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Visitor center is educational gem in heart of goat country

Colleen Kottke
Wisconsin State Farmer
Young visitors watch as newborn goats are bottle fed in the viewing area just off the Cheese Shoppe and Cafe at LaClare Family Creamery.

Watching as her young daughters laugh over the antics of two baby goats frolicking on the other side of an observation window, Tami Schultz said it was a perfect way to spend a chilly October morning.

"I've driven past here before, but I was really blown away by the exhibits inside. My girls had so many questions and I was able to answer them thanks to the galleries and displays," she said. "And there's no way I thought they'd ever eat goat cheese, but they loved it!"

Schultz is among the many visitors to be pleasantly surprised by a trip to the newly remodeled, and expanded LaClare Family Creamery, located in northeast Fond du Lac County.

The $10 million expansion — a collaboration between LaClare Creamery and Kaukauna-based Milk Source  — features a remodeled Cheese Shoppe and Cafe and large area that houses the Chevre cheese production.

In an age when farmers and processors are talking about agvocacy, education and transparency, the visitor center and observation windows and displays check all the boxes.

An observation window inside LaClare Family Creamery allows visitors to watch the Chevre-making process.

"We really tried to make this a showplace where a mother could bring her kids, or school groups could visit and take a self-guided tour and learn about the cheesemaking process from start to finish," said Bill Ritcey, vice president of sales.

A number of large observation windows in the elevated mezzanine provides visitors with  perfect vantage points to observe the process of making Chevre, the soft goat milk cheese that is the driving force behind the 28,000-square-foot expansion.

Avi Stern, director of public affairs for Milk Source, owner of Chilton Dairy, which specializes in goat milk production, says the new facility has been purposely created to allow for transparency and education.

"We want people to come in and see what's going on inside. It's a new age. People want transparency on how their food is made from field to fork," he said.

Located just 10 miles away over the county line in Calumet County, Chilton Dairy is home to over 5,000 milking goats that provide a truck load of milk daily to LaClare Family Creamery. Stern says Chilton Dairy is just one of nine farms that produce goat milk for the expanded creamery.

The milking parlor at Chilton Dairy is set up for 128 goats per rotation on twice a day milking. The goats average just over 5 pounds of milk per day.

Upstairs in the mezzanine, visitors get a comprehensive crash course on goats: the journey from birth to the milking parlor, the various breeds of milking goats housed at Chilton Dairy to the products created from their milk.

While most associate Wisconsin with being America's Dairyland, many are unaware that the state's dairy goat herd tops the nation at more than 83,000 head, according to the USDA. And LaClare Family Creamery is at the epicenter of that boom.

"There's nothing else like this for a goat facility and it's so close to Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center," Stern said. "You can spend part of the day here learning everything about goats and then head to Manitowoc County and learn about everything else in the dairy and agriculture world."

Bill Ritcey, vice president of sales, says the the availability of goat milk from local farms helps LaClare Family Creamery to meet customer demand for fresh goat cheese.

Stern says that Larry and Clara Hedrich, founders of LaClare Creamery in 1978, have partnered with Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center in providing goats for exhibits during celebrations and events.

"There's no rivalry between the two attractions; in fact, we genuinely support one another. We all share the same goal, which is to increase the public’s understanding of modern agriculture," Stern said.

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Related:Say Cheese! With $10M investment, LaClare Creamery is ready for its close-up

The expanded creamery is also a collaborative effort between LaClare Creamery and Chilton Dairy.

"They had a vision that they wanted to create something that would draw people in and give them a real sense of what it takes to produce cheese while still being able to try the cheese, see the goats and have an immersive experience," said Project Manager John Sharp.

Ritcey says he is eager for people to discover the new taste of goat cheese via their biggest-selling product Chevre. The soft cheese is versatile and can be flavored and used as an ingredient in many types of dishes. 

Chevre, a soft goat cheese, is one of the fastest growing markets in the U.S.. The recent expansion at LaClare Family Creamery along with an abundance of fresh goat milk from local farms has the business poised to meet customer demand for the cheese quickly and efficiently.

"Our philosophy is that the more the consumer is educated, the more they will buy our product," he said.

The public also will have the opportunity to get up close and personal with the operation this weekend for its re-grand opening on Oct. 18 and again LaClare hosts the Envision Greater Fond du Lac Area Agri-Business Council at Breakfast on the Farm on June 28, 2020.