Sold! Wisconsin State Fair Cheese Auction

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Photo caption: from left: 70th Alice in Dairyland Crystal Siemers-Peterman, Lake Country Dairy Plant Manager Gary Gosda, winning bidder Jeremy Huston from Chr. Hanson, and 2017 Fairest of the Fair Rebecca Starkenburg.

Listen to an interview with top cheese judges, the grand master cheesemaker, and hear what it takes to get a winning bid for the best cheese in Wisconsin on Cheese Underground Radio:


Subscribe to future episodes by searching for Cheese Underground in your podcast app!

A bit of the backstory:

Summer in Wisconsin means only one thing to many folks: fair season. There are county fairs, there are local fairs and then there’s the grand daddy of them all: the Wisconsin State Fair, an 11-day extravaganza that encompasses everything from showing cattle, pigs and chickens to eating a Beer-Battered Bacon-Wrapped Cheddar Sausage On-a-Stick. But for cheesemakers, the best place to be is the Blue Ribbon Cheese and Butter Auction, where 28 blue ribbon cheese and butters are auctioned off to the highest bidder in a mission to raise money for scholarships and dairy promotion.

For a little over an hour at the Wisconsin State Fair each year, a big white tent fills up with everybody who’s anybody in the Wisconsin dairy industry. Bidders come from around the state to bid on 28 blue ribbon cheeses. Folks bid for different reasons. Retailers want the publicity of being able to sell a big winner. Dairy supply companies – such as equipment manufacturers and cheese packaging firms, often bid to either thank cheesemakers for past business, or to woo them for future deals. Each blue-ribbon cheese is sold individually, with the winning cheesemaker brought to the front to be recognized on stage. Cheesemakers and winning bidders are then flanked by a host of local and state dairy queens, all wearing tiaras and smiling broadly for photos.

But perhaps the best part of the evening comes at the very beginning, when the Grand Master Cheesemaker is named. Every year, it’s a surprise. No one, not even the Secretary of Agriculture, who makes the announcement, knows who will be named best in show. Everyone, including the 28 cheesemakers in attendance, fall to a hush and pay attention.

This year’s announcement is a BIG surprise: the winner, a cave-aged, smear-ripened cheese, is one almost no one in the tent has ever heard of and because it’s brand new, the winning company – Lake Country Dairy in Turtle Lake, Wisconsin, only sent one company representative because winning the big title was such a long shot. We caught Plant Manager Gary Gosda, representing Team Lake Country Dairy, right after the announcement. He was lugging a giant, Wisconsin-shaped wooden trophy away from the stage.

“We invested in making our own cave about a year and half ago and started making this cheese,” Gosda said. “It’s been a year and half of figuring out what we are doing. This is the first contest in Wisconsin we ever entered it in.”

New cheese, first contest. And it’s a winner: not bad for a first go-round. I wondered how winning cheeses get chosen at the Wisconsin State Fair. So, right before the auction, I talked with Wisconsin State Fair Chief Cheese Judge Mike Pederson, whose day job is the lead cheese grader for the State of Wisconsin, and Bob Aschebrock, veteran USDA dairy grader. The pair explained the judging process, what they look for in a supreme cheese, and what it’s like to grade cheese for a living.

“This year we had a record number of entries, so each team judged between 60 and 70 cheeses in about six hours,” Pederson said. “The defects we saw in these cheeses were so subtle, because many of these cheeses are the best cheeses in the state.”

So what’s it like to bid on a winning cheese at the Wisconsin State Fair cheese auction? Well, it just so happens I found out personally. When 11 pounds of Chris Roelli’s blue ribbon Dunbarton came up on the auction block, I started raising my arm for Metcalfe’s Markets, who had authorized me to bid on their behalf. And when the Secretary of Agriculture starts personally lobbying you to keep bidding, it’s hard to stop.

In the end, I didn’t get the winning bid, but I was still happy to see a great cheese go for a good price. And at the end of the night, a total of $56,760 had been raised, with cheeses such as LaClare Farm’s Evalon fetching $290 a pound, and a Havarti made by Decatur Dairy going for $320 a pound. We talked with Katy Katzman, Coordinator for the Wisconsin State Fair Dairy Promotion Board, on what happens with the money raised at auction, and the role dairy plays at the Wisconsin State Fair, including something called “The House of Moo.”

“The money that comes in from the auction helps with our dairy promotions here at the State Fair – we put on milking demonstrations four times a day and we have the House of Moo, which is a hands-on dairy education center in the dairy barn. And, of course, we award scholarships. This year we’ll give out six, $1,000 scholarships to students pursuing careers in the dairy industry,” she said.

“This is such a special event – sometimes we see a lot of these folks just once a year here at the auction,” Katzman continued. “It’s a big reunion every year and it’s great fun to be involved with.”

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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.

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The Future of North Hendren Cooperative Dairy

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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:


Subscribe to future episodes by searching for Cheese Underground in your podcast app!

