a result, almost all of its policies and practices are shaped by those corporate interests (including the Wisconsin cheesemaker's license). I just wouldn't get hung up on the cheesemaker's license as the focal point of that criticism. There's a lot more serious stuff going on that deserves our attention.

  21. Amen to that Bill. Much ado over close to nothing. I read Frank making the argument that Wisconsin should have continung education for all cheesemakers and short courses licensing for all cheesemakers. Then he says 'why do we have a license anyway — dog groomers don't need a license.' That's merely arguing all sides of an issue.
    Continuing education is a good thing for any person in any job. 'Nuff said.

  22. I have really found all of the comments on this blog very interesting. Tonight my fiancé and I were just searching the internet to find out how a person goes about obtaining a cheese makers license, and the findings… Well I was shocked really. I am a Certified Pharmacy Technician, a person who is partially responsible for handling the medications you receive from your local drug store. In order to retain my certification, I am required to complete 20 hours of continuing education courses every two years. In my opinion regulating the quality of people who work behind the pharmacy counter is necessary because medications are a tricky business.
    As a cheese lover and a resident of Wisconsin, I was a little concerned to see that a cheese makers license would cost me more in courses and time than my CPhT certification (don't get me wrong a LOT of hours were spent in preparation and studying for the exam) and I can't help but agree with the majority of the commenters that this reeks of “big government” and “big business”. Do I feel a little safer knowing that the person who made my cheese had to go through some sort of training and certifying process? Absolutely. But having gone through college once in my life, would I be willing to shell out approximately $3000 to join those ranks? Probably not. I've got kids. That doesn't mean that I wouldn't be interested in learning and practicing and possibly becoming a very skilled cheese maker.

    As for continuing education, absolutely. I mentioned before that I am required to undergo 20 hours of continuing education every two years. The things I've learned from those courses are invaluable. Things I can bring back to my pharmacy and share with others to make for a safer working environment. I'd like to know that the people who are making the cheese that my family consumes on a daily basis are undergoing the same furthered learning that I go through in order to safely dispense their high cholesterol medications.

    So to wrap this up, I think some sort of licensing process is good protocol to ensure safety. The process that is currently in place in Wisconsin seems a bit like overkill, and the fact that you can only take these courses at a UW makes it pretty obvious to me that the state government is playing a heavy hand in all of it. But in any profession where licensing is a must, continuing education should be absolutely mandatory.

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