Dairy goat industry grows to meet cheese demand
Thirty years ago, if you were looking for goat cheese, you likely went to a specialty cheese shop. The cheese was probably imported from France.
Today, Wisconsin is the country’s nation's largest producer of goat cheese, and the industry is growing. While cows have always been part of the dairy state landscape, dairy goats fill more of the scene than ever before.
Consider it the Montchevre effect. The largest producer of goat cheese in Wisconsin, Montchevre stepped into production almost by accident. When a trade dispute and high tariffs threatened goat cheese imports from France in 1987, Arnaud Solandt considered his options. If his company couldn’t sell goat cheese, perhaps it could make it.
“Wisconsin was the logical place,” said Solandt, who commutes from his home in California. “I found a little co-op that would be able to sell us some (goat’s) milk, and it was easy to find a cheese plant.
“I called my boss and said, I think I found something, goats, a building, the perfect setting. By that time, the sanction had been lifted. I told him he should check it out. If he wasn’t going to, I thought about doing it myself.”
Jean Rossard and Arnaud Solandt started Montchevre inside a small former cheddar factory in Preston in 1989. They rapidly outgrew that space and moved about 30 miles down the road to Belmont. They bought the facility from another cheese company, Lactalis, which moved to a new building next door to make French cheeses, including President Brie.
Montchevre and Lactalis are now the two largest employers in Belmont, a small town in southwestern Wisconsin where the population hovers around 1,000.
And Montchevre can be found in all major retailers nationwide. The early years meant wooing customers and introducing them to fresh chevre. Since then Montchevre has expanded production exponentially because of increased demand.
At the same time, Wisconsin is seeing an increase in dairy goats and production of goat cheese. As of Jan. 1, Wisconsin led the states for milk goat inventory, according to the latest USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service – Sheep and Goats report.
Working with 423 independent farms in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois and Missouri, Montchevre collects 70% of its milk from within a 200-mile radius of its plant. Forty percent of that milk comes from 141 farms in Wisconsin. Milk is collected every two to three days, depending on the farm.
“We started with a milk agreement from a co-op for 5,000 pounds of milk, which was a giant amount at the time,” Solandt recalled. “That’s all we could have at the beginning, (enough for) about 600 to 700 pounds of cheese. Now it wouldn’t be enough for our equipment.
“I spent the first four or five years doing demos at stores,” he added. “So many times we had to fight the stereotypes that people had with the bad image of the goat. Then the popularity of the Mediterranean diet meant goat cheese became more acceptable.”
Solandt said Montchevre played a big role in making goat cheese mainstream in the U.S.
“Of course, we had to make every mistake possible at first,” he said. “We started thinking we had to have the product the way we would have it in France. We quickly realized in 1992 that we had to make something much more acceptable to consumers in the U.S.”
Today finding goat cheese is no problem.
“You can find goat cheese almost anywhere now, especially the chevre, the fresh goat cheese,” said Andy Johnson, a specialty cheese coordinator who works with producers as the outreach specialist for the Center for Dairy Research in Madison.
“Goat cheese is also becoming more sophisticated. Now we’re seeing more specialty aged cheeses like a Bucheron or Brie or Crottin,” he continued. “We started a program almost 20 years ago focusing on specialty cheese. Goat cheese, it’s only going to get bigger and grow in popularity.”
Among those who see the appeal in dairy goats and cheese is Meg Wittenmyer, a cheesemaker and dairy goat farmer at Bifrost Farms in Boyceville. Wittenmyer, Wittenmeyer, who turns 60 this year, got her cheesemaking license in 2015 and and marks her creamery’s one-year anniversary in June. She also partners with two CSA programs, Threshing Table Farm out of Clayton, Wis. and Racing Heart Farm near the Twin Cities, to provide goat cheese for their customers.
Montchevre is the largest goat cheese producer not only in Wisconsin but also in the country nation. Its line of fresh cheese logs includes 13 flavor varieties, from garlic herb and tomato basil to lemon, fig and olive, and the blueberry vanilla, which won top honors at the Wisconsin State Fair in 2015. Additional flavors like jalapeño honey are made exclusively for specific retailers; cranberry orange is made just for Whole Foods. Montchevre’s first foray into flavoring their cheese was to add cranberries.