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.

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Photo Caption: Third generation Wisconsin dairy farmer Luke Yurkovich

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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.

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Making Cheese in Copper Kettles

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Listen to an interview with Master Cheesemaker Bruce Workman and learn about the science of copper cheese vats from expert Neville McNaughton on Cheese Underground Radio:


Subscribe to future episodes by searching for Cheese Underground in your podcast app!

A bit of the backstory:

In a world full of stainless steel, just a handful of the world’s most iconic cheeses: Parmigiano Reggiano in Italy, Emmental, Raclette and Gruyere in Switzerland, as well as French Comte, are all crafted in cheese vats made from copper. What difference does copper make in these cheeses? To find out, we tracked down one of the only American cheesemakers making cheese in a copper vat: Master Cheesemaker Bruce Workman at Edelweiss Creamery near Monticello, Wisconsin.

We caught Bruce last week when he was operating on only about three hours of sleep over the course of two days. That’s because the computer that helps run much of his equipment had broken down the day before, and he was still trying to catch up. But he was happy to sit down, take a break and talk cheese.

Bruce has been making cheese for 46 years and has 11 Master Cheesemaker titles under his belt. At Edelweiss Creamery, the cheesemaking starts every weekday at 1 am and finishes up by 4 pm. That’s because Bruce is old school – when he started making cheese years ago, he didn’t have enough capacity to cool milk for more than a few hours, so he got used to a schedule of making cheese at night. Today, it’s all about efficiency – by making cheese during “off peak” hours for electricity, he saves a “boatload of money.”

When Bruce talks about being old school, the factory that he owns and operates – Edelweiss Creamery – is old school. It’s a historic cheese plant, one of more than 200 originally built in Green County, Wisconsin, more than 100 years ago. It started as a Limburger plant, but was converted to making Big Wheel Swiss by 1951. A total of 13 copper kettles, each making one wheel, were once housed inside Edelweiss Creamery. Those kettles are long gone, but a large, modern copper kettle – imported from Switzerland and capable of making four Big Wheel Swiss wheels – now sits in their place, along with several open vats where Bruce makes more than 20 varieties of cheese.

“Big Wheel Swiss” is what the Swiss call Emmental. Wheels weigh 200 pounds and contain eyes – or holes – the size of 50-cent pieces. Bruce ages his wheels and then ships them to retail stores across the country. Not only is he one of a handful of folks making cheese this way in America, but he is one of only two American cheesemakers making Big Wheel Swiss in a copper kettle.

I asked Bruce why he uses a copper vat. He again chalks it up to old world cheesemaking. A copper vessel heats evenly and makes a difference in the flavor when making old world Swiss cheese. But of all the cheeses Bruce makes, the copper kettle is reserved for only his Big Wheel Swiss. Everything else is made in stainless steel.

I asked Neville McNaughton about the science of copper vats and why they’re reserved for making alpine cheeses. Neville owns a company called SDI, which makes specialized equipment for cheesemakers. He’s also a consultant for cheesemakers in the United States, and since 2000, has developed recipes and equipment design for some of the most famous artisan cheesemakers in America. And if you listen to the podcast, you might be able to tell from his accent that he’s a native to New Zealand.

Neville says historically, copper was an easy metal to work with, and it heated uniformly. Compared to steel, it didn’t rust. “I don’t know that anyone sat down (hundreds of years ago) and created a designer cheese that had to be made in a copper vat, but there are certainly things that are unique about the cheeses that are made in copper vats.”

Many of the cheeses historically made in copper are cooked at higher temperatures – Parmigiano Reggiano, Emmental, Gruyere, Comte. One of the things that all of these cheeses have in common, is that at the point the whey is removed, the pH is still very high – at 6.5, compared to 6.2 for a cheddar. That means many of the minerals are retained in the milk. A copper vat will also contribute micro levels of copper to a cheese. “The copper is working on the fat in the cheese and creating a note at low levels that is very pleasant.”

I asked Neville if one can make cheddar, for instance, in a copper vat and his answer was clever. “Well you certainly can, but the answer is: should you?” He knows of one cheesemaker making cheddar in a copper vat, but it doesn’t taste as good as cheddar made in stainless steel.

A few years ago, I spent a day making cheese with Bruce Workman. You can read about that adventure by clicking here.

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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.

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Candied Cheddar at Roelli Cheese

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Listen to an interview with Master Cheesemaker Chris Roelli and Dr. Mark Johnson from the Center for Dairy Research on Cheese Underground Radio:


Subscribe to future episodes by searching for Cheese Underground in your podcast app!

A bit of the backstory:

Cheddar cheese – Wisconsin’s claim to fame. Nearly half of all cheese plants in America’s Dairyland produce cheddar, whether it’s in huge, 640-pound commodity blocks destined to be cut up and sold in big box grocery stores, or in smaller – but still heavy – 40-pound blocks meant to be aged and sold in specialty shops. Some cheesemakers even craft cheddar in 22-pound waxed daisy wheels, or in smaller, 18-pound wheels wrapped in linen and then covered in lard and aged in a cellar for a year or more. So much cheddar, so many choices.

