Tickets to Wisconsin Cheese Camp on Sale Oct. 3

20170627-IMG_7178If you’ve ever dreamed of meeting the person who makes your favorite Wisconsin artisan cheese, then I have great news. Tickets to Wisconsin Cheese Camp, a two-day cheese festival I’m hosting in Madison next month, go on sale Tuesday, October 3 at 8 a.m. Set your alarm now.

What is Wisconsin Cheese Camp, you ask? Well, it’s a series of events over the course of two days during the weekend of November 4-5, all located at The Edgewater in Madison. Each event is designed to help you get to know your favorite artisan cheesemaker better while eating the cheeses you like best. Basically, it’s a big cheese  party, and I’d love for you to attend.

The weekend kicks off bright and early Saturday morning with two all-day bus tours, each visiting three different dairy and cheese plants, where you’ll tour the factory, talk shop with the owner, and taste their favorite cheeses. Each tour includes lunch, transportation in a big comfortable coach bus, and all tastings. With increasing food safety regulations, most cheese plants no longer offer tours, so this is your chance to see things up close and personal.

A huge thank you to Carr Valley Cheese, who stepped up to sponsor Wisconsin Cheese Camp. In fact, aged Cheddars crafted by Carr Valley’s Master Cheesemaker Sid Cook, as well as a variety of Wisconsin cheesemakers, will be featured in the Saturday night Wisconsin Cheddar Dinner at The Edgewater. Plus, author Gordon Edgar, cheese buyer for Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco, will be the dinner’s keynote speaker, and all dinner attendees will receive a complimentary copy of his book: Cheddar: A Journey to the Heart of America’s Most Iconic Cheese.

On Sunday, a 90-minute Tasting Seminar on “Taste of Place” will be presented by Uplands Cheesemaker Andy Hatch and Bronwen and Francis Percival, authors of the new book: Reinventing the Wheel: Milk, Microbes, and the Fight for Real Cheese. Bronwen is the cheese buyer for Neal’s Yard Dairy in London, and Francis is a cheese and wine writer and educator in the United Kingdom. All seminar attendees will receive a complimentary hard-cover copy of the Percivals’ new book, which is earning rave reviews, including this one in the Wall Street Journal.

Of course, no cheese camp would be complete without the chance to meet all of your favorite cheesemakers in one room, so that’s why Sunday afternoon marks a Meet the Cheesemaker Gala. You’ll get to meet 30 Wisconsin cheesemakers, taste 150 cheeses, drink free beer and wine (drinks are included in the ticket price) and nosh on yummy appetizers from The Edgewater. Check out the list of cheesemaker rock stars appearing here. 

A big thanks to the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board for its support of Wisconsin Cheese Camp. Thanks to their generosity, all attendees to the Sunday Meet the Cheesemaker Gala will receive a complimentary insulated lunch bag with the Wisconsin Cheese logo. Plus, VIP attendees will even get a bag stuffed with Carr Valley cheese (VIP attendees also get in one hour early to Meet the Cheesemaker).

For ticket prices and a listing of all cheesemakers involved, please visit my website, Wisconsin Cheese Camp. I’d love to see you in Madison during the first weekend of November!

Wisconsin Cheese Camp Debuts This Fall

Master Cheesemaker Sid Cook

Exciting news, cheese peeps! Tickets to my brand new Wisconsin Cheese Camp, a two-day festival in Madison featuring cheese tours, a Wisconsin Cheddar dinner, a master cheese seminar and Meet the Cheesemaker Gala, go on sale Sept. 6 to members of Wisconsin Cheese Originals. Remaining tickets will go on sale to the public on Oct. 3.

Wisconsin Cheese Camp takes place Nov. 4-5 at The Edgewater in Madison. Tickets will be available first to members of Wisconsin Cheese Originals, an organization dedicated to connecting consumers and Wisconsin artisan cheesemakers. Anyone may join the organization for $35 a year. All membership dues are used to fund beginning cheesemaker scholarships for new Wisconsin artisan cheesemakers.

