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MADISON – Specialty cheeses accounted for 24 percent of Wisconsin's cheese production during 2016, according to a recent report by the state's field office of the National Agricultural Statistics Service. The year's total of 774 million pounds was an increase of 51.8 million pounds or 7 percent compared to 2015.

Specialty cheeses are defined as a value-added product which commands a premium price. Those which qualify have one or more unique qualities such as an exotic origin, limited supply, particular processing or design trait, unusual application or use, and extraordinary packaging or channel of sale.

Among the 13 identified specialty cheeses for which production was reported, Hispanic types led the increase in 2016 with an 11 percent gain for a total of 85.4 million pounds. Following with 10 percent increases each were specialty Cheddars with 30.424 million pounds and Romano wheels with 10.794 million pounds.

The “all other” category consisting of 35 other specialty types also posted a 10 percent increase for a total of 377.312 million pounds in 2016. Their production volumes are not published in order to avoid disclosing data from individual plants.

Other specialty cheese types which had increases in 2016 were Gouda at 9 percent to 12.93 million pounds, Parmesan wheels at 7 percent to 61.358 million pounds, Feta at 5 percent to 91.271 million pounds, Limburger at 2 percent to 491,000 pounds, and Italian Fontina at 1 percent to 9.306 million pounds.

There were also a number of production decreases in 2016, including 32 percent for Farmer's cheese to 1.008 million pounds, 8 percent for Asiago to 29.269 million pounds, 4 percent for Gorgonzola to 18.385 million pounds, 3 percent for Havarti to 37.883 million pounds, and 1 percent for specialty Colby to 7.891 million pounds.

Cheese plant data 

The report indicated that Wisconsin had 128 cheese plants in 2016, of which 93 manufactured at least one type of specialty cheese during the year. Although their production volumes were not individually listed, the report noted that blue and specialty mozzarella were among the top six most popular varieties.

There were minimal changes on the total number of manufacturers of particular types of specialty cheeses from 2015 to 2016. The total number of producers for 2016 were 36 for specialty Cheddar, 20 for Gouda, 13 for Hispanic types, 12 for Havarti and Asiago, 11 for Farmer's, 10 each for specialty Colby, Italian Fontina, and Gorgonzola, 9 for Feta, 6 each for Parmesan and Romano wheels, and 1 for Limburger. Fifty seven plants were engaged in making one or more of the specialty cheeses placed in the “all other” category.

During 2016, Wisconsin accounted for 27 percent of the nation's overall cheese production. Those totals were 3.239 billion and 12.074 billion pounds respectively.

March a record month 

A separate report indicated that cheese production records for any single month were set in both the United States and Wisconsin for March of 2017. The month's production of more than 1.062 billion pounds edged the previous record of 1.0615 billion pounds in December of 2016.

Wisconsin's share of the March production was 288.379 million pounds – an increase of 5.6 percent from March of 2016. Totals for the month in other leading cheese production states were 216.542 million pounds for California, 83.192 million pounds for Idaho, 69.015 million pounds for New York, and 66.703 million pounds for New Mexico.

For the first quarter of 2017, the nation's cheese production was a record high of 3.05 billion pounds. This was an increase of 1.6 percent from the first quarter of 2016, which had an extra day for the February Leap Day.

Cheese categories 

For all types of Italian cheeses, of which mozzarella was 77 percent, the United States total for March 2017 was 468.507 million pounds – up by 2.2 percent from a year earlier. Of the Italian cheeses, the March production was 145.681 million pounds (up 4.9 percent) in Wisconsin and 141.332 million pounds (up .6 percent) in California.

With Cheddar accounting for 74 percent of the volume, the production of American type cheeses in March totaled 415.543 million pounds (up 3.5 percent) in the United States during March. Wisconsin's portion of the 309.25 million pounds of Cheddar (up 8 percent) produced in the nation during March was 59.7 million pounds (up 8.2 percent). Other Cheddar volumes were 45.641 million pounds in Minnesota, 41.659 million in Idaho, and 29.416 million in California.

Notable changes in the March comparisons were 2017 increases of 13.5 percent for Brick and Muenster to 15.971 million pounds, 12.6 percent for Parmesan to 37.561 million pounds, 12.6 percent for Hispanic types to 25.69 million pounds, 5.2 percent for Gouda to 5.98 million pounds, and 4.4 percent for Provolone to 34.632 million pounds.

Decreases in March production compared to a year earlier were 5.3 percent to 12.566 million pounds for Swiss, 4.5 percent to 10.676 million pounds for Feta, 2.3 percent to 23.218 million pounds for Ricotta, 1.1 percent to 4.38 million pounds for Romano, and .9 percent to 7.972 million pounds for blue and Gorgonzola cheese.

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