Wisconsin crafts more than 600 million pounds of cheddar every year in every shape and size. And perhaps nobody has a deeper connection to cheddar than the Roelli family. Their historic cheese plant sits at the corner of Highways 11 and 23, halfway between Darlington and Shullsburg in the southwest corner of the state. In 2006, the 4th generation of the Roellis – that would be Chris – brought the family cheese plant back to life, focusing not on commodity cheddar but on small batch artisan cheese.

His latest creation is what he calls a candied cheddar – a 20-pound wheel of deep red cheddar chock full of crystals and a sweet, lovely finish. I stopped at Roelli Cheese last week to get a glimpse at this new creation and talk cheddar with Master Cheesemaker Chris Roelli.

Master Cheesemaker Chris Roelli almost always knew he wanted to make cheese. Growing up in a cheesemaking family sealed the deal. But what he always enjoyed was tweaking cheesemaking recipes to make them his own. While his father and grandfather made 40-pound and 60-pound blocks of Wisconsin State Brand cheddar, Chris decided to take a different approach.

“We’re making 20-pound wheels of artisan-style cheddar, meaning it’s cellar-aged as opposed to vacuum-sealed and cold aged,” Chris says. His “toolbox” of starter and adjunct cultures is much broader than what was available to his grandfather, and he says when you combine good milk with a wider spectrum of cultures, you tend to get a wider spectrum of flavor. “Then, when you put that cheese into a cellar-curing environment, you get a very different cheddar. It’s almost an old-style, hand-cheddared cheese with a few different cultures that it gives it a candied note: sweet, earthy and nutty.”

To learn how exactly more American cheesemakers are making what Chris Roelli calls “Candied Cheddar”, we turned to the foremost expert on Wisconsin cheese. Dr. Mark Johnson is a distinguished scientist at the Center for Dairy Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He describes himself as a “trouble-shooter” – helping cheesemakers solve problems and answer questions that seem to stump most everyone else.

Dr. Johnson is exceptionally familiar with the adjunct cultures being used to create American “sweet cheddars.” That’s because he first started researching a new strain of adjunct cultures 40 years ago. He talked a culture house in France to send some to the Center for Dairy Research. The cultures made cheese develop tyrosine crystals faster and gave cheese a sweeter, toasted pineapple note. The first cheese to showcase these cultures was Babcock Hall’s Dutch Kase. Today, it’s being used by several cheesemakers across the country.

So what exactly is a starter culture? Dr. Johnson explains it well:

“A starter culture is a specialized bacteria that is specific for the fermentation of lactose – which is the sugar in milk. It rapidly creates lactic acid. That’s what gives cheese its flavor, but it also makes cheese have a certain body – the more acid you develop, the softer the cheese will become. The acid formed dissolves the calcium in the protein, and that makes the cheese hard and firm. So when you remove calcium, it makes cheese softer, melts it easier, stretch better,” Dr. Johnson says.

So how does a starter culture differ from an adjunct culture? Dr. Johnson says “adjuncts” are strains of bacteria that are added in addition to the starter culture to create special flavors in cheese. They break down the proteins, and that’s where flavor comes. Scientists can even isolate certain bacteria that will make a certain flavor in cheese.

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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.

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Why You Need to Move to Wisconsin — Fresh, Squeaky Cheese Curds

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Listen to an interview with Master Cheesemaker Bob Wills and Cheese Science Toolkit author Pat Polowsky on Cheese Underground Radio:

Subscribe to future episodes by searching for Cheese Underground in your podcast app!

A bit of the backstory:

Friday fish fries, Jell-O salads, beer and brats: these are all foods that scream Wisconsin. But is there anything that defines America’s Dairyland better than a squeaky, fresh cheese curd? Travel the state from north to south or east to west, and you’re likely to find half pound bags of fresh cheese curds on the counter of every gas station and grocery store between Madison and Minocqua.

Of the state’s 129 cheese plants, at least 45 factories make and sell fresh squeaky cheese curds at least one day a week. That’s right: only in Wisconsin is it likely the average person knows on which days and at which factories they can buy fresh cheese curds right out of the vat. And perhaps nobody knows fresh curds better than Bob Wills, master cheesemaker and owner of Cedar Grove Cheese in Plain, and Clock Shadow Creamery in Milwaukee. Last week, I sat down with Bob at a picnic table outside his office at the Cedar Grove cheese plant to talk curds.

Fresh squeaky cheese curds are made and shipped out of both of Bob’s cheese plants at least four days a week. In fact, cheese curd production defines each cheese plant’s entire production schedule. Customers place orders for cheese curds, cheesemakers start making them around 10 p.m., and by 7 a.m., trucks are leaving each factory to head to stores with fresh squeaky cheese curds.

