|Mike Gingrich and Andy Hatch of Uplands Cheese.
Photo by Uriah Carpenter
In March, Uplands Cheese co-owner and lead cheesemaker Andy Hatch asked Ari Weinzweig and me if we might write letters of support asking the American Cheese Society to consider awarding Mike and Carol Gingrich the organization’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
I asked Andy if he could send me the nominating document he had submitted, as I wanted my letter of support to fill in any gaps and convince the ACS that the founders and creators of Pleasant Ridge Reserve in Dodgeville, Wisconsin, were indeed so very worthy of the award. After all, past recipients include some serious cheese icons, including Ig Vella, Dan Carter, Kathleen Shannon Finn, Daphne Zepos, Ari Wienzweig, Cathy Strange, Ricki Carroll, John Greeley and Steve Jenkins. No one deserves to be in that list more than Wisconsin artisan cheese pioneers Mike and Carol Gingrich.
|Photo by Uriah Carpenter|
As I watched Andy present, and then Mike accept, the ACS Lifetime Achievement Award award on behalf of Carol and himself last week at the annual ACS conference in Des Moines, I remembered why Andy’s original nomination papers had brought me to tears. Nowhere in the history of a master and apprentice relationship has a former apprentice (now a rock star cheesemaker in demand at every cheese event in the country) given so much credit to the two people who took a chance on their successor. And never before has the master given most of the credit to the industry and the people who surround him. You all might call it “Wisconsin nice.” I call it being humble and kind.
When Mike & Carol Gingrich asked for my help in spreading the gospel of Wisconsin artisan cheese, I said yes. When Mike & Carol asked me to join a committee or help with an event, I said yes. And I said yes because I respected the time, sweat and money they had given to the industry. Mike & Carol Gingrich will never, in a million years, take credit for anything. But they have changed everything.
|A standing ovation for Mike Gingrich.
Photo by Uriah Carpenter
An excerpt from Andy’s nomination papers, repeated for the audience at the award presentation:
“Mike and Carol were pioneers in the renaissance of grass-based dairy and farmstead cheesemaking, who had the vision to revitalize old-world traditions in modern ways. Their vision began in the early 1980s, when, together with neighboring dairy farmer and eventual Uplands Cheese co-owners, Dan and Jeanne Patenaude, they were among the first dairy farmers in the country to utilize electric fencing as a way to intensively manage rotational grazing patterns.
“By the late 1990s, when Mike and Dan had combined their herds and purchased a 300-acre grazing farm on Pleasant Ridge, they were producing wonderfully distinctive grass-fed milk and began looking for a way to take advantage of that flavor. After a serendipitous meeting with Ari Weinzweig at the 1998 ACS Conference, Mike became convinced of his milk’s potential for alpine-style cheese. Although his idea came in a period when small Wisconsin cheesemakers were contracting, consolidating or just plain quitting, Mike drew up a business plan for a raw-milk, farmstead cheese named Pleasant Ridge Reserve. As with rotational grazing, he saw an opportunity to take advantage of old traditions in new uncommon ways.
Andy continued: “When I bought the farm from Mike in 2014, he gave me a copy of that original business plan. Incredibly, he had done exactly what he had planned in 1998. His was not an easy path to envision back then, and it certainly wasn’t easy to navigate. Mike’s initial vision of a raw, grass-fed, farmstead cheese struck many as misguided and doomed to fail. When it was proven successful, his refusal to compromise those principles in the name of expansion seemed out of character for an American cheese business. But Mike has the rare combination of a mind sharply attuned to business (he earned an MBA from Harvard before milking cows) and a heart that gravitates to simplicity and authenticity. As he guided Uplands Cheese through growth, awards and recognition, he never wavered from his founding principles, and as he became an impressively profitable cheesemaker, he still provided an opportunity for me, his apprentice, to share in the success and eventually take the reins.
|Bob Wills and Mike Gingrich.
Photo by Uriah Carpenter
“Despite his obvious accomplishments, Mike never took undue credit for the success of his cheese, and he recognized that his company was riding a wave propelled by many people” from the scientists at the Center for Dairy Research who helped him develop the recipe, to Bob Wills, who opened up his cheese plant to allow Mike and Carol make the first batches of Pleasant Ridge Reserve.
Andy concluded: “People in our industry regard Mike not only as a successful cheesemaker, but also as someone who plowed ground that became fertile for the rest of us. It’s rare in any industry to find such a celebrated producer with his humility and altruism. While our larger food culture at times seems to revolve around its own narcissistic gravity, the ACS does well to honor a career based on core values of education, networking and sustainability. Mike and Carol Gingrich have embodied those values since they began milking cows in 1980. This is our chance to honor what they have achieved and given to all of us.”
Congratulations to Mike and Carol Gingrich, and thank you for putting Wisconsin artisan cheese on the map.