Photo courtesy of iStock/zorazhuang

What’s very valuable, is yellow-orange, and sometimes comes in the shape of bricks? We’re not talking about gold – we’re talking about cheese! For Wisconsin, exporting this valuable commodity has been a boon to the economy. 

“The dairy industry is an international business with approximately one-seventh of the nation’s dairy supply being traded internationally,” says Paul Bauer, CEO of Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery in Ellsworth, Wisconsin.

“Producers in the United States are impacted by these prices. The question becomes, do we want to sit on the sidelines and accept the prices generated by the market, or do we want to drive our own future?”

At Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery, Bauer says they’ve decided it’s in the best interest of their organization and owners to be drivers of the market.

They aren’t the only ones.

Based in the heart of America’s Dairyland, Ellsworth is one of Wisconsin’s many major players in the rapidly growing international export market. Others include Sartori Cheese and BelGioioso Cheese, which actively participate in the Japanese market, and Shullsburg Creamery, which has an impressive presence in the Middle East.

Also see: Wisconsin Cheese is Sliced to Perfection

Wisconsin cheese production

Photo Courtesy of Shullsberg Creamery

Shullsburg Creamery

Founded in 1934, Shullsburg Creamery earned its stripes selling 40-pound blocks of cheese to the government during World War II. At the time, the creamery worked within the confines of a rather small distribution system, but dedication to consistency and availability quickly made it a treasured household name.

Today, its uncompromising quality has generated over 450,000 brand-loyal customers who demand their cheese by name – many of whom live overseas.

“We enjoy regular yearly sales in seven upper Midwest states, Utah, Japan, Panama and the Middle East,” Stocker says.

Wisconsin cheese production

Photo courtesy of Shullsberg Creamery

With over 1,300 items in inventory, of which 98 percent are cheese, Stocker says the company’s sales advantage comes from being able to offer a wide variety of branded product access to the Middle East without high minimum orders. Paired with excellent flavor profiles, it now boasts a major and growing presence in Dubai, UAE, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Also see: Wisconsin Cheesemakers Are Finding their Whey

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“Our customers in these regions are excited to discover the delightful flavor satisfaction of high-quality cheese,” Stocker says. “There are many Americans living abroad in these areas, as well, and our cheese is a particularly exciting find for them.”

Photo courtesy of Shullsberg Creamery

Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery

The farmers who formed Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery joined together as a way to get more value from their products. At the time, those products were eggs and butter. While the products have shifted to artisan cheese, cheese curds and more, the original forethought remains an integral part of the organization’s culture today.

“We’re continually looking forward to ensure our patron farmer-owners are positioned to gain the most value from what they produce,” Bauer says.

Entering the international export market has opened up doors to do just that.

Wisconsin cheese production

Photo courtesy of Steve Woit

“When I was growing up, China was always behind a wall in terms of exports,” Bauer says. “It was exciting to see their export market begin opening up and realize that venturing into this market was actually possible.”

Ellsworth got its foot in the door with whey powder, but has since broadened its offerings to include cheeses. The current challenge rests in figuring out the best way to position products to meet the needs of the international customer base.

“It’s exciting to be in these early stages of brand development,” Bauer says.

Get the recipe: Find a recipe for Hot Buffalo Pizza Sticks from Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery here.

Photo courtesy of Steve Woit

Wisconsin Cheese Trailblazers

Wisconsin exported $3.5 billion in agricultural products to 143 countries in 2018, ranking second nationally in the export of whey and cheese. As major cheese and dairy export players like Shullsburg and Ellsworth continue generating revenue and value in both domestic and overseas markets in the coming years, it’s safe to assume these already impressive numbers will continue to rise.

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