“I’ve estimated that in the summer months, we’re making around 26,000 pounds of fresh cheese curds a week,” Bob says.

Like many Wisconsin cheese factories, Cedar Grove Cheese also sells fresh curds right from the factory starting at 8 a.m., and even overnight ships cheese curds to folks experiencing a “cheese curd crisis.” People all over the country call up Bob, tell him there are no fresh curds available where they live, and Bob then overnight ships the curds to them. “It’s usually an exorbitant shipping cost, but they don’t seem to care, because they need their cheese curds,” he says.

So what exactly makes a fresh cheese curd squeak? For the answer, we turned to Pat Polowsky, author of Cheese Science Toolkit at cheesescience.org and a graduate student studying under the direction of Dr. Paul Kindstedt and the University of Vermont. Until recently, Pat worked in Wisconsin at the Center for Dairy Research in Madison. I email him weekly, lobbying him to return. But until then, we talk on the phone. This week, I caught him right after class in Vermont.

Pat says two main things are going on in a cheese curd to make it squeak: First: calcium, which acts as the glue to hold the structure together. Second: an intact protein structure. As a cheese curd gets older, acid is produced, and some of the calcium “glue” dissipates. The structure softens, and eventually, the protein breaks down completely. The squeak disappears. The reason we can actually hear the squeak in our mouths is from the cheese protein rubbing against the enamel of our teeth. So if you have false teeth, fresh cheese curds don’t squeak.

I asked Pat about folks who don’t live in Wisconsin, and therefore don’t have daily access to fresh cheese curds. What should they do? I suggested moving to Wisconsin, but Pat was more diplomatic. He says you can buy cheese curds in a grocery store and put them in your microwave for 15 seconds on low power. If the curd isn’t more than 10 days old, you may get the squeak back. No one knows for sure why the microwave trick works, but Pat says it probably has to do with the hydrophobic effect on proteins.

So why aren’t fresh cheese curds found so prevalently in other states? It turns out it’s because most Wisconsin cheddar plants still make cheddar the old-fashioned way: by cheddaring curd.

“If we’re talking about cheese curds, we need to talk about why they’re in Wisconsin and not everywhere else,” Bob says. “It has to do with the cheddaring process, where we mat and stack and turn and flip slabs of curd, and then run them through a mill. Ironically, the cheddaring process is designed to make cheese for aging – it’s like kneading bread, you want to get the oxygen and excess water out – but then we turn around and turn it into a product that we sell instantly.”

But cheesemakers in Wisconsin don’t just make fresh cheese curds because they’re popular, they also do so because it’s a valuable source of cash flow that can finance a cellar of aged, artisan cheese.

Even though he’s making 26,000 pounds of cheese curds a week, Cedar Grove Cheese is much better known for its aged specialty cheeses and aged cheddar. With as much as $2.5 million of cheese aging to perfection, it’s the cash from the curds that allow Bob to keep paying the bills while his aged, artisan cheeses age.

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Thank you to GetCulture, Inc. for sponsoring this episode of Cheese Underground Radio. Did you know you can make fresh, squeaky cheddar cheese curds right in your own kitchen? GetCulture Inc. is the home for hobby cheesemakers and a source of ingredients and equipment to make homemade cheese, yogurt, kefir, buttermilk and more. Visit the Get Culture store in Madison, Wisconsin, or shop the store online at www.getculture.com.

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Red Barn Rules

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Listen to an interview with Dr. Terry Homan, and dairy farmers Amy Holewinski and Bob Nett on Cheese Underground Radio.

Subscribe to future episodes by searching for Cheese Underground in your podcast app!

A bit of the backstory:

This week I visited two Wisconsin dairy farms, both milking herds of just 40 cows and each with dreams of passing them onto the next generation. I learned why they’ve joined forces with a company called Red Barn Family Farms, an organization started by a veterinarian nine years ago that’s rewarding small, family-owned farms for treating their cows right.

To understand why Dr. Terry Homan, a man in his 21st year of veterinary practice, decided to start Red Barn Family Farms, it pays to read the words written in 1885 by William D. Hoard, considered to be the father of modern dairying in Wisconsin. It was Hoard who first set the tone for today’s model dairy farmer. And it is these words that Dr. Homan had in mind nine years ago when he started a company that today produces cheese and bottled milk from the cows of nine family-owned dairy farms:

“The rule to be observed in this stable at all times, toward the cattle, young and old, is that of patience and kindness. A man’s usefulness in a herd ceases at once when he loses his temper and bestows rough usage. Men must be patient. Cattle are not reasoning beings. Remember that this is the Home of Mothers. Treat each cow as a Mother should be treated…”

 

As we climbed into Dr. Homan’s Ford with his wife, Paula, I asked Terry, who’s still working full-time as a partner in a veterinary dairy practice, what made him want to start a company that not only purchases milk from small dairies, but then partners with local cheese and dairy plants to turn that milk into Red Barn Family Farms branded cheese and bottled milk.

