Judges sample the state's best wine, cheese and meat products

Gloria Hafemeister

WEST ALLIS – Crystal Siemers learned even more about the state’s dairy industry as she visited with judges evaluating the 403 entries of cheese and butter entered in this year’s Wisconsin State Fair Cheese & Butter Contest contest.

During the event, judges described the tastes and smell they look for in each variety of cheese and invited the newly crowned Alice in Dairyland to join them in making her own evaluation of the cheese.

Greg Kinate and Eric Vorpahl evaluate cheese in several classes in the State Fair cheese contest.  The event drew a record 403 entries in 22 classes with entries from 64 cheese plants in Wisconsin.

This year’s contest held at the Wisconsin State Fair Park on June 22, broke a record for the number of entries, according to Mike Pederson of the Foods division of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, who over-sees the judging.

Pederson, who has evaluated cheese since the early 1990’s, is responsible for selecting judges for the State Fair contest. He says Wisconsin has rightfully earned its reputation for specialty cheeses and says the resurgence of interest in creating new and special cheeses has been really good for the state.

Pederson travels around the world to cheese contests and says Wisconsin consistently places high in contests in Europe and the U.S. and he is proud of the cheesemakers of this state.

Judges evaluated the cheese entries in 22 different categories. Entries came from 64 plants in the state.

The cheesemakers use the judging as a means of evaluating their own work as well. Pederson says it’s sort of a research and development method for them as they look at the written comments by the judges.

More than just cheese

At the same time judges evaluated the 147 meat entries from 22 meat processing plants in the state and another panel of judges evaluated 150 entries of wine from 30 Wisconsin wineries.

According to Larry Jackson, a certified judge with the American Wine Society who over-saw the contest, judges from Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota tasted and evaluated the wines entered in nine categories.

John Jaeggi and Kathy Howe smell, taste and evaluate the brick Muenster cheese entries that were a part of the State Fair cheese competition.  The judging event took place at State Fair park on Thursday, June 22, 2017.

“Wines were grouped by grape type and sweetness level,” he says. “Wine-making is getting very popular in Wisconsin as new varieties of grapes become available that will stand the cold climates. We now have grapes that can stand Wisconsin’s cold winters and the humidity and still taste good.”

Brian Bolan, Agriculture Director at State Fair, was on hand to over-see the three contests on Thursday.

He strategically placed the judges for the three contests so each contest had its own area. He says he needs to situate the meats judging away from the other events because the aroma of the meats could interfere with evaluating other products.

These preliminary events are a precursor to the wide variety of contests that will be a part of the State Fair. It’s Bolan’s duty to locate and hire supervisors for the various events along with other helpers for anything related to agriculture.

“We are unique from other livestock shows because the public is around to observe the judging and view the animals while at the same time the exhibitors are preparing their animals and leading them into the show ring,” Bolan said.

Code of ethics

Bolan and his staff work hard to make sure that the fair follows the standard code of ethics that all fairs and livestock contests follow.

He says it is especially important and challenging at an event like State Fair where the majority of those viewing the livestock do not have any agricultural background.

“People are walking through the barns with their children and strollers and looking at the animals while exhibitors are more concerned about making their animal look its best and getting it into the ring,” he says.

Prodding animals into a ring or into their pen after a contest is watched closely by the spectators walking through livestock barns.

What a livestock grower may view as a gentle nudge to get an animal moving a non-farmer may view as animal abuse.

He said his staff develops rules and guidelines for exhibitors, using that standard code of ethics as a base but then adding their own more stringent rules.

Bolan said it is also a challenge to find superintendents and judges for the many contests that take place at State Fair. He says Wisconsin State Fair is working more and more with other state fairs around the country and he is bringing in superintendents from other states to help assure those taking part in the contests that there is no partiality and the contest is fair.


The agriculture staff also develops rules regarding youth exhibitors, including the rule that only parents can assist their children with the livestock when it comes to preparing them for the show ring. He says these days that can be a challenge because there are so many non-traditional families and sometimes it is the grandparents or others who bring the children and animals to the fair.

Managerial project participants also present a challenge. Youth who live in town can show animals that actually live on farms outside the city. Often the youth’s parents are not familiar with farm animals but, according to the rules, others who may otherwise help the youth learn about the livestock are not allowed to help with the preparation of the animals for the showring.

Bolan said some of the livestock exhibitors this year actually live in the heart of Milwaukee and they and their families have no personal connection with the farm. But, these students are able to exhibit livestock at the fair through their school, Vincent High School, a career focused school that is a part of the Milwaukee Public School system.

Vincent offers an Urban Agriculture educational program including a greenhouse, hoop house, animal room, landscape equipment, aquaponics and outdoor study areas. The new program connects agriculture with the science and technology departments offering students courses that cover: introduction to urban agriculture; veterinary science; biotechnology/biofuels; landscape and design; urban gardening/horticulture; aquaponics; greenhouse techniques; food science; and botany.

The animals, including sheep, goats, poultry and pigs that the youth bring to State Fair reside at the school. In the future the school may also house beef cattle.

Bolan says the parents of the youth exhibiting these animals likely have no livestock experience so likely these exhibitors will be on their own when it comes to fitting and preparing an animal for the show.

But he says they still get the same opportunities to learn from their showroom experience and to enjoy the benefits of caring for an animal and leading it through the ring, following the instructions of the judge and ring-men.

Wisconsin State Fair has a wide variety of competitions for adults and youth.

State Fair also has educational youth camps with volunteers leading young people through the fair for a day, teaching them about the animals and agricultural products they see on display.