It’s been several years since I retired the Wisconsin Cheese Originals Festival at the Monona Terrace, and I wanted to bring a new event to Madison. So I thought: who doesn’t want to go to a cheese camp? It will be a fun and educational way for folks to meet their favorite cheesemakers, learn more about the cheeses they love, and most of all: eat good cheese!

Wisconsin Cheese Camp is generously sponsored by Carr Valley Cheese – check out their super cool new website. Thank you, Carr Valley! Cheddars crafted by Master Cheesemaker Sid Cook (that’s him, pictured above) and a variety of Wisconsin cheesemakers will be featured in the Saturday night Wisconsin Cheddar dinner at The Edgewater. Author Gordon Edgar (one of my most favorite people in the world), the cheese buyer for Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco, will be the keynote speaker, and all dinner attendees will receive a complimentary copy of his book: Cheddar: A Journey to the Heart of America’s Most Iconic Cheese.

On Sunday, a master cheese seminar on Biodiversity and Taste of Place will be presented by Bronwen and Francis Percival, authors of the new book: Reinventing the Wheel: Milk, Microbes, and the Fight for Real Cheese. Bronwen (who I secretly want to be when I grow up) is the cheese buyer for Neal’s Yard Dairy in London, and Francis is a cheese and wine writer and educator in the United Kingdom. They’ll partner with Wisconsin cheesemaker Andy Hatch, of Uplands Cheese, for a 90-minute talk and tasting. All seminar attendees will also receive a complimentary copy of the Percivals’ new book.

A big thanks the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board for its support of Wisconsin Cheese Camp. All attendees to the Sunday Meet the Cheesemaker Gala will receive a complimentary insulated lunch bag with the Wisconsin Cheese logo. Woot woot!

Here’s the part you’ve been waiting for: tickets are available both in VIP packages and individually for three different Saturday bus tours, the Saturday night Wisconsin Cheddar Dinner, Sunday morning master cheese seminar, and Sunday afternoon Meet the Cheesemaker Gala.

VIP Package:
All-in-one package is $359: includes your choice of one Saturday all-day cheese factory bus tour, one ticket to Saturday evening Wisconsin Cheddar Dinner featuring author Gordon Edgar, one ticket to Sunday morning seminar on Biodiversity and Taste of Place with authors Bronwen & Francis Percival, one VIP ticket with early entrance to the Sunday afternoon Meet the Cheesemaker Gala inside The Edgewater Grand Ballroom. Note: hotel not included — book separately if needed (see below).

Ala Carte Prices:

  • Saturday small-group All-Day Cheese Factory & Dairy Farm Bus Tours, each limited to 25 people: $139 (see the website for tour descriptions)
  • Saturday evening Wisconsin Cheddar Dinner with author Gordon Edgar at The Edgewater: $120 (includes complimentary copy the book: Cheddar: A Journey to the Heart of America’s Most Iconic Cheese)
  • Sunday morning Cheese & Microbes seminar with Bronwen & Francis Percival and Cheesemaker Andy Hatch: $45 (includes complimentary copy of the book: Reinventing the Wheel: Milk, Microbes)
  • Sunday afternoon VIP – early entrance to Meet the Cheesemaker Gala: $75 (includes one-hour early access,  three free drink tickets good for craft beer, wine or soda — see the website for a listing of all artisans and cheeses being sampled)
  • Sunday afternoon regular admission Meet the Cheesemaker Gala: $50 (includes two free drink tickets for craft beer, wine or soda)

Hotel
I’ve set up a hotel room block at The Edgewater. All you need to do is book before Sept 20 for $199/night. Make your online reservation here or call 800-922-5512 before Sept. 20 and ask for the Wisconsin Cheese Camp block rate.

For a full listing of all tour descriptions an all the cheesemakers involved, please visit my website here: http://www.wisconsincheeseoriginals.com/wisconsin-cheese-camp/

I can’t wait to see you all at Wisconsin Cheese Camp!

Wisconsin Women Cheesemakers

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Listen to an interview with three award-winning Wisconsin women cheesemakers on Cheese Underground Radio:


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

A bit of the backstory:

Of 1,200 licensed cheesemakers in Wisconsin, less than 60 are women. Three of them: Katie Fuhrmann at LaClare Farms, Anna Landmark of Landmark Creamery and Diana Murphy at Dreamfarm (pictured above from left to right), shared their stories with me and dozens of others at an event I hosted at the Wisconsin Historical Museum last week. Each of these three ladies came to cheese making from a different path with different goals, but they all share one opinion: cheddar is heavy.