Terry told me he had grown up on a quintessesential Wisconsin dairy farm – mom, dad, two siblings, milking cows morning and night, baling hay in the summer, and it was this model of dairying that made him enter vet school in 1992. But what he found when he got there was a different model of dairying: bigger farms that treated the dairy cow first as a business, and secondly as an animal.

“I think if you look at the dairy industry, maybe even production agriculture in general, since the World War II era, the primary focus – it’s a commodity industry – it’s to produce as much as you can as cheaply as you can,” Terry says. “The Red Barn vision is rather different – our Red Barn Rules select farms because they excel at animal husbandry. We measure the milk quality and health of these animals, and we incentivize these farms to excel at animal health and milk quality. That’s the foundation of our company.”

Rather than base their milk pay price off of federal rates that tend to fluctuate wildly, Red Barn Family Farms pays their dairy farmers not only on how much quality milk they produce, but on the health of their animals. That means cows are audited regularly for lameness and for something called “hock health” — that’s how healthy the tarsal joint of the hind leg, or the hock, is, of each cow.

By this time in the drive, we were almost to our first dairy farm visit. Red Barn Family Farms consists of 9 farm families. As we drove into the Holewinski farm, a small red dairy barn full of red and white Holsteins greeted us. Amy, Neal and their son, Steven, age 21, milk 40 cows near Pulaski. They farm 110 acres and grow everything they need to feed the cows.

Because the Holewinskis are part of Red Barn Family Farms, that means they follow the Red Barn Rules, a set of standards. Dr. Homan put in place when he founded the company. Those rules include that cows must have access to the outdoors on a daily basis, there must be comfortable resting areas for the animals, and at all times, they should be allowed to thrive in an environment that lets a cow be a cow – such as letting her eat grass in a pasture and swat flies away with a tail.

In an industry where the average dairy cow is pushed to give as much milk as possible and may only live to be five or six years old before she’s sold at market, the cows at Red Barn farms live a little differently. At the Holewinski farm, a cow named Shiskabob just turned 10 years old and has already had seven calves. They just sold their oldest cow, Cora, aged 13, and she was milking to the end.

Our next stop was at the dairy farm of Bob Nett, who milks 38 cows near Pulaski. We caught Bob just as he was finishing up mowing his front yard. The cows were on the other side of an electric fence. That’s because Bob practices rotational grazing, and moves the fence every day so cows always eat fresh grass. As soon as Bob unhooked the electric fence, we stepped through and walked across the pasture toward the cows.

I asked Bob if he can make a living milking 38 cows. He said that because Red Barn Family Farms buys his milk and pays him a premium, he can. He thinks the Red Barn Model will allow more young people to keep farming. Bob has two young grandchildren who are showing a great interest in the cows. They know every cow’s name. He hopes perhaps they’ll have an interest in agriculture as a career.

The milk produced by Red Barn’s nine family farms is crafted into several different award-winning cheeses, including:

• Heritage Weis Aged Cheddars & Eden – crafted at Springside Cheese in Oconto Falls (my favorite is the 3-Year Cheddar, wrapped in linen and bandaged in red wax – it’s a multiple gold medal winner)

• Cupola – an alpine-style cheese crafted at LaClare Farms in Chilton

• Le Rouge – a new washed rind French-style cheese crafted at Willow Creek Creamery in Fremont.

Red Barn Family Farms milk is also bottled and sold to universities and institutions in five-gallon dispenser bags, gallons, half gallons, pints and half-pint cartons.

Click here to find where Red Barn Family Farms products are sold near you!

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Thank you to Dairy Connection Inc. for sponsoring this episode of Cheese Underground Radio. Dairy Connection Inc. is a supplier of cultures, enzymes, cheese-making supplies and trusted expertise since 1999. A family-owned business based in Madison, Wisconsin, the dedicated Dairy Connection team takes pride in its commitment to be the premier supplier to artisan, specialty and farmstead cheese-makers nationwide. To learn more, please visit www.dairyconnection.com.

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The Caves of Faribault

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Listen to an interview with the Caves of Faribault’s Jeff Jirik and Jill Ellingson on Cheese Underground Radio:

Subscribe to future episodes by searching for Cheese Underground in your podcast app!

A bit of the backstory:

Earlier this year, for the very first time, I got the chance to tour the legendary Caves of Faribault, a cheese factory perched on the edge of a river bluff in the heart of Faribault, Minnesota, less than an hour south of the Twin Cities.

Faribault is the definition of Midwest nice. It’s the kind of place where folks who watch you drive down their street more than once will amble to the curb, motion you to roll down your car window, and ask you if you’re lost. It’s the kind of place where a cheesemaker is willing to give a cheese geek a tour of his award-winning blue cheese factory, instead of attending his hometown Faribault Flannel Formal, an annual spring fling where the locals dress up in their finest flannel and bring their meatiest hot dish to see if it takes first prize at the Lumberjack Hot Dish contest.

