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The Wisconsin Cheesemaker’s License

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.
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