You’ve heard this story before: Two people get married. They have kids. Sometimes, one of those kids is allergic to cow’s milk, so the couple buys a goat. A few years go by, and one goat becomes two goats. Two goats become 10 goats. And now, with an oversupply of milk, mom starts making cheese. Pretty soon, she’s making more cheese than her family can eat. So, she shares some with her neighbors and friends. It doesn’t take long before mom is now looking into ways she can sell her cheese. And before you know it, another artisan woman cheesemaker is born.

One of those women is Diana Murphy. She’s the lead cheesemaker and owner at Dreamfarm near Cross Plains. Her fresh chevre is legendary in southern Wisconsin. She’s a super small-batch cheesemaker, so you’ll have to visit us to find her cheese, but one taste of her Apricot Honey Lavender-infused fresh goat cheese will convince you that America’s Dairyland is calling your name.

“I grew up on a traditional dairy farm with 40 cows and a very large family. I loved growing up on the farm, but when I turned 18, farming was not the direction I wanted to go, so I went off to technical school to become a commercial artist. I like using my hands and being creative,” Diana says. “And I loved being in that field until it went to computers. That wasn’t fulfilling. So, when I started a family with my husband, we got animals. Pretty soon we had more goat milk that we could consume, and I started making cheese.”

Today, Diana, her husband, Jim, and her daughter, Alicia, milk 22 goats and one cow – there’s a great article in the current Isthmus by Jane Burns talking about Diana and her cow, Nelle. She hauls her milk in buckets from the dairy barn to the cheesrie, where it is pasteurized and then made into fresh cheeses and some harder cheeses. You can find her cheeses in Madison at Willy Street Cooperative and Metcalfe’s Market-Hilldale.

Like Diana Murphy, cheesemaker Anna Landmark first starting buying a few animals after she and her husband purchased a small farm near Albany. She started playing around with cheese on her stove, and it wasn’t long before she knew she wanted to earn her cheesemaker’s license. Today, without a cheese plant of her own, she travels to different factories to make and age cheese. One of my favorites is Anabasque, a cheese whose name is a play on the Annas that run Landmark Creamery – cheesemaker Anna Landmark and her business partner, Anna Thomas Bates.

“I got my cheesemaker’s license in 2014,” Anna says. “My specialty is primarily sheep milk cheeses. We’ve made cheese in three different plants since we started, and now are making it all at Cedar Grove in Plain. The cheese is then aged in a different location at Bear Valley Cheese.”

So, while Diana focuses on fresh goat cheeses and wants to keep her farmstead creamery on the smaller side, and Anna is focusing on sheep milk cheeses and is growing her business to one day build her own cheese factory, our third cheesemaker – Katie Fuhrmann, of LaClare Farms – has already done all that.

In 2011, her career was fast-tracked when she won the U.S. Championship Cheese Contest with Evalon, an aged goat milk cheese made with the milk from her family’s farm. Today, she leads a team of eight cheesemakers at her family’s farmstead creamery and focuses on agri-tourism. That means visitors can watch 800 goats being milked twice a day. You can also eat lunch and dinner in the creamery’s café, purchase all of the LaClare products – goat milk yogurt, bottled milk and dozens of different cheeses, in the farm’s retail store, and watch cheeses aging to perfection through the cellar’s viewing windows. But believe it or not, her career path to cheese started when she thought she was going to be on television.

“I grew up on a dairy goat farm, and we got to the point where we were milking 29 goats by farm. My parents asked us kids if we wanted to go commercial. And I was like: ‘We’re going to be on tv?’ So that’s how this thing got started,” Katie said. “I was a gypsy cheesemaker like Anna for a while – we made cheese at Saxon Creamery for three years but got to a point where we wanted to expand our product line.”

