State leaders celebrate success of Wisconsin cheese industry

Colleen Kottke

ALGOMA - State cheesemakers are forging ahead into the future by growing and diversifying their businesses.

Governor Scott Walker and key leaders in his cabinet traveled across the state on June 26  to visit these innovative businesses as part of "Wisconsin Cheese Day" tour.

DATCP Secretary Brancel, WEDC Secretary Hogan joined Governor Walker in visiting cheese companies statewide as part of "Wisconsin Cheese Day" tour.

Rosewood Dairy workers fill 5 lb. bags with Renard's famous string cheese.

During stops along the tour, Governor Walker, Secretaries Brancel and Hogan, and other officials visited the companies to not only highlight the importance of the cheese industry to Wisconsin’s economy, but to also acknowledge the cheesemakers’ contributions to the industry.

“Now that cheese is the official dairy product of Wisconsin, it’s only fitting that we visit some of the more than 140 cheese producers in the state to acknowledge their role in keeping Wisconsin a world leader in the industry,” Governor Walker said. “The state’s 1,200 licensed cheesemakers work hard every day to produce more than 600 varieties of cheese that are sold around the world, and Wisconsin Cheese Day is a chance for us to celebrate their successes.”

Companies featured in this year's tour include Klondike Cheese, Monroe; Great Lakes Cheese Inc., La Crosse; Masters Gallery Foods, Plymouth; Westby Cooperative Creamery, Westby; Biery Cheese Co., Plover; and Rosewood Dairy/Renard's Cheese, Algoma.

Reinvestment in the future

"There was a time not too many years ago where dairy farmers weren't making any changes and cheese processors were just holding steady. However, we've see so much reinvestment into farms and processing plants during this resurgence of the dairy industry that has created this positive attitude," said DATCP Deputy Secretary Jeff Lyon.

Rosewood Dairy, owned by Chris and Ann Renard (second and third from left) was a special stop on the WI Cheese Day tour June 26. Joining them from left are Mark Hogan WEDC Secretary and CEO, cheese plant founder Howard Renard, Jeff Lyon, DATCP Deputy Secretary and Dean Sommer of the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research.

Lyon joined Hogan and other leaders of the dairy and cheese industry at Rosewood Dairy/Renard's Cheese, now run by third generation owner Chris Renard and his wife, Ann. The Renard's are planning a major expansion project in which they expect to break ground for a new cheese plant in 2018.

"Companies that were selected for this tour are representative of the companies that are growing the cheese and dairy industry in Wisconsin," Hogan said. "The success you have is not only important to the Door County Peninsula but to the entire state of Wisconsin as well."

Looking to grow

Began well over a half-century ago as a two vat operation by his grandfather Howard Renard, Chris says his small cheese plant is on target to hit a production output of 3.4 million pounds of cheese by the end of the year.

His wife, Ann, who came into the business to direct sales and marketing in 2010, says the company's retail business has grown 600 percent since they purchased the oepration.

The Rosewood Dairy - more commonly  known as Renard's Cheese was founded in 1961 by Howard Renard and is now run by third generation owner Chris Renard and his wife, Ann.

"Our goal is to produce 4 million pounds of cheese in our new factory and we're hoping our trade missions with the WEDC will help get us there," she said.

Just a little over a year ago, the Renards decided to take the opportunity to participate in a trade venture with the WEDC.

"Once we looked into it and saw the support from the WEDC going into the international markets we decided we would be foolish not to take this opportunity," Ann said.

The Door County couple has already explored exporting their products to Taiwan, Korea and Mexico.

"Instead of being that little small little factory on the corner, we're working at getting into more exports and growing the business name," Chris said. "Hopefully within the next couple of months we will be sending out our first shipments."

The couple currently own both the Rosewood Dairy (more commonly known as Renard's Cheese) and retail outlet just north of Algoma on County Highway S and a second retail store/cut and wrap plant off of Highway 57 south of Sturgeon Bay.

Chris said the location of the new plant is still up in the air.

"We have a Class 1 trout stream running near our current location on County S. So we're waiting to hear back from the DNR. Either way we have plenty of room at both locations to build," Chris said.

The Renard family has kept in tune with the desires of its customers, adding over 50 flavor infused cheeses to its already popular string cheese and cheese curds.

Rosalie Geiger of the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation says diversification is important to cheesemakers that want to broaden their reach into the marketplace.

"Wisconsin is also a leader for specialty cheeses which is a good area of growth in the industry," she said.

Diversifying their brand

Inside the well-stocked retail store, bins and coolers are filled with dozens of specialty cheeses including Morel and Leek Jack and Caramelized Onion Cheddar. Of course, the company's famous string cheese and cheese curds are also staples for visiting tourists and locals alike.

"We're not a little place," said Debbie Waters who handles Renard's Public Relations. "The Renard's are very in tune with the desires of the public. We have over 50 flavor-infused cheeses but also keeping in mind they are still true to their original identity by hand-crafting and using the recipe that grandpa started in 1961."

Rosewood Dairy Production Manager Drew shows 3 lb bandaged cheddar gems to Rosalie Geiger of the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation during a tour to the Dodge County cheese plant on June 26.

Using his skills and knowledge as a master cheesemaker, Chris Renard is also expanding the production of artisan cheeses including bandaged cheddar wheels and the newest 3 lb. aged cheddar gem.

"Not many people make those anymore. We used to keep aside six pallets of 2 year old cheddar, now I keep 24 and I'm afraid that's not going to be enough," Chris said.

With the pending plant construction, Renard says he will need more employees to keep up with the demand...and more milk. He currently accepts milk from 24 local dairy producers.

“Wisconsin’s cheese producers are doing more than making award-winning products that are recognized worldwide – they are also creating jobs and helping to boost the state’s economy, particularly in rural regions of the state,” Hogan said.

Wisconsin cheesemakers make 27 percent of the nation’s cheese, ranking Wisconsin as the top cheese producing state. If Wisconsin was a country, it would rank fourth in the world in overall cheese production, behind the United States, Germany, and France.

Cheese also took its rightful place in the spotlight on June 1 as Governor Walker signed into law a bill that designating it as Wisconsin’s official dairy product.