Cheese: the king of dairy, draws big crowds at Wisconsin conference

John Oncken

Hopefully there weren’t many major decisions to be made in cheese factories in Wisconsin and elsewhere across the US dairy world this past week because many of the management staff and cheesemakers were in Madison attending the biennial 2019 Wisconsin Cheese Industry Conference.

And, it was a big crowd — a record 2,700 attendees — from everywhere in cheese land. There were cheesemakers from small family farmer cooperative plants like Chalet Cheese at Monroe and Decatur Dairy at Brodhead to those from the biggest of the big like Great Lakes Cheese in Ohio and Hilmar Cheese in California.

There aren’t many Holstein coats being worn, Patrick Spaulding. a cheese buyer has one. He talks with Shirley Knox of Maple Leaf Cheese, Monroe.

Then there were the hundreds of industry representatives manning the 297 commercial table top exhibits (another record) filling the Exhibition Hall at the Alliant Energy Center. 

They represented the huge infrastructure that includes the actual cheese making and the cutting, wrapping and packaging systems and equipment industry that involves people and increasingly the use of robotic equipment that takes milk from cow to consumer. Add the sales and marketing world with a wide variety of equipment involved; the research, advertising, sales and marketing and management arena and you have a huge industry that congregated to look, listen, learn, socialize and talk with customers or potential customers. 

Co hosts

This every other year event was co-hosted by the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association (WCMA) and the UW Center for Dairy Research (CDR) with seminar inputs from the Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin (DFW), Innovation Center of US Dairy and US Dairy Export Council who added expertise to the seminars and learning sessions. 

Ask the cheese expert (and get the answers) was an open session.

The one-day tabletop trade show offered a look at the latest in cheese making technology and an opportunity to learn how it can be used in an individual operation.

From the farms

Wisconsin’s over 8,000 dairy farms do produce a lot of milk (too much) but what happens to it after it leaves the farm? Chances are It goes to one of the hundreds of processing plants that includes 147 cheese factories and 13 butter plants scattered across the state.

The Wisconsin Dairy Plant Directory lists 403 dairy plants in Wisconsin — many who do not take milk from farmers, rather they may take the cheese another step toward the consumer. There are 164 dairy processors that cut, wrap or shred cheese after buying it from the original processor — Sargento and Masters Gallery are two examples. 

The Wednesday trade show seemed unusually crowded this year — perhaps attributable to the larger attendance, maybe to the economic conditions the industry faces. Yes, the low cheese price and labor shortages impact the processing industry as it does farmers. 


“Labor is one of or main challenges,” the owner of a small family cheese factory says. “It’s hard to find people who want to work an eight hour shift, everyone wants a desk or management position. They were not brought up working on a farm or doing physical work. It’s especially difficult to get people to work second shift (2 to 11 p.m.) and while we’d even like to have a third shift, no way.”

Jeff Gentine, president and CEO of Masters Gallery, the huge cheese marketer, was at the company booth.

That’s why there are many companies innovating and marketing labor saving and robotic equipment for use in the dairy processing industry. Already many of the big dairy processors are putting milk in one end and taking cheese out the other with little human labor. Fortunately many smaller family operations are still making cheese by hand as specialty or artisan cheese.

Cheese makers

I did sit down with a number of Wisconsin cheesemakers.

Sid Cook is owner and operator of Carr Valley Cheese with headquarters at LaValle and plants at Mauston, Linden and Fennimore. His family began making cheese in 1883 in a small factory at Plain, After buying the factory from his parents in the late 70s. Cook began his career developing new and different artisan cheeses at a factory he bought at LaValle. He now makes a wide variety of cheeses and has gained international respect for his innovative and award winning cheese.

John Umhoefer, of WCMA and Sid Cook of Carr Valley Cheese wondered why the attendance was so high - 400 more people than the previous high.

No losses

No, Cook says he has not lost any farmer patrons because of the milk price economy. “But, I still pay quality premiums and have tried to maintain a good farmer price,” he says. 

“Like farmers, our expenses keep rising. Regulatory costs keep going up as does the cost of good employees and equipment,“ Carr says. “Unlike most cheesemakers we market our cheese through eight stores and we have become a known destination for travelers on heavily traveled roads."

Peppers in cheese

I was glad to again meet Gary Griesbach owner of Garon Foods, the major supplier of peppers and a host of other vegetables, spices and flavorings that cheesemakers use to produce the varied and exotic tasting cheeses that consumers constantly seek and enjoy.

I first wrote (about 15 years ago) about the family and their Garon Foods Inc. and how they were dairy farmers at Freedom during the doom and gloom days of the 1980s who sought a new way of life  To make a long story short, the Griesbachs found their niche selling peppers to the cheese industry.

“Our customers then began asking for other kinds of flavorings, so we expanded our line,” Sharon says.

Champion cheeses up close. These are Marieka Gouda from Holland Cheese at Thorp, first and second runners up.

They also moved the business to Herrin, Illinois,“to be closer to the fields.” Gary said. The family began selling dozens of vegetable, fruit and spice products.  

I stopped at the Garon Foods display last week and talked with owner Gary Griesbach who was alone in his booth. 

It turns out that the company is still the major flavor supplier (think pepper jack cheese) but his family members have scattered far and wide and he is pretty much alone but the company, located at Herrin, Illinois is still the major supplier of flavors to the food industry.

Not only Wisconsin

Do you realize that the conference host Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association may be a bit misnamed? It is actually the one and only major entity representing the commercial cheese industry nationwide, and even internationally, and the conference includes the entire dairy industry.

The WCMA had its beginning in the late 1800s to represent the growing dairy and cheese industry which it still does says executive director John Umhoefer.

“In addition to lobbying and advocacy we offer a large training program for supervisors; communication through a number of committees; collaboration with other dairy organizations and investment in our industry that recently that includes Babcock Hall remodeling; major scholarship grants and donations to the DBA and PDPW to assist their efforts.”

I’d guess few people, including farmers, realize how big the dairy processing industry really is and the financial impact it has on the state economy. Believe me it’s big! And so very important!

John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached  at 608-572-0747 or email him at jfodairy2@gmail.com.