I’m talking of course about cheesemaker Jeff Jirik, the man who brought the Caves of Faribault back from the brink in 2001, after the previous owner closed the factory and abandoned the caves to instead make blue cheese at a more modern facility in a different state. Today, Jeff and his team make some of the best blue cheese in the United States. And while he was happy to give me a special tour of the sandstone caves that make his blue cheese famous, he wasn’t super keen on having a bunch of recording equipment trail him around in the dark. That’s why we met again a few days later to talk for Cheese Underground. This time, he drove my way – to my favorite little tavern in Monroe, Wisconsin.

Today, the Caves of Faribault are perhaps best known for making aging AmaBlu®, which was the first blue cheese made in the United States and created at the caves in 1936 by Felix Frederiksen. In the 1930s, Felix traveled to Minnesota in search of St. Peter Sandstone, geologically rare across the nation but abundant in Minnesota as a result of the last glacial age. Felix found the abandoned caves that had been carved in the 1850s for Fleckentstein Brewing Co, which prior to modern day refrigeration, used the caves to store beer at cooler temperatures.

You have to remember that prior to the 1930s, all of the blue cheese consumed in the United States was imported from Europe. World War Two put constraints on importation, so when Felix started making blue cheese, it was immediately a hit. He called his blue “AmaBlu” by taking the ‘ama’ from Latin for “I love” and ‘blu’ – B –L – U as the international spelling of blue.

Between the 1940s and 1970s, Felix, with his company, Treasure Cave, Inc., oversaw many more caves hollowed out of the sandstone bluff. In the 1980s, Jeff was hired by the company then running the caves. However, Treasure Cave ended up closing down in Faribault in the 1990s because the company that had bought the caves moved production to a conventional cheese making facility in another state. Jeff moved on, too, but he never forgot the blue cheese he had made in Faribault.

With two partners, Jeff got the opportunity to purchase the old blue cheese factory in May 2001. He renamed it Caves of Faribault and spent months and months bringing the facility back to standards. Today, the business is owned by Swiss Valley, but Jeff and his team still make AmaBlu, the original blue cheese aged in the famous St. Peter Sandstone caves, as well as AmaBlu Gorgonzola and St. Pete’s Select, a super-premium blue cheese.

The cheese plant and caves are managed by Jill Ellingson, whom Jeff refers to as “the current keeper of the caves.” Jill grew up on a dairy farm not far from the factory. Her grandparents actually delivered milk in cans to the cheese plant in the 1940s. Today she oversees all cheesemaking and affinage inside the plant and the caves, with a production team of 10 people making six vats of cheese a day.

I asked Jeff and Jill if they’d ever gotten lost in the caves. Both had their own stories of electricity issues, but both found their way to the entrance. I’m grateful neither let me get lost in the Caves of Faribault. The caves are truly a special place. They’re home to amazing cheese, made by good-hearted people.

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Caves of Faribault Plant Manager Jill Ellingson with wheels of blue cheese.

Thank you to Dairy Connection Inc. for sponsoring this episode of Cheese Underground Radio. Dairy Connection Inc. is a supplier of cultures, enzymes, cheese-making supplies and trusted expertise since 1999. A family-owned business based in Madison, Wisconsin, the dedicated Dairy Connection team takes pride in its commitment to be the premier supplier to artisan, specialty and farmstead cheese-makers nationwide. To learn more, please visit www.dairyconnection.com.

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What Happens When a Master Cheesemaker Retires?

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Listen to an interview with Master Cheesemaker Mike Matucheski and master-cheesemaker-in-training Erin Radtke on Cheese Underground Radio:


Subscribe to future episodes by searching for Cheese Underground in your podcast app!

A bit of the backstory:

What happens when a master cheesemaker responsible for creating some of the most awarded Wisconsin original cheeses starts thinking about retiring? Well, he finds and mentors a replacement. I’m talking about Sartori’s Master Cheesemaker (and current U.S. Champion) Mike Matucheski, who in a state full of third and fourth generation cheesemakers – the vast majority of whom are men – is mentoring a 34-year old woman to replace him.

Five years ago, when I first visited the Sartori plant in Antigo, Wisconsin, Mike told me he was beginning to plan his retirement, and that he was adamant a woman should replace him. At the time, I was surprised. The Wisconsin dairy industry is dominated by men – most cheesemakers, milk haulers, veterinarians, farm workers and even cheesemongers – are men.  

I wondered if he would be successful in his quest. So earlier this summer, I visited the Sartori cheese plant in Antigo again to get the scoop on whether Mike had found a new wizard behind the Sartori cheese curtain to replace him.