“It is a small industry. I remember my French colleagues making fun of me a little bit,” said Arnaud. “I smile when I see that in France they now have goat cheese with berries.”
Today, Montchevre turns its goat’s milk into fresh cheese logs, crumbles and medallions, plus half a dozen styles of aged cheeses. Look for its newest product, Wood Box Brie, coming to retailers this spring.
Montchevre has also made a commitment to non-GMO (genetically modified organisms), beginning with its bestselling 4-ounce fresh goat cheese logs. The company opened a lab in Kalona, Iowa, to analyze crops, hay and feed for goat’s milk producers, and in April began processing the logs for retail.
Innovation is something they take pride in.
“In 1995, we were the first company to do fresh goat cheese crumbles,” Solandt said. “This is a flagship product of our line. It is the first innovation made in Belmont. We’re pretty proud of that.”
Solandt and Rossard have also branched out with Creamery 333, a partnership of friends in the cheese industry by which cheese is made at the Belmont facility but aged in Brooklyn, N.Y.
As demand for goat’s milk has increased, dairy goat farms also have grown. Besides new farms, some established dairy cow farmers have switched to goats or added them. Among them are Steve Loudenbeck, 50, and his son, Seth, 23, in Lake Geneva.
The Loudenbeck family has farmed the 72 acres, raising dairy cows and growing hay, since the early 1950s. Devastated by a barn fire in 2003, Steve shut down dairy operations. After high school, Seth, who has never wanted to do anything but farm, convinced persuaded his dad to return to dairy and transition the farm to dairy goats in 2013.
Last November, they expanded and built a new barn for the “milkers.” The father-son team milk their 330 Saanen and Alpine goats daily at 4 a.m. and 4 p.m., 28 at a time.
“The key to milk is good hay,” said Steve Loudenbeck, noting their goats feast on a grain mix plus hay grown on their farm.
“They eat before us every morning and every night,” added Seth. He also plays country music for the goats, and the family shows their goats at the Walworth County Fair and takes them to the Wisconsin State Fair for milking demonstrations in its Discovery Barn.
“I do believe there are more farmers who will get into this,” said Steve, who started with 125 goats and sees continued growth. “Montchevre came out and talked with us before we started, to tell us what we needed. It isn’t that much different from cows. The goats are more curious.”
According to Solandt, “it is basically the same job, just on a smaller scale. It doesn’t mean it is less work. It is just as much work, but we’ve had a lot of people who have struggled with the price of cow milk, especially in the past few years. There is more demand for goat milk, and we’ve had quite a few farmers converting.”
On a larger scale, the city of Chilton has Drumlin Dairy and Milk Source, which is among the state’s largest dairy operations with four dairy farms in Wisconsin, varying in size from 2,400 to 8,000 milking cows.
Milk Source began milking goats in the summer of 2016 with a few hundred. Today the milking herd numbers about 3,000. Milk is shipped to LaClare’s creamery in Malone, which is less than 10 miles from the farm.
“We became aware that there was a shortage of goat milk for local Wisconsin processors,” said Bill Harke, director of public affairs for Milk Source. “For more than 50 years our family-owned dairy farms have produced the highest quality milk from dairy cows, and we are now doing that with our goats.
“The market is evolving in interesting ways, and a marriage of cow milk with goat milk has proven to be quite popular with cheeses, such as LaClare’s Chandoka and Martone,” Harke added. “It’s exciting for families that have been steeped in generations of cows to be working with new animals.”
The industry’s influence also can be seen with the expansion of dairy goat education at Southwest Wisconsin Technical College in Fennimore. Staff there spent three years working with the Department of Agriculture to create a new dairy goat herd management program.
The school tapped farmers and cheesemakers for guidance and used a $100,000 gift from Montchevre to help implement monthly online classes, which begin this month. A two-day conference in November will follow. As part of the program, participants are required to complete 120 hours of on-farm experience.
“The goat industry is so young, so new, and when we look at the infrastructure even in the state of Wisconsin, there’s a lot of learning that needs to be done,” said Deb Ihm, agriculture coordinator for the college. “People are trying to figure out the potential and sustainability.
“We’re a good fit because of our location,” she added. “We’ve got four dairy goat cheese processors, including the largest one in the nation, Montchevre, within 45 minutes, and Saputo (Woolrich) down the road in Lancaster. This is about building upon what is already established.”