Wisconsin’s cheese history aged to perfection

posted Sept. 10, 2018 9:53 a.m. (CDT)
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by / Kaitlyn Riley | 71st Alice in Dairyland

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    Kaitlyn Riley

What do a Wisconsin dairy farmer, milk truck driver, retailer and consumer have in common?

No, this is not a cheesy joke. It is an observation I made while traveling across Wisconsin’s diverse landscape.

Since 1939, Wisconsin residents of all backgrounds drive with license plates that read “America’s Dairyland.” Almost 80 years later, we continue showcasing the dairy industry that contributes to our state’s economy, culture and future.

The miles of Wisconsin’s cheesemaking history are carefully outlined by Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin. Pioneering Wisconsin farm wives made “kitchen” cheese as early as the 1830s. By 1841, Anne Pickett of Lake Mills made the first official Wisconsin cheese by adding milk from her neighbor’s cows to that of her own small herd. Wisconsin produced 400,283 pounds of cheese in 1850, according to census records.

Wisconsin residents soon began crafting their own creations. A Wisconsin-original brick cheese was invented in 1877 followed by Colby, named after the central Wisconsin city, in 1885. While cheeses are flavorful and fun, producing a high-quality product was something early cheesemakers took seriously. Wisconsin became the first state to grade its cheese for quality in 1921. The state’s central location and high cheese standards helped the industry grow rapidly.

Today, Wisconsin is home to nearly 130 cheese plants that craft more than 3.1 billion pounds of cheese each year. That is 25 percent of the U.S. total. Almost half of all specialty cheeses made in the nation come from Wisconsin, which is no surprise considering our state makes more than 600 varieties, types and styles. Some are not found elsewhere in the country. For example, Green County is home to 12 cheese manufacturers that craft more than 60 varieties of specialty cheeses. Among those manufacturers is the only domestic producer of Limburger. Anyone can sample Limburger as well as other Green County classics at the historic Cheese Days festival taking place Sept. 14-16 in Monroe. The biennial celebration recognizes Old World tradition and Swiss heritage in Wisconsin.

Cheese is an important slice of agriculture as 90 percent of the milk produced in Wisconsin is made into cheese, and 90 percent of that cheese is sold outside Wisconsin’s borders. Markets all across the globe seek products from America’s Dairyland, bringing millions of dollars back into the economy.

Markets are tough for dairy farmers across the state, but wheels are still turning in the industry. There have been 45 million pounds of increased annual Wisconsin cheese sales since 2013, according to DFW. Specialty cheese accounted for 62 percent of that increase. In fact, total milk use for dairy products such as cheese has increased by almost 80 percent in the past 35 years. As farmers continue to be more efficient and productive, new domestic and international markets are sought for Wisconsin’s quality agricultural products.

Like the curved roads of Wisconsin, agriculture has its twists and turns. Years of advancements have created a path to success that impacts not only the dairy farmer but also the milk truck driver, retailer and consumer. Bearing the “America’s Dairyland” slogan, they are united by a common community and economy with a strong history in Wisconsin’s dairy industry.

Alice in Dairyland Kaitlyn Riley can be reached at DATCP, 2811 Agriculture Drive, P.O. Box 8911, Madison, WI 53718 or DATCPAlice@wisconsin.gov.






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