Yesterday I teamed up with other dairy farmers from across the country to talk about what we feed our cows. Today it’s all about what we eat that comes from cows. Let’s talk about cheese, glorious cheese! In honor of June Dairy Month I have volunteered my time and hard labor to visit some of the best cheese makers in the country. It takes a lot of hard work to be me… trust me, driving around to visit cheesemakers in Green County Wisconsin and having to look at views like this all day is really hard work!
But before we jump straight to the cheese I want to to back the milk truck up and show you the other side of the cheese wheel, where it all starts, the dairy farm. When I called the folks down at Decatur Dairy and told them my idea for this blog they were happy to connect me with one of the farmers that produces milk for their cheese making. I called the number they gave me, set up a time to stop in and soon had the pleasure to meet Steve Case, one of the owners of Pine View Dairy.
I love visiting dairy farms. Even though we dairy, I can’t seem to get enough of cows. I always learn from other farmers and really enjoying seeing all of the different operations and ways of doing things. So Steve showed me around his farm and I have to say, I was really impressed! Steve and his wife Elizabeth along with their son Craig milk about 150 cows near Janesville Wi. They have built themselves a great herd of cows and along with it made some smart decisions on when to build and grow their farm. After a barn fire destroyed their barn, they rebuilt a similar sized stanchion barn, when eventually they outgrew that barn they grew again by building a freestall barn and parlor for their cows. Hearing Steve tell the heartbreaking story of the fire and losing many of their cows brought a tear to my eye. I can only imagine how horrible that would be. I am so glad they were able to rebuild their herd and their farm for the future generations of their family.
So the Case family has done quite a bit of careful growing over the years to get to where they are. They are setup to continue on with good land, good cows and a future generation to take over when Steve and Elizabeth want to retire. Farmers in Wisconsin have several choices when it comes to where they ship their milk. The Case family ships their milk to the cooperative that provides milk for Decatur Dairy near Brodhead Wisconsin. So the day after I visited Pine View Dairy, I followed their milk to the dairy, to talk to the man who makes their milk into award winning cheese.
Steve Stettler is an elite cheesemaker. Achieving the highest ranking of Master Cheesemaker for his Brick, Muenster, Havarti, Farmers and Swiss cheese varieties. He was kind enough to sit down with me and talk about the cheese he makes and the future of the dairy industry and the exciting things that are in the future for Decatur Dairy. Of course the new cheese in development are top secret and my lips are sealed so you’ll just have wait and watch.
There are many challenges facing dairy farmers these days, from the cost of doing business to the aging population of farmers to new tighter quality restrictions on milk. Through all of these Steve works with the farmers that choose to send their milk to Decatur Dairy. When I asked Steve about the future of the farms that ship their milk to him, he figured only about 60% of those farms have a future generation to take over when the current owners retire. While Green County has lots of small dairy farms, each year more farmers retire, the average age of a Wisconsin farmer is around 55 years old. Ten years from now the dairy industry could be vastly different from what it is today. You can’t hardly blame the next generation for not wanting to commit to the all consuming roller coaster ride that dairy farming is. It’s almost as much of a balancing act to make cheese as it is to make milk. With whey, a byproduct of cheesemaking, becoming a commodity to sell instead of a waste product Steve has to be a blend of cheesemaker, accountant and businessman. He does them all well, but clearly his passion is the cheese. With the renewed interest in local and premium cheese, Decatur Dairy is enjoying the rewards from their years of hard work. They have recently built a new cheese store at the dairy and will be hosting a grand opening this weekend. Not only do they offer the cheeses they are famous for, Havarti, Brick, Farmers, Stettler Swiss, Muenster, Colby varieties, ButterKase and Queso Blanco, they also carry several other cheeses from around Wisconsin.
We may be a little spoiled here in Wisconsin with amazing cheese available from local cheesemakers that get their milk from local dairy farms. I can’t help but have a bit of pride in my state for excelling in such a delicious way. After talking with both Steve Case and Steve Stettler my pride has grown. Dairy farmers don’t win awards for the work they do or the hours they put in. But with some science, magic and artistry our milk is transformed into delicious cheese. That is something to be proud of.
If you would like to try out some Decatur Dairy cheese check out their website here. Not only is their cheese very reasonably priced, they ship!