I asked the ladies if they ever faced any challenges specifically because they were women. “I wouldn’t say I’ve hit any barriers being a woman cheesemaker, but I have hit barriers being a woman business owner,” Anna said. “Wisconsin is a really great place to launch a cheesemaking business because of its infrastructure and resources, but when it comes to bank financing, being a little business in a really big industry has been a challenge.”

Katie chimed in: “There used to only be girls in the plant, and we kind of enjoyed that,” she laughed. “Women typically make softer, smaller cheeses vs the bigger, heavier cheeses. I probably wouldn’t have said that when I was 22, because I had to prove to the world that I could do anything. But after having two kids, I like making smaller cheeses, because it’s not so physically draining. Having men working in the plant helps us make the bigger cheeses.”

All the women agreed on one thing: cheddar is heavy. “Forty pound blocks – I don’t care what anyone says. After you lift a bunch of them, they get really heavy,” Katie said.

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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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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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Cosmic Wheel Creamery

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A southern gal who grew up in Louisiana, moved to Minnesota to attend art school, and then fell in love on an Upper Midwestern vegetable farm, is today making some of the best new artisan cheeses in Wisconsin.

Cheesemaker Rama Hoffpauir founded Cosmic Wheel Creamery in 2015 with the goal of crafting a product that would compliment the certified organic vegetables she and her husband, Josh Bryceson, grew on their 80-acre farm near Clear Lake. Today, the family (with two children, ages 3 and 6) offer seasonal CSA shares of fresh vegetables, meat and artisan cheese from their Turnip Rock Farm to nearly 200 customers. (CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture and allows urban folks like me to purchase a “share” of food grown by a local farmer).

Rama earned her Wisconsin cheesemaker’s license in 2014, but her cheesemaking journey started in 2010 when she and Josh, who had developed a love for livestock after working for Heifer International, purchased a Jersey cow named Carl. Yes, Carl. After playing with Carl’s milk in the kitchen and making a few stove top cheeses, Rama consulted cheese recipe books and starter culture catalogs to get a feel of what kind of cheeses she wanted to make commercially. “I knew I needed to make at least a half dozen different kinds, because people don’t want the same cheese each week in their CSA box,” Rama said. “The folks at Dairy Connection in Madison really helped me select some styles of cheese that would compliment our milk.”

The milk going into Cosmic Wheel cheeses is pretty special. What started with one Jersey cow has grown into a small herd of 20 Jerseys. Josh, Rama and their livestock manager, Liberty Hunter, rotationally graze the cows on fresh pastures and cover crops. The cows calve, and thereby start giving milk, in the spring, and then “dry off,” or end their natural lactation cycle, around Thanksgiving. This is the old-fashioned way that dairy farmers used to farm: by following the seasons. As a result, Rama only makes cheese in her small, farmstead creamery from May through November. All of her cheeses are 100 percent grass-fed, boasting the beautiful golden color that results when cows are allowed to digest the beta carotene naturally found in grass and then pass it through their milk.

Rama makes a variety of aged, raw milk, natural rind cheeses using a small, 80-gallon vat, and then ages them in a small room connected to the creamery. My two favorites are Circle of the Sun, a Tomme style made in a 12-pound wheel, tightly pressed, then aged nine months. It features bright, herbal and grassy notes on the tongue. Then there’s Moonglow, an alpine style cheese resembling a French Beaufort, aged one year. Both are available starting today at Metcalfe’s Market Hilldale in Madison (Rama ships us wheels as they become available, but because she makes less than 7,000 pounds of cheese a year, quantities are obviously limited).

“I feel like 2017 may finally be the year our cheeses make it out of our neighborhood,” Rama laughs, noting that in her third year of cheese production, she’s grown to a point where she can offer a limited quantity of wheels to select retailers. For her CSA boxes, she also crafts Antares, a cow’s milk Manchego; Deneb, a Gouda-style; Lyra, a creamy and mild cheese; and Moonshadow, an alpine-style made in early spring when cows are still eating hay. She makes a variety of fresh, pasteurized cheeses as well, including cheese curds, Quark, whole milk ricotta, and feta.

“I don’t feel like I’m working a lot of magic, because our milk is so flavorful. The cows really do all the work,” Rama says.