Mike first started working at what is now the Sartori cheese plant in Antigo 24 years ago, making Parmesan, Asiago and Romano for the company that then owned the cheese factory: Kraft Cheese. Two months after he started, Kraft decided to close the plant. Governor Tommy Thompson intervened, the state provided some seed money to do a feasibility study, and the employees ended up buying the plant and reopening as Antigo Cheese.

Fast forward to 2006, when Sartori Cheese purchased the plant. That launched a successful period of innovation for Mike and his team, including introducing a full line of flavored BellaVitano cheeses, including BellaVitano Black Pepper, which won the U.S. Championship Cheese Contest in March.

But nobody, not even Mike Matucheski, can make cheese forever. He’s planning to retire in three years, and in preparation, recently handpicked his successor. She’s a 34-year-old woman named Erin Radtke. She’s already got several years of cheesemaking experience to her name, and is looking forward to starting her master cheesemaking training in a few years.

Erin grew up in the Antigo area and started working at Antigo Cheese in 2004. She had worked with Mike off and on over the years, and of course knew who he was, but it wasn’t until she was promoted to the cheese making room where she knew she had found her calling. “I was always striving to make things better,” she says. That caught Mike’s attention. Soon, Erin started taking cheesemaking courses at the Center for Dairy Research in Madison, Wisconsin and kept working hard.

Since then, she’s taken every course at CDR and will be eligible to start the Master Cheesemaker program in four years. She plans to become certified in Parmesan and mixed milk cheese.

By then of course, Mike will be retired. And Erin will be one of literally a handful of women master cheesemakers in the state. I asked her what that might mean to her.

“I feel like it is important. Just working in the milk and cheese industry in general is not easy for women. If you go to any dairy plant, I can guarantee you’re at ratio of three to one or two to one of men to women. Becoming a cheesemaker, and someday a master cheesemaker as a woman, will be a real accomplishment. It’s telling other women: you can do it, too.”

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Thank you to Dairy Connection Inc. for sponsoring this episode of Cheese Underground Radio. Dairy Connection Inc. is a supplier of cultures, enzymes, cheese-making supplies and trusted expertise since 1999. A family-owned business based in Madison, Wisconsin, the dedicated Dairy Connection team takes pride in its commitment to be the premier supplier to artisan, specialty and farmstead cheese-makers nationwide. To learn more, please visit www.dairyconnection.com.

 

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The Summer of the Year I Turned 45

My mother got sick the summer she turned 45. A cigarette smoker since age 16, she stopped smoking that spring because she was already having trouble breathing. So at age 13, I inherited her job of driving the hay baler that summer, listening hard to understand the shouted directions of how to navigate corners and contours from my father standing on the wagon behind me. He stacked the small square bales chugging out of the chute one by one, grabbing each with a hook in his right hand and throwing them above his head with his left, until a load of almost 100 bales were stacked to withstand the bumpy trek back to the barn by the hired man.

My mother never got better. She was diagnosed with asthma, a condition that afflicts many people and a word that I had heard before. So I never really worried. That fall, I stopped taking the morning bus to school and took over my mother’s chores on the farm, taking a quick shower when we were done with the cows, curling my hair as fast as I could in the mirror over the sink upstairs, and then having dad drop me off at school. I grew up in farm country, so it shouldn’t have been embarrassing to be dropped off at school in an old farm truck, but when you’re a 13-year-old girl, everything is embarrassing. I am ashamed to say I worried more about the look of that farm truck than I did the health of my mother.

My mother died the summer she turned 53. The eight years between diagnosis and the grave were not pretty. She became confined to the four walls of the old farm house’s living room, filled with the whir of machines that helped her breathe. By the time I finished high school, Mom wasn’t getting better. So Dad made me a deal that if I turned down the scholarship to the journalism school I’d been offered, and instead commuted from home to the local college, helped him farm and take care of mom, he’d pay my tuition. So I did. And I am ashamed to say I resented that decision because I worried more about missing the full college experience than I did the health of my mother. Her asthma won during the summer between my junior and senior year of college. The next year I moved to Idaho to become a news reporter. The year after that, my dad remarried. And life marched on.

This is the year I turn 45. And summer will soon be upon us. I was 21 when my mother died. Sitting in the church pew next to my father during her funeral, I counted in my head how many years there were between ages 21 and 45. I’ve never been good at doing math in my head, which has always frustrated my father, a math genius, to no end. I suspect that’s why he taught me how to play cribbage when I was six years old: he figured making 15’s and 31’s and counting cards would help. It didn’t. To this day, I have to find a pen and paper or a calculator to do even simple addition or subtraction. So at age 21, sitting in that church, I kept myself from crying by trying to figure the math of how many years I had left before I got sick like she did. And I’ve been on a dead run ever since.

