It's no secret that milk production is a major enterprise in the U.S. with 9.2 million cows producing nearly 202 billion pounds of milk.
It's also no secret that just about every ounce, pound, gallon and truckload of that milk is made into something that ends up in the mouths of humans. This includes 10.9 billion pounds of cheese, 1.9 billion pounds of butter and billions of pounds of other dairy products ranging from ice cream to whey protein.
Who do you know that has any idea what is involved in getting that milk from a cow in Green County, Wisconsin into a mom and pop pizza store in Baltimore or a super market in Fresno, CA?
Probably no one, unless they are directly connected to dairying as a cheesemaker, a purchaser for a wholesale grocery store or a cheese store and then they probably know only a small bit of the farm to consumer story of milk and it's products.
Even a casual visitor could have a vivid education of a good part of the cheese part story if they had made a slow, deliberate and note-taking tour of the International Cheese Technology Expo (ICTE) held in MIlwaukee last week.
This every-other year extravaganza hosted by the Madison-based Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association and the Center For Dairy Research offered seminars on subjects including: Food safety for cheese; wastewater processing; new learnings in cheese production and growth in whey and dairy ingredients.
Those weighty subjects and the huge trade show offered dairy processing professionals the opportunity to learn about the latest research impacting cheese making and the increasingly important food safety and environmental issues.
I suspect the most people envision a cheesemaker as a middle aged man-wearing a white apron and tilted overseas hat bent over a stainless steel vat turning curd and later cutting a sample from a wheel for a visitor.
That's a good picture if you are thinking of one of the not-so-many-anymore small family or cooperative cheese factories that still can be found across Wisconsin: Silver -Lewis at Monticello, Decatur Swiss Cheese Co-op, Brodhead, Henning's Cheese at Kiel and Maple Leaf Cheese Co-op, Monroe are a few that come to mind.
A cheesemaker at one of the large cheese operations making a thousand or maybe a million pounds cheese a day, week or month may serve more as an overseer of a system that uses huge vats as big as a load of hay, that are a part of an automated, computer-controlled process that can take milk from farm truck to finished product non-stop.
Big or small, every cheese factory must produce pure, safe, delicious cheese that is marketable to a specific audience: Lunch box carriers; pizza makers; supermarkets; restaurants; fast food franchises; makers of TV dinners and a thousand other foods and people who love a specific cheese, maybe a 10-year-old cheddar or a mozzarella string.
Not only must you make a cheese that people will enjoy and reorder, you also need ingredients, the steel and plastic equipment to make it, a way to cut it, a package to hold it, a label to identify it, a pallet on which to move it and a plan and trucks to move it to customers on the west coast, east coast and everywhere in between.
I well remember the early eighties when many dairy farmers wanted to make their own cheese figuring that was a good way to cut out the "middleman" thus gaining a bigger percentage of the selling price.
The idea was good but the complications of marketing were impossible to overcome and only a few dairy families, Crave Brothers at Waterloo and Saxon Creamery , Cleveland among them, actually went ahead and developed commercial operations.
The 272 exhibitors in 503 booths at the ICTE covered the gamut of about everything a cheese manufacturer will need or want and even things the best of cheese experts didn't know was or would be available in the future.
I was glad to again meet the Griesbach family, Gary and Sharon and several of their children who are the major supplier of peppers and a host of other vegetables, spices and flavorings that cheesemakers use to produce the varied and exotic-tasting cheeses that consumers constantly seek and enjoy..
I first wrote (10 years ago) about the family and their Garon Foods Inc. and how they were dairy farmers at Freedom during the doom and gloom days of the 1980s who sought a new way of life. To make a long story short (see garonfoods.com), the Griesbachs found their niche selling peppers to the cheese industry.
"Our customers then began asking for other kinds of flavorings, so we expanded our line," Sharon says. They also moved the business to Herrin, IL, "to be closer to the fields." Gary says.
The family (Gary and Sharon, daughter Gloryel, son Jeremiah, and his wife Hannah) now sells dozens of vegetable, fruit and spice products. In the case of the peppers for which the company is well known, they oversee the growing from field and seed selection through plant growth and processing.
Garon Foods Inc. is a true family operation that helps make cheese the great food (and treat) that it is.
"From a simple conveyor to a complex robotic system, we can provide affordable solutions to your productivity." That's how Loos Machine & Automation of Colby, explains their business. This includes projects such as automated cheese processing lines, automated Barrel/Block handling systems and specialty equipment.
In case you forgot or didn't know, Colby, Wisconsin is where Colby cheese originated and the original factory, long unused for cheese making, still stands.
There were several companies offering labels, something we cheese eaters seldom think much about until we might wonder about calories or what the ingredients might be. A cheese marketer, however, needs a label that sells the product to us casual buyers and also carries a lot of required information and has to be easy to apply. I've seen small cheese factories stick on labels by hand but it's an automated process in all the bigger factories.
"On the most basic level, Marshfield Food Safety works with companies to conduct microbiological and basic chemistry testing that is required to obtain a certificate of analysis for ready-to-eat and raw products at certain stages of processing," is this company's overview of what they do.
The days are long gone from when a consumer might have gotten sick from eating something and just shook it off and didn't worry — not today. There is the possibility of almost instant worldwide publicity through radio, TV and social media that can result in a big loss in business or even the company itself .
Companies like Marshfield Food Safety (owned by the Marshfield Clinic) work with dairy processors to prevent such events.
Yes, cheese making is a lot more complicated that it might look. That's why the 3,164 attendees came from throughout the cheese world came to ICTE to learn. Whether it was a Kerry Henning, of Henning's Cheese at Kiel who said he might find something as simple as a door or a new idea or an an executive of a company producing 50 million pounds of cheese planning a new factory, this was the place to be.
Logically, it was in Wisconsin, America's Dairyland and the #1 cheese state.
John F Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications, a Madison-based agricultural information and consulting company. He can be reached at 608-222-0624 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.