Photo Caption: Sonja Williams, age 2-1/2, is already helping feed the cows at her parents’ dairy farm, and she’s not shy when it comes to showing new baby calves to podcast interviewers. She talks about her favorite cow, Clementine, and about “Surprise”, the latest born calf, peeking through the gate.
Listen to an interview with North Hendren cheesemaker Mike Vetterkind, dairy farmers Luke Yurkovich, Adam and Emily Williams, and their 2-1/2 daughter, Sonja, on Cheese Underground Radio:
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A bit of the backstory:
This week, I visited small town Wisconsin and talked with two dairy farm families, both milking small herds of just 60 cows, and who for decades, have shipped their milk to the local cheese factory: North Hendren Cooperative Dairy, near Willard.
There’s just one problem.
In January, the buyer who purchased their blue cheese for years ended their contract. The folks at North Hendren went from making 2.2 million pounds of blue cheese last year to less than 75,000 pounds so far in 2017. And now, a small group of people are trying to help a historic cheese factory supporting 24 farm families stay in business.
My story starts with Luke Yurkovic, a third generation dairy farmer. He farms near the tiny town of Willard, Wisconsin, population 539. His grandfather came to the United States in 1910 from the eastern European country of Slovenia, seeking a better life for his family. After landing in Ellis Island, the Yurkovich family moved first to Ohio, but soon traveled by train and settled down in Wisconsin to farm, clearing acres and acres of stumps left behind from logging, They used horses and dynomite to clear the land, and within 15 years, had built by hand a milking barn, the farmhouse, machine shed and pig barn from stones picked off the land. And in 1923, he helped found North Hendren Cooperative Dairy, a cheese plant still owned and operated by 24 local dairy farmers, including his grandson, Luke.
Today, Luke, his wife, Judy, and son Brenden, live on that same home farm and milk 60 cows. For nearly 100 years, three generations of Yurkoviches have sent their farm’s milk to North Hendren Cooperative Dairy, where it is made into cheese. In 2002, the plant converted from making low-profit commodity cheddar into higher-profit specialty blue cheese. They sold it all under private label to stores across the country as Black River Blue and Black River Gorgonzola.
But since January, Black River Blue has not been made by North Hendren Cooperative Dairy. The brokerage firm that purchased the factory’s blue cheese for 15 years cut their ties with the farmer cooperative and is now sourcing Black River Blue from a different cheese factory.
Since the first of the year, 24 dairy farmers, each milking an average of 50 cows, have been struggling to pay their long-time cheesemaker, Mike Vetterkind, to stick around until they can find another distributor to sell their cheese. And to further complicate things, as part of the buy-out agreement they signed with their former brokerage firm in January, the farmers are operating under a non-compete clause for one year. That means they can’t sell their award-winning blue cheese under any name – not Black River Blue – not even North Hendren Blue – to any of their former distributor customers.
I caught up with longtime Cheesemaker Mike Vetterkind and General Manager Ashlyn Nowobielski at the North Hendren cheese plant last week to learn a little more about their operation and to get an update on the situation. Mike’s been making cheese for 50 years, and was one of two cheesemakers at North Hendren who first helped the cooperative convert to blue cheese in 2000. He’s disappointed and angry that the broker buying his blue cheese canceled a long-standing contract and is instead sourcing Black River Blue elsewhere. He says the same thing happened to him at a blue cheese plant in Thorp a couple of decades ago. The same brokerage firm shut it down for the same reasons.
“The little guy is continually getting squished,” Vetterkind said. “But there’s nothing that can be done about the past. We need to move forward. Lesson learned, but it was a costly lesson.”
When Mike talks about a lifetime of quality cheesemaking and lessons learned, his words echo those of the 24 dairy farmers who own North Hendren. Many of them are second and third-generation dairy farmers. They’ve spent their lifetime milking cows, sending milk to the little cheese factory they own, and being proud of serving that cheese to their friends and neighbors.
Adam and Emily Williams are two of those dairy farmers. They milk 60 cows. And they’d like to pass their farm onto their four children: Clara, almost 7, Jack, age 5, Sonja, age 2-1/2 and little Gus, just 1 year old. The couple is young and just getting their feet planted in their farming career.
Both Emily and Adam grew up on dairy farms, and it’s a way of life they want for their children: “It’s what I know, it’s what I grew up with. I like the values it puts into people. I want it for my kids. It’s hard work, but it’s good work,” Adam says.
Note: If you’d like to support North Hendren Cooperative Dairy, you can purchase their blue and gorgonzola cheese at Fromagination in Madison, as well as Metcalfe’s Markets in Madison and Wauwatosa. Just look for the North Hendren label. Thank you to Rock Cheese, of Madison, Wisconsin, for recently adding North Hendren blue cheeses to their distribution and helping make sure North Hendren cheeses are still sold to privately-owned stores in southern Wisconsin.
Love cheese more. This episode of Cheese Underground Radio is sponsored by Fromagination, Madison’s premier cheese shop, located in the heart of America’s Dairyland, right on the capital square. Fromagination’s team of expert cheesemongers help you select the perfect cheeses and companions for every occasion. Shop online at fromagination.com, or better yet, visit and taste the cheeses that make Wisconsin famous. Fromagination. Love cheese more.