In a state with about 1,200 certified cheesemakers — many are master cheesemakers and known for award-winning fromage — the competition to turn out excellent cheese is stiff. Putting an eco spin on the production process is one way these Dairy State cheesemakers stand out.
There are some solid examples of how the state’s cheese industry infuses cutting-edge, green business practices into a storied history of making cheese.
At Willi Lehner’s creamery (Bleu Mont Dairy) near the rolling hills of Blue Mounds State Park, he ages his organic cheese in an underground cave constructed from straw bales. Wind and solar power keep the whole operation running smoothly. The Swiss-American cheesemaker creates products that are the kind your palate won’t ever forget: think sharp, full-bodied notes in his English-style bandaged cheddar and a washed-rind cheese called Driftless Select “Earth Schmier.” Lehner makes Cheddar, Gouda, Havarti and Swiss, all from milk derived from cows at local dairies that have the run of a pasture.
In this year’s United States Championship Cheese Contest, Bleu Mont Dairy’s clothbound cheddar snagged a third-place award in the category of “Class 6 Bandaged Cheddar.” Its cheeses are served at L’Etoile, a restaurant that famed Slow Food advocate Odessa Piper founded in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1976 when many communities across the country hadn’t even begun to forge farm-to-table connections. Bleu Mont Dairy also sets up a stand at the Dane County Farmers Market — purported to be the country’s largest farmers market — and retails at one of Wisconsin’s best artisan-cheese shops (Fromagination in Madison).
Within facility maintenance lies a lot of room to implement eco-friendly measures. Crave Brothers, which has made farmstead mozzarella and mascarpone right on its Waterloo dairy farm since 2001, has designed a process where the cow manure is transferred into energy. Drop by any day of the week and you’ll be greeted by hundreds of cows that supply the milk used to make its award-winning cheese. This spring, Crave Brothers won two awards at the United States Championship Cheese Contest: Second Place Award in the Open Class Soft Cheeses Category (for its Mascarpone) and Smear-Ripened Semi-Soft Cheeses Category (for its Les Frères).
This was the 11th time its Les Frères took home an award. But what most people don’t know about is Crave Brothers’ computer-controlled (via an office in Milwaukee) anaerobic digestion system. By turning manure into energy, it generates not only enough electricity to keep the farm and cheese factory running — but enough for 300 area homes too, making the neighbors very happy.
Rolling out an organic cheese is another way to be green. Organic Valley, whose dairy products are sold nationwide through a co-op structure with 1,636 farmers, was founded in LaFarge, Wisconsin, in 1988 and has several organic cheeses in its catalogue, including Raw Milk Sharp Cheddar, Blue Cheese Crumbles (a three-time first-place winner at the World Dairy Expo) and “Stringles” (Mozzarella string cheese).
These green ways of doing business are proof that dairy farming is just as cutting-edge as other agricultural fields. And for Wisconsin, the number-two U.S. state (after California) in terms of the number of dairy cows (with an impressive 1.26 million milking cows) and the quantity of milk produced, this do-good, eco-friendly talking and walking is a boon for the economy. The Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board estimates that Wisconsin dairy farmers generate $26.5 billion annually to the state’s economy. Thanks, in large part, to cheese.
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