From large, national cheese brands to artisan farmstead cheesemakers, it’s no wonder that Wisconsin ranks No. 1 nationally in cheese production, producing more than 3 billion pounds per year on average.
“Our cheese industry is the broadest in the country,” says John Umhoefer, executive director of the Wisconsin Cheesemakers Association. “We have about 130 places in the state where cheese is being made, including the biggest factory east of the Mississippi River. We like to think that Wisconsin dominates the large cheese side, but we also produce 45 percent of what people think of as gourmet cheeses.”
Umhoefer’s statement is validated by the state’s leadership in production of many different cheese varieties. The state takes the top spot for American and Muenster cheese, and ranks second for Italian and mozzarella cheese. Wisconsin’s dairy industry, which produces the milk used in more than 90 percent of the state’s cheese, contributes $43.4 billion annually to the economy.
The Big Cheese
Norm Monsen, of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, says Wisconsin has some of the most innovative dairy entrepreneurs, who are using new techniques to capture new opportunities. But while production is a major aspect of Wisconsin’s cheese industry, much more than that contributes to its success.
“Among the members of the WCA, about 250 are companies that help out the cheesemaking industry,” Umhoefer says. “Everything from companies that make the stainless steel vats that the milk is poured into, to trucking companies, ingredient firms and more. And after the cheese is made, there is an enormous market of companies that just slice cheese. They’re called converters. They take cheese that is already made and convert it into slices, dices and shreds that consumers see in stores.”
Several packaging suppliers – partners to the converters – are also based in Wisconsin. Bemis Corp. makes packaging film and bags for cheese, while Hart Design & Manufacturing makes packaging machines for the cheese industry.
Sargento Foods Inc. in Plymouth was the first company to sell consumer-sized packages of cheese to grocery stores, including sliced and shredded natural cheeses, as well as a full line of natural cheese snacks.
“We develop consumer demand through innovation of products,” says Barbara Gannon, vice president of corporate communications and community relations at Sargento. “For example, we created the first blends of shredded cheeses, used peg bar merchandising in the dairy case before anyone else, and introduced both press-to-close resealable packaging and zippered resealable packaging for perishable products.”
She adds that these innovations have actually grown the category, and sometimes Sargento creates new categories, such as finely shredded cheese or its Ultra Thin sliced cheese.
“Consumers are in a hurry today and don’t have time to shred or slice cheese,” Monsen says. “We have companies that are highly sophisticated and technical in the processes of putting cheese in consumer-friendly, ready-to-eat packages. We also have giant, state-of-the-art warehouses where cheese is simply stored and aged.”
Monsen adds that DATCP strongly supports the industry in many facets, from international marketing to local programs to food safety inspections of each plant.
George Crave, one of the co-founders of Crave Brothers Farm in Waterloo, agrees that many times, consumers forget how many people are involved in making cheese. “Just because we drive past a farm, we forget there’s a tractor dealer and other suppliers behind it that help the farmers,” Crave says. “It’s the same with the cheese industry. There are other businesses that are taking the cheese and making it consumer friendly.”
Dairy is delectable here. After all, there’s good reason Wisconsin is known as America’s Dairyland.
In fact, the state dedicates a whole month to a celebration of dairy. A variety of festivals and activities are on tap during June Dairy Month.
Featured events include the Great Wisconsin Cheese Festival in Little Chute, which offers a weekend of family fun in celebration of the state’s great dairy industry. Cows on the Concourse in Madison lets enthusiasts get up close to dairy cows and their calves on the grounds of the State Capitol, as well as visit a dairy farmers’ market. The Sparta Butterfest highlights the wonders of butter.
Also during June, the dairy breakfast program connects consumers with farmers, offering up tasty, homemade breakfasts at genuine Wisconsin farms.