During the past 24 years, I’ve been described several ways, the nicest perhaps being “pushy,” the not-no-nicest starting with a “b” and ending with “itchy.” One boss described me as a snowplow. Another told me I was like a bull in a china shop. When my daughter was young, she would choose the jugs of milk at the store by which Sassy Cow Creamery “cow card” they carried. You can imagine her delight the day she found one that read: “Darlene: her pushy personality always gets her to the front of the herd.” She immediately removed it from the jug, thrust it at me, and said, “This cow is just like you, Mom!” It’s been on our fridge ever since.

For the past 24 years, I’ve lived my life in anticipation of this summer, trying to get as much accomplished as possible, traveling to as many places I can, and earnestly raising my daughter to adulthood, because the most significant woman in my life got sick when she was 45 years old. I’m in good health. I’ve never smoked. I’ve never found a brand of alcohol I enjoy, and I seem to be one of the few people who’s never tried drugs. There’s no doubt that I need to exercise more, and I probably drink too much coffee. But I’m doing fine. No life-threatening diagnoses so far.

That’s why a Friday afternoon two weeks ago meant so much to me. My husband and I took my dad and stepmom (who after 22 years in my life, I’ve started introducing as “mom”) to Baumgartner’s in Monroe for Limburger sandwiches and a game of Euchre. A group of Green County cheesemakers walked in and bought each other a beer. Several came over to say hello, so I introduced them to my parents. And then something amazing happened.

One of the cheesemakers, who knows my personality, and graciously chooses to overlook the “itchy” parts, shook my father’s hand and told him: “your daughter is changing the world.” I nearly broke down in tears. Is there any bigger compliment from a colleague? I don’t know if my father heard him, because the tavern was full, his hearing aid wasn’t working properly, and we would soon leave to find a quieter place. But I heard him. And it made all the difference. The summer that I turn 45 will come and go and I will keep on keeping on. I know I’ve got another 45 years in me.

Looking Over the Cubicle Wall at Days Gone By

My favorite picture of my daughter when she was little,
surrounded by memories of places visited or projects
created at our dining room table. The crocheted butterfly
was made by my own mother over 25 years ago.

I cry about three times a year. I don’t cry when I’m sad or angry, and my tears always catch me by surprise. What’s worse, they are often embarrassing, because they pop out in public.

When I worked at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, I would break out into tears at my desk about every six months, mostly from the sheer frustration of trying to work in a government bureaucracy that did not move as fast as I wanted. On those days, Dr. Myron, the state fish veterinarian, who sat in the adjacent cubicle, would slowly stand up, gently peak over our cubicle wall, and gently ask if I was alright. I would always answer with an emphatic yes, and that I would be fine in a few minutes. And I always was. Whenever I cry to this day, I think of that tall, kind man, asking if I was going to be okay.

Today was the first time I cried in a long time, and it happened in of all places, the Sunday church service. There’s nothing like breaking out in tears in a room of 150 people, many of whom have become like family over the years, but many of which are still strangers, and where in both cases,  men have no idea what to do, and frantically elbow their wives to do something.

Today was Children’s Sunday, where the kids in our Sunday School presented all the things they had been learning the past few weeks about discipleship. As I watched a three-year-old girl dressed up in a fancy dress not follow her script and instead interrupt the pastor with a very detailed story about what characters were her favorite in a game she played at home, I looked to the parents, sitting in the audience, who were wearing looks of utter mortification. I’m sure they believed their child was ruining the children’s sermon. What I wanted to do, was to stand up over the cubicle wall, and tell them it was going to be alright: that this was a moment they would remember forever, and that every adult in the audience was either 1) remembering with fondness their children at that same age, 2) thanking God it wasn’t their kid talking, if they had kids that same age, or 3) wishing it was their child because they either had lost a child or perhaps couldn’t have children.

And that is when I inexplicably broke out into tears. Because my little girl is now 18, has moved out of our house, and is happily living her own life. But when she was three years old, she sat on steps just like the ones today, wearing a fancy dress, and in the very middle of the Children’s Sermon, stood up, lifted up her skirt, and announced as loud as humanly possible: “I forgot to wear underwear today.” I remember frantically motioning to her from the audience to sit down, and still remember the feeling of being utterly mortified, wishing God would at that moment just swallow me up whole. I believe the situation was rendered by the pastor hastily saying: “Let’s pray,” and all the kids following his lead of sitting down and putting their hands together.

That moment has become a storytelling staple in our house, and it is always told with laughter and fondness. And while I remember that moment vividly, it seems the years that led to that point, and the years after that day, are a blur. As a parent, we are always too busy. Busy with work. Busy with school. Busy with stuff. Stuff. And we very rarely take the chance to sit down and think: this day is never going to roll around again. And pretty soon those days turn into months and the months turn into years, and in a flash, your little girl with the fancy dress is all grown up and gone.

While parents of grown children are always happy for our kids to go out into the world to do their own good work, it is often not until they are gone, that one sits on the sofa and realizes how quiet the house is. And sometimes one wishes they could have just a day or two back of having a little girl, especially one, who one Sunday long ago, interrupted a children’s sermon with a story of her own.