I have a feeling most everyone who tastes Rama’s cheeses for the first time will beg to disagree: the milk coming from Turnip Rock Farm may be stellar, but the magic in the make room at Cosmic Wheel Creamery is second to none. I’d say we’re pretty lucky this Louisiana girl ended up in Wisconsin.

Landmark Creamery: Cheese With Heart

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Five years ago, Anna Landmark sent me a letter, applying for a $2,500 Beginning Cheesemaker Scholarship through my organization, Wisconsin Cheese Originals. Dated January 29, 2012, she thanked me for considering her application, which listed her current position as a policy research director for a non-profit advocacy organization, along with past jobs in communications consulting, political campaign management and community organization.

I thought to myself: why on earth does this woman want to be a cheesemaker?

And then I turned the page. It read:

“My first recollection of eating cheese is at my grandparent’s dairy farm in Mount Horeb. They always had a large block of Swiss cheese sitting under a glass dome on the kitchen table. It would be brought out for breakfast in the morning and generally left on the table until the end of the day when it was wrapped up and put into the refrigerator. My grandfather was a stout Swiss farmer, his grandfather one of the original settlers of New Glarus, and milk, cheese and butter were staples. Swiss cheese with breakfast, with dinner, and with supper. Sometimes aged and sharp as can be, sometimes Baby with a mild bit and perfect elasticity. I loved it all.”

Heart. The girl had heart. Her application would go on to say she had started taking cheesemaking courses at UW-Madison, that she and her husband had bought a small farm near Albany, and that her grandfather was enjoying watching her return to the cheese world. But the sentence that sealed the deal was: “My grandfather is still skeptical anyone on a small scale can really make a living doing it. But I want to find out: can I build a successful business making sheep milk cheeses?”

Needless to say, Anna Landmark won that year’s scholarship, went on to earn her cheesemaker’s license, and today owns and operates Landmark Creamery with business partner Anna Thomas Bates. She crafts seasonal sheep, cow and mixed milk cheeses, renting space at Cedar Grove in Plain and Thuli Family Creamery in Darlington. At both the 2017 and 2015 U.S. Championship Cheese Contests, her fresh sheep’s milk cheese, Petit Nuage, won a Gold Medal, and she continually wins awards for her cheeses each year at the American Cheese Society competition.

Today, readers of Cheese Underground, you have a chance to help the dynamic Anna duo complete their dreams. That’s because Landmark Creamery is nearing the end of a Kickstarter campaign, where it is seeking $25,000 in seed money to build a cheese aging space and to purchase more efficient equipment, allowing the Annas to create new cheeses and buy more milk from Wisconsin family farms. With just five days to go, they are only $4,000 short of their goal.

And, while the past five years have witnessed the birth and early success of Landmark Creamery, with your help, dear readers, it can go even further. Here is Anna’s statement from 2012, describing her business 10 years in the future:

“In 2022, I hope to have nine years of making and selling sheep milk cheeses under my belt, and to be anticipating enrolling in the UW’s Master Cheese Making program. My goal is to have my own cheese plant, growing to produce 100,000 pounds of cheese per year, with distribution regionally and to the elite markets on the coasts. I feel so inspired when making cheese. I hope my business will be a credit to the dairy industry in Wisconsin, and that my cheeses will be delicious and unique enough to become Wisconsin Originals.”

Mission accomplished, my dear. Now let’s help you write the next chapter. Your grandpa would be proud.

Donate here.

Got (too much) Milk? As Wisconsin Dairy Gets Bigger, Progress Comes With a Price

When this week’s news hit that Grassland Dairy in north-central Wisconsin was ending milk contracts with between 65 to 75 Wisconsin dairy farmers, my first thought was: this is the beginning of the squeeze on medium-sized, Wisconsin-owned processing plants. Sure enough, news soon leaked out that nearby Nasonville Dairy in Marshfield, had also sent letters to about 20 area farmers on March 17, informing them their dairies would be dropped from pick-up because that cheese factory had recently lost a cheese contract and no longer needed their milk.

Keep in mind, these are not small factories. They are good-sized facilities employing hundreds of people. Grassland processes more than 3 million pounds of butter, cream cheese and milk powder a year, while Nasonville makes more 2 million pounds of Cheddar, Monterey Jack, Asiago, Brick, Muenster, Hispanic styles, Parmesan, Romano and Provolone at two different state-of-the-art facilities.

While Grassland’s predicament can be blamed on Canada (our neighbor to the north just implemented a new milk pricing structure, making it more cost efficient for Canadian processors to purchase milk from their own dairy farmers), the action taken by Nasonville, and I fear more Wisconsin-owned factories in the immediate future, is troubling.

To put it simply, big Wisconsin cheese factories that are not locally owned (more on this shortly) can and do purchase out-of-state milk cheaper by the semi-tanker than they can from the 10 small local dairy farms down the road. With a glut of milk in the upper Midwest, it’s a buyer’s market, and many big factories take advantage of cost differences by bringing in cheap milk from afar.

It wasn’t always like this. In the past 15 years, dozens of family-owned cheese factories that had decades of relationships with multi-generational local dairy farms and who forged long-term contracts with farmers who were essentially their neighbors, have either merged or been bought out by big companies. And most of those companies aren’t American. Today, of 127 cheese plants in Wisconsin, more than 15 of the biggest are owned by foreign companies.

For example: 

  • Saputo Inc., a Montreal-based Canadian dairy company that is the tenth largest dairy processor in the world, owns and runs some of the state’s biggest cheese plants, whey processing plants and dairy processing facilities in Green Bay, Fond du Lac, Waupun, Lena, Black Creek, Reedsburg and Almena. 
  • Agropur, a large agricultural cooperative headquartered in Quebec, owns four ingredient-processing and cheese plants in Luxemburg, Weyauwega, LaCrosse and Appleton. 
  • Arla Foods, an international cooperative based in Denmark, and the largest producer of dairy products in Scandinavia, owns a huge cheese plant in Kaukauna.
  • Emmi, a Swiss milk processor and dairy products company listed on the SWX Swiss Exchange, owns Roth Cheese in Monroe and Platteville. 
  • Last, but, oh my, certainly not least, is Lactalis, a multi-national dairy products corporation based in France. Lactalis is the largest dairy products group in the world. It owns two large cheese plants in Belmont and Merrill and cranks out more President Brie than one can imagine.

What does this mean for Wisconsin dairy farmers?

It means the local cheesemaker up the road they’ve been selling milk to for the past 20 years – and the same factory that their father probably sold to before that – is now owned by a stranger who values the company’s stock price over a handshake deal with a local farmer trying to earn enough money to send his kids to college.

It means that large dairy farmers who have spent the past decade spending money to get bigger rather than getting out are now worrying whether they will have a milk contract in 30 days.

It means small dairy farmers trying to break into the business are trying to find a buyer for their milk. Take for example, T.J. Grady, who will turn 21 in May. T.J’s a good-hearted kid who I’ve watched grow up into a hard-working man and build a small dairy near Oregon, Wisconsin with his father. T.J. has been slowly and steadily building his herd of 25 cows with a dream of farming full-time. In 2015 and 2016, T.J. took classes at UW-Madison, earning a dairy farm management certificate, a pasture based dairy certificate, and completed courses needed for a certificate from the Wisconsin School for Beginning Dairy and Livestock Farmers.

A few months ago, a neighbor who was milking 50 cows sold out due to a combination of health and financial reasons. “I was doing some research about getting an FSA loan and buying his herd, and renting their facilities. But I don’t think I would be able to find anyone to pick up extra milk, with the over supply in the market right now,” T.J. says.

T.J. took the news of nearly 75 farmers losing their milk contracts with Grassland especially hard, as most were small dairy farmers like him. “This is very disheartening to me, as someone who studied farm management and hopes to operate my own dairy someday. I can’t imagine how terrifying it would be to get a letter in the mail saying that your milk will no longer be picked up. I had a professor in school that said, ‘In Wisconsin, it used to be that if you milked 10 or 1,000 cows, there would be a market for your milk.’ Unfortunately with the ups and downs of today’s commodity market and the consolidation of dairy farms, coops, and milk processors, that doesn’t seem to